Photo by Debra DiPaolo

BETWEEN THE MANSION-STREWN MOUNTAINS AND THE surfboard-speckled sea, across the road from a Starbucks and a Birkenstock store, behind a gaggle of clean-cut 11-year-olds loitering on skateboards beside Howdy's Malibu Taqueria, just beyond the mommies on benches tending a flock of bright-eyed toddlers screeching by on swing sets and slides, surrounded by the quaintly clustered shops of the Malibu Country Mart, is the little patch of well-groomed grass on which, circled by a wrought-steel fence and a small plaque reading “DO NOT CLIMB,” stands Norman Grochowski's tree.

It's easy enough to miss. Out of the corner of your eye, it doesn't look particularly different from any of the trees nearby; even the swallows peeping from its upper branches don't seem to notice that their perch's leaves and trunk are made entirely of steel. But given a second or two, you'll notice the turtle at its roots, the clock hands adorning its shell; the fox's head poking out from the trunk, a clutch of steel-hewn grapes in its jaws; the inscribed passages from Ecclesiastes (“The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but time and chance befall them all,” reads one); the mechanical gears erupting violently from beneath the bark of one branch; the man seated on what looks to be a tombstone, watching TV farther up that same branch; the bare-breasted figure clutching a heart-shaped shield and a spear tipped with an ankh, the demonic figures closing in on her.

A pink-faced frat boy in pressed khaki shorts strolls right on by, then turns and, puzzled, notices the 18-foot-high sculpture, steel birds diving vertiginously down at him, winged creatures hurling spears from high in its gnarled steel branches. Between puffs on a gargantuan cigar, he comments to a friend. “That's trippy,” he says, and goes on to speculate that the work's creator “definitely ate mushrooms . . . dude was definitely high.” His analyses, though, are interrupted when his attention is grabbed — with an enthusiastic “Wow! Look at that!” — by the wood-framed couch on sale a few yards away outside a neighboring furniture store. “It's teak!” he announces, reclining triumphantly.

So it goes for Norman Grochowski's labor of love. “Built piece by cruel piece” over three years of evenings on top of a 12-hour day job making “functional art” (“rosewood coffee tables and things like that,” he says dismissively), Grochowski's Tree will be on display in Malibu until February of next year. The work, built by a labor-intensive process about which its creator will say only that it's “a beastly way to make sculpture,” has been there for four months. It's made of 11 sections, the largest of which weighs 460 pounds, all pieced together on the lawn in what German filmmaker Percy Adlon (who taped its final construction for a possible documentary for German and French TV) describes as “a kind of medieval way: everything by hand, just with ropes and very shaky ladders.”

The artist himself — unshaven, his straggly brown hair flecked with gray, hands as rough and callused as the bark of his tree, self-described as “a little on the sleazy side,” at least by Malibu standards — is not overly modest about his work. “The public in general doesn't get this kind of quality art,” he says. Most public art in L.A., he complains, like the huge twisted red pipe passing for sculpture a mile or so up PCH, is “marketplace art . . . inoffensive, watered down, trite in content and substance.” His tree, on the other hand, boasts “hundreds of symbols,” and given a few minutes, with a quick laugh and an obvious passion for his craft, Grochowski will be glad to tell you about them, or at least some of them.

The branch to the right, the one with the exposed gear works and the man watching television, Grochowski says, is the mechanized side. The tree's left fork, where most of the action lies, is the spiritual side. “We have a right side and a left side,” the artist explains. “We're half man, half woman; half spiritual, half material. That's where the great war takes place.” In that context, it's not hard to guess what the apparently female figure, mocked by a jester and under attack from winged phantoms, protected only by a heart-shaped shield and a half-ankh/half-infinity-symbol spear, might represent. Then there's the turtle with the clock-faced shell, hands at roughly 11 (“into the 11th hour,” Grochowski explains), the spiral-shelled snail above it (“If you're going to find things you'll have to go inward”); the fox and the grapes (“I wasn't really shooting for Aesop,” he grins, “but stolen grapes always do taste sweeter”). And 'round back there's a bird's head peeking through a window of sorts, “with some weird clocklike shape and a bell. Don't ask me what the hell that is,” the artist chuckles.

ULTIMATELY, THE TREE'S MESSAGE ISN'T TOUGH TO FERRET out: a final showdown for the human soul, torn between embattled spiritual and banally material and technological forces. It's with a similar sort of dualism that Grochowski diagnoses L.A.'s art scene. “In Los Angeles, you have a vast wasteland of any kind of public art,” he says. “We don't as a society see art as a spiritual food. What we have around us are billboards, concrete and wire. It begins to suffocate the spirit.” Such smothering, if spiritual, has largely material causes: “There are no real patrons of the arts,” Grochowski complains, dismissing “Endowment for the Arts bread-crumb handouts,” institutions like the Getty (“in the business of supporting dead artists”), and the hoards of collectors who “invest in art that's going to go up in value. That's not creating art for society now.

“Put some pieces out there for your society,” Grochowski begs, “for the spiritual welfare of society. When a society doesn't have spiritual well-being, it shows.”

True enough. But one might ask if a privately owned patch of lawn in the middle of a Malibu shopping center is the best place to begin a crusade to bring spiritual sustenance to an art-starved city. Why not MacArthur Park? Or the many rubble-strewn lots in the many parts of the city that really are all wire and cement? But then there's the issue of the piece's $250,000 price tag, hard to cough up in most parts of L.A., but rather ordinary in sunny Malibu.

Grochowski explains, “If I had the money, I'd fill the city with free work,” but “until this sells I can't do another one. I promised my wife.” Thus the spiritual and material battle on.

LA Weekly