LE PUY-SAINTE-RÉPARADE, France — Sited on a sun-flooded hillside in the middle of a renowned — and, now, organic — winery’s fields of grapes sits what may be France’s richest private collection of contemporary outdoor sculpture. Chateau La Coste, the winery and the art park, belong to Irish collector and real estate developer Paddy McKillen, who over the past decade has planted commissions by the biggest names in contemporary art and architecture between rows of vines. The resulting landscape blends romantic visions of Southern France as a countryside of endless grape vines with the type of sculpture collection you’d expect to find in a very, very big museum.
Their imposing size may be the most consistent characteristic of the works installed around La Coste — which currently number 20, with another 15 in the pipelines, including pieces by Ai Weiwei, James Turrell, and Toyo Ito. A towering mobile by Alexander Calder and crouching spider by Louise Bourgeois, each poised elegantly on the Tadao Ando-designed art pavilion’s reflecting pool, greet visitors. The first sculpture on the walking trail, Sean Scully’s “Wall of Light Cubed” (2007), is an impenetrable rectangular structure made up of rugged, grooved, and multi-colored stone blocks at the edge of a field of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The next work, Tunga’s “Portals” (2011) installation, is similarly massive in scale and geologic in texture, with its columns of magnetized metal — visitors, myself included, have tossed countless coins onto the piece — and suspended crystals. The sculptures are, by and large, overwhelming in their enormity.
The park’s most memorable artworks, however, are those that either actively engage with their unique context, or transport visitors somewhere else entirely. Andy Goldsworthy’s subterranean “Oak Room” (2009), for instance, leads intrepid art-lovers down several steps beneath an old stone wall into a dim, circular space with a ceiling of twisting oak branches set in a spiral pattern. The dark, meditative space’s proportions and materials evoke, appropriately enough, a wine cellar. La Coste’s other immersive installation, Ando’s “Four Cubes to Contemplate Our Environment” pavilion (2008-11), contains sculptures including ones made of plastic bottles and aluminum cans. The work’s somber environmentalism comes across all the more strongly framed by minimalist architecture and surrounded by an organic agricultural enterprise.
La Coste’s most playful installations, on the other hand, do their best to disappear into their surroundings. The dozen sculptures in musician-turned-artist Michael Stipe’s “Foxes” (2008), a pack of bronze statues slyly installed in a bend along the sculpture walk trail, are crudely detailed and conspicuously larger than actual foxes. Their stripped features and the seam-like ridges running along their backs suggest blown-up replicas of a child’s plastic toys, toothless, domesticated fauna for a region whose wildlife has been hunted to near-extinction. Harder to miss, but no less mirage-like, is Liam Gillick’s open-air installation “Multiplied Resistance Screened” (2010), a structure made up of different-colored, blind-like screens on rollers, which visitors move and rearrange to their liking to create new tonal juxtapositions. In so doing, the corresponding colors in the landscape emerge, from the bright orange of the earth to the dark brown of nearby oak trees’ bark.
The incredible variety of works McKillen has commissioned for La Coste — except in terms of gender, Bourgeois being the only female artist featured — may be the sculpture park’s greatest strength, aside from its exquisite location. As more works are added to the grounds (as well as a luxury hotel), this little-known gem of a contemporary art destination seems poised to become a popular pilgrimage site for art world denizens.