From nearly everywhere on the Ringling Museum campus, an eight-foot-tall sculpture of the head of a curly-haired little boy is invisible.
Tucked into a grove of trees along the southern border, “Fat Boy” is a provocative surprise. Most easily spotted from the waterfront mansion Cà d’ Zan, it depicts an Italian putto, the chubby and sometimes winged infant boys popular in art from the ancient classical world through the Renaissance era, but with an unexpected contemporary twist. Three mirrored portholes reflect the setting sun, faces of viewers and the surrounding foliage. A dead tree stump looming above is home to an osprey nest; a statue of Poseidon bought by John Ringling is nearby.
The sculpture is by Romanian-born Leonard Ursachi and is part of a series of site-specific installations built around a “bunker” theme; in fact, Ursachi sometimes refers to “Fat Boy” as “Bunker Head.”
Its references include the devious nature of putti, which are more often secular than religious and can signify Eros, heaven, peace and joy, paired with the ideas implied by its atomic bomb references, and of bunkers, those wartime fortifications from which soldiers fired upon their enemies and which in Communist Romania were used to spy on and intimidate its citizens.
The newly completed work was installed this week; it will remain in place for six months and may be renewed for another six, said Steven High, the museum’s executive director and the driver behind bringing Ursachi and “Fat Boy” to Sarasota.
High met Ursachi several years ago when High was director of the Telfair Museums in Savannah, Ga.
“I visited his studio up in Brooklyn probably a half dozen times and kept an eye on his work,” High said. “I was intrigued by his bunker series, what he was working with. He’s using native materials, depending on where the bunker was going.”
A plan to install two of Ursachi’s bunker sculptures on the Telfair grounds did not come to fruition before High left Savannah for Sarasota.
But Ursachi also was working on “a really different sort of bunker form, almost a Rubenesque head, doing it for a show in Romania, and I thought, ‘Oh, that would be interesting,' ” said High.
Carved out of foam and covered in layers of Styrocrete (a product developed and manufactured by Marbelite International in Sarasota), “Fat Boy” looks laughingly out over a grassy expanse toward the waterfront.
Three mirrored portholes inserted into the sculpture offer viewers a chance to “confront their own reflections,” said Ursachi, although they may convey a more ominous impression as well: are those reflective squares mirrors or windows?
“You don’t know if someone is looking at you or if you’re being monitored,” said High.
The sculptor defected from Romania in 1980. He spent five years in France, where he studied art history and archaeology at the Sorbonne University in Paris, before coming to the United States.
His bunker series includes works woven from willow branches, covered with feathers or taking human form. They “evoke not only chauvinism and conflict, but also nests, refuge and beauty,” he said.
High said he wanted “Fat Boy” situated on the Ringling grounds in such a way where it is a surprise to the viewer.
“The site is very intentional because I don’t want it up front and center, right as you walk into the museum,” he said. “I want it to be something that you chance upon and discover, and once you discover, you try to make sense of it.”