Sculptors tend to dream big. They have to. They are not obliged, like painters, to confine their works to interior walls. They are expected, instead, to compete with nature, with architecture, with urban landscape.
They can plead off, if they want (I would: Why compete with a tree?). They can make common purpose, instead, with the painters, cozying up in climate-controlled galleries, protected from snow, sleet, salt, and rain.
But if they do, haven't they missed an opportunity? Don't all sculptors secretly want to put nature in the shade, as Christo and Jeanne-Claude did with their famous "Wrapped Coast," or to dominate the town square, like Verrocchio's equestrian statue of Bartolomeo "Big Balls" Colleoni in Venice?
Boston's closest thing to a town square is probably the Christian Science Plaza. It's a very weird place. Vast and imposing, it's framed by architecture that is, let's face it, preposterously eclectic — all fascistic columns and hard-nosed modernism one minute and Romanesque/Byzantine/Renaissance-revival the next.
At its center is I.M. Pei's huge, rectangular reflecting pool, which sounds serene and consoling until you see it in winter, when it shoots chilling dread straight to your spinal cord. In spring it's pleasant enough, but in summer, when the humidity rises, it goes back to being toxically bleak.
It's here, in this strange space desperately in need of some humanity, some more trees, a welcome mat — anything! — that Boston Sculptors, a long-running cooperative of local sculptors, have boldly inserted themselves. Their exhibition, "Convergence," runs through Oct. 31, and it's well worth seeing.
Cooperatives, by nature, are inclusive. They're about mutual support. So let's briefly say at the outset what the sculptors themselves are doubtless too team-spirited to say to each other: A lot of the work in "Convergence" is dreadful. It's thin, it's hokey, it's gimmicky, and, against the daunting backdrop of the Christian Science Plaza, it hasn't a hope in hell.
But there's plenty of other work that more than holds its own: large-scale, inventive sculpture that pulls you in and somehow mediates between you, your imagination, the surrounding architecture, and the sky.
One of the most prominent is a work called "Poised." It's a huge totemic bird-like structure, made from dead branches woven together. Part human, part animal, part vegetable, made from bending branches in the heart of the rectilinear city, the piece is an enigma, soaring into the air from an area of greenery on top of the spiraling garage ramp just off Huntington Avenue. It's by Donna Dodson and Andy Moerlein, who call themselves "Myth Makers" when they collaborate. (Both also have good individual works in the show.)
Close by is "Loving Stones," by Joseph Wheelwright — two huge stone heads emerging from a pool of pebbles, with calm, but unusually lively expressions —
a powerful, consoling presence, likably gauche.
All the works are spread out over a vast area, and some are tucked away. A stretch of lawn outside the Christian Science Publishing House Building plays host to two commanding sculptures by Peter DeCamp-Haines. Called "Inner Eagle" and "Reclining Blade," both works sit comfortably in a modernist tradition, long favored by designers of urban civic spaces.
But DeCamp-Haines is good enough to remind us that this familiar language is tremendously elastic and vital. What's more, in his hands, it has an air of permanence about it. "Reclining Blade," in particular, I thought superb.
There are good things, too, by Jim Henderson, who has sprinkled the avenue of plane trees along Huntington Avenue with standing bronze sculptures echoing the forms of trees and rocks.
And I was impressed by Murray Dewart, whose "One Bright Morning" on the corner of Huntington and Belvedere Street reprises this sculptor's signature granite and bronze gate-like forms. Arranged in a sculptural corroboree that faces both inward and out, these steadfast, symbol-laden works seek to offer a kind of spiritual shelter from the storm of contemporary ephemerality.
Two of the most likable works, by contrast, embrace the ephemeral. "Grotto," by Christopher Frost, is a travel trailer abandoned at the end of the avenue of trees along Huntington Avenue. Peer inside the small windows and you see stones, ferns, and a running brook — a little landscape in miniature.
In a similar spirit, "Bag Lunch" by Laura Evans is seven brown paper bags cast drolly in bronze and abandoned in a loose huddle on the lawn.
The show really climaxed, and won me over, at the Massachusetts Avenue end of the reflecting pool, with two works that take on the imposing edifices around them. One was Andy Zimmermann's "Liminal Bloom." The title may be hackneyed, but the work — a circle of thin, flame-like sheets of white metal with undulating edges — has an indubitable rightness.
The sculpture's circular format echoes the curving façade of Reflection Hall and the dome of the Mother Church Extension and Sunday School. The white paint contrasts beautifully with the shadows cast by adjacent sheets. The forms billow and swell, lending movement to an otherwise oppressively static setting.
Movement is key, too, to the success of George Sherwood's "Wave Cloud," a circle of hundreds of moving metal pieces suspended, like a halo, above a simple base and stand. The shiny metal pieces shimmer in the breeze, and connect in your imagination with the firmament above.
It's a very simple piece, but it's wonderfully effective, and it gets you thinking and dreaming like a sculptor. That is to say, big.
What if Boston were to start taking public sculpture seriously? What if it were to create, for example, a vast sculpture park running from the Institute of Contemporary Art on Seaport Boulevard to the Zakim Bridge, winding through the Rose Kennedy Greenway?
This was the idea proposed by Dewart, a cofounder of Boston Sculptors, and Dennis Kois, the director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, in a jointly written op-ed published this week on Boston.com's online Podium forum.
It's a great idea, which has been gathering steam in recent years, as small sections of the Greenway have been given over to works installed temporarily with the help of the deCordova.
Most of what has been attempted so far has been underwhelming. Something more gutsy is sorely needed. "Convergence" at the Christian Science Plaza, is a promising start, but it's far from ideal. As my colleague Cate McQuaid wrote in response to a display on the Rose Kennedy Greenway in 2011, "it's time to take our public art more seriously."
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.