Where the wild things are: Niki in the Garden

Fanciful female forms flourish at Niki in the Garden

The Atlanta Botanical Garden is on a roll.

First came its phenomenally successful exhibition of glass artist Dale Chihuly's work, a blockbuster by any measure. Chihuly's pieces brought color, surprise and a well-known big name to the garden — and Niki in the Garden in some ways does Chihuly one better.

The French self-taught artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who was deeply influenced by the sensuous forms of Spanish visionary architect Antonio Gaudi, may not have the same household-name status as Chihuly, but her international reputation and creative chops are top-notch.

The record 42 sculptures on display for Niki in the Garden prove Saint Phalle to be equally well-suited to its lush flora, a liberating and unstuffy context. As much as the exuberant, colorful forms of Chihuly, Saint Phalle's vivid forms make sense in a space devoted to nature's show-off side; its neon-hued killer frogs, gaudy orchids and spectacular fertility. Chihuly brought a certain abstract visual pleasure to the garden, but Niki — with racier, wackier, female-centric work — just brings it.

Through today's livin' large prism, Saint Phalle's sculptures are the perfect fit in the age of bling. Her sexy, huggable animal, insect, mythological and human forms encrusted with texture-and-color-chocked glass, river rock, mica, semiprecious stones, ceramic and mirror tiles are extravagant in the best sense of the word, full of energy and verve. The pieces are like the spawn of a curio shop orgy, a delirious blend of totem poles and tacky vases, Jewish stars, Buddhas and ceramic kitties, serpents and disco balls.

Saint Phalle's famous lusciously curvaceous female figures, which the artist calls "Nanas" (French slang for "babes" or "chicks"), are Exhibit A in Niki in the Garden's wanton charms. No one could possibly mistake these bootylicious celebrations of the female form with the tasteful and tame high art rendering of womanhood. Her joyous figures — with their booty-call rumps and mega-bosoms decorated with hearts, stars and flowers like the pasties on a Times Square stripper — challenge the usual art history ideal of the passive female muse with a woman who suggests the active sensuality of ancient fertility figures.

Like Keith Haring's energized babies, the delightful Nanas perch on a dolphin in the fountain flanking the garden's Great Lawn. In the deliciously sassy "Fontaine aux Nanas, Fond Noir" three babes spurting water from nipples and mouths sit like hot tub graces in nature's Playboy Mansion. Saint Phalle's iconic Nanas in shades of yellow, red, ebony and bone white are their own rainbow coalition, while her more literal-minded sports figures celebrate African-American achievement.

Where Saint Phalle's groove falters is in a grouping of male sports figures that distract from the mythic quality of her other works, dragging the eternal down into the muck of the ordinary. There is a baseball player whose beefy mirror-tiled rump you can check your makeup in, and an unappealing Tiger Woods-modeled golfer whose uncharacteristic features break from Saint Phalle's usual blank, iconic faces, and whose grotesquely gaping red mouth suggests sex doll or the ignoble Southern decorating motif of lawn jockeys.

Saint Phalle's work is sexy not only in the buxom and baby-got-back sense, but in its sensual, strokable, pleasingly tactile pebbled and slick surfaces. The pieces' texture and opulence foster an intimate and immediate connection between artist and viewer.

The embrace of her audience in much of the exhibition's interactive hugability will surely win her many fans in the 4-feet-and-under category. Children are able to climb on top of the undulating back of her 2001 "Nikigator," or literally walk around inside a 6-ton skull sculpture next to the garden's Aquatic Plant Pond.

"It's just like a disco!" one child proclaimed of the grinning Day of the Dead-style "Head," whose interior is ornamented with disco-ball mirrored tile.

The size of a roomy backyard shed, the hollow skull affords children or the cranially curious the chance to rattle around inside, sit on a stone bench and contemplate a crescent moon and blue glass sky on the ceiling.

Saint Phalle was the product of an aristocratic French family who rebelled against the limited wife and mother role expected of her. Utterly embraceable Niki in the Garden works, such as the sentry "Guardian Lion" on the Great Lawn or the seated man "Chair" in the conservatory, illustrate the pleasures of such rebellion. The exhibition proves that creativity does not exclude comfort, that freedom does not mean a lack of consideration, and that the randy and the cozy somehow coexist in the complex work of this one artist.

Where Chihuly was hands-off, Saint Phalle's rollicking colors of ruby, cobalt blue and emerald green, as well as her earth-mother vibe, are as bosomy and welcoming as a grandmother's lap. Her sculptures are comfortingly womblike and evocative of the distinct pleasures of the feminine form and the feminine touch.

Naughty and nice, enticing but not unchallenging, Niki in the Garden makes art lovable, compelling even the prissiest spectator to stroke the pebbled and slick surfaces or peep into its cozy caverns.


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