Another Roadside Attraction

There once was a vendor at the State Fair of Texas named Bob's Big Pencil. It was in a pavilion sandwiched between Miracle Mop and a guy giving Flobee demos. The product was this really big pencil. That's it. A really big pencil, about four or five feet long, with all of the visual cues of a standard no. 2, except it was just really big. I don't know if the thing could produce lead traces. But it was a big pencil. Gosh, was that a big pencil.

There is plenty of evidence of the awe and respect humans have for size. Big sometimes equals strong, as in something that could potentially squash you, like Godzilla or Nate Newton. Big can signify material prosperity; witness the rash of so-called "monster houses" cropping up in subdivisions throughout America: enormous hunks of many-bathroomed, single-family dwellings occupying lots the size of welcome mats. Sometimes bigness signals a spiritual largeness -- for example, Buddha was one big, fat son of a gun.

"If something's big, or if it's moving, you're going to look at it." This from David Adickes, the ever-enterprising Houston artist, who ought to know: His 70-foot-plus concrete statue of Sam Houston stands guard over Huntsville. Adickes has been engaged in the creation of public works for the past few years, and his Next Big Thing(s) is something he calls the "Garden of the Presidents" -- a monument to all 43 commanders-in-chief that he and his assistants have been crafting in Adickes's studio for the past two years. Adickes calls it "Mount Rushmore on the ground."

"Creepy" is the adjective that comes to mind upon stepping into Adickes's 76,000-square-foot warehouse, now filled with six-foot-high model heads made of Styrofoam, clay and plaster. The heads are perched on wooden armatures in various states of near-completion, kind of like finger puppets (if the finger in question were the heft of a redwood). Once the presidents are cast in concrete -- united with their torsos for a combined height of 28 feet -- Adickes's plan is to transport them (en masse, no less, via a barge chugging up the East Coast) to a park site he's developing near Williamsburg, Virginia -- hence "Garden of the Presidents."

In the dark and dust of the warehouse, however, it's more like "Plane Crash of the Presidents." Giant clay ears are attached to most of the heads with wooden picks, à la Clive Barker's Hellraiser. Calvin Coolidge, with a serious sagging-chin problem, looks to be undergoing a ghoulish face-lift, his head lashed together with several black rubber straps. The massive egg of George Bush, strangely swaddled in dozens of greasy, colored paper napkins (used as a resist for the mold support), is trucked bizarrely around the space on a forklift while Adickes gives landing signals to the driver.

"Oh, his eye thing came out," says the artist. He reaches down to the floor, picks up a little wad of clay and pokes it absently into the presidential socket of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Very impressive. The likenesses are generally good, if not staggering; one visitor groused that he had a hard time finding JFK. (Try back and to the left.)

The allure of creating monumental statuary, says Adickes, is in part a yearning to leave something permanent. "It is the antithesis of Rauschenberg, of that spirit," he says. "It is too big to be moved. It can't be ignored." It's a stretch to link the aesthetics of Robert Rauschenberg to Adickes's roadside attraction. It's easy, however, to envision "RV Harvey and his wife Edith," as Adickes refers to his target demographic, happily shooting videotape of a behemoth Richard Nixon, perusing the historical exhibit inside his lower torso, then popping into the proposed gift shop and buying a gimme cap, or maybe a pencil sharpener. It doesn't get any more patriotic than that. God, I love this country. Gosh, those are really big heads.

-- Caryl Herfort

David Adickes's presidents-in-progress are part of the Orange Show's Eyeopeners Classics Tour, which also includes stops at the Flower Man's House, the Beer Can House, the Art Car Museum and Mark Bradford's studio/sculpture garden. 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, May 3. Reservations are required. Info: 926-6368. $35; $30 for members.

 
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