Whoa, a ‘Deer,’ a giant deer, turning heads at McNay Art Museum in San Antonio — Deborah Martin

San Antonio Express-News, 02.03.2021

The first time they see it, visitors to the McNay Art Museum react to Tony Tasset’s larger-than-life sculpture “Deer” much the same way that the museum staffers who brought it here did.

“What is that?”

“We were driving around upstate New York, and it was a two-lane road and there’s this huge deer on the side of the road,” said René Barilleaux, head of curatorial affairs, pantomiming the behind-the-wheel equivalent of a double-take.

Naturally, Barilleaux also wondered whether it would be possible to bring the piece to the McNay.

As it happens, the 12-foot-tall sculpture of a deer is not a one-off. Tasset made several of them. And Rich Aste, the McNay’s director and CEO, had seen another member of the herd in St. Louis.

“We both saw them, and both loved them,” Barilleaux said. “We worked with his gallery in Chicago, Kavi Gupta, and we learned that (one of the deer) was essentially on loan to this sculpture park in upstate New York. So we started exploring the possibility of bringing it here.”

Getting the gallery’s OK sparked a flurry of planning, including figuring out just the right spot to put it.

“We were cautious not to put it too close to the street because it might look like a target, right? It’s also kind of unassuming and so gentle, despite its enormity,” Barilleaux said. “We wanted it to kind of be a surprise — you discover it.”

The piece is in line with Tasset’s other large-scale works, including “Eye,” a disembodied, veiny eyeball 30 feet in diameter; “Mood Sculpture,” a stack of emojis that shift from a bright yellow ball with a beaming smile at the top to a blue ball at the bottom bearing a deep frown; and “Paul,” a sad-eyed, slump-shouldered rendering of Paul Bunyan.

“Over the years, he moved from being more of a conceptual artist at first to doing a lot of outdoor things,” Barilleaux said. “It’s very interesting.”

Tasset’s work can be found in plazas, apartment complexes, museums and sculpture parks across the country. At the McNay, “Deer” stands in a grassy spot not too far from the Tobin wing, a place that allows people to make the discovery similar to the one Barilleaux and Aste had.

The spot was vetted to make sure the ground there could bear its substantial weight. The hefty piece is made from fiberglass over a steel armature.

“Usually when we’re installing a large sculpture like this, you want to test the soil and you want to make sure the poor deer isn’t going to sink into the ground,” said collections manager Liz Paris. “So that kind of starts out the whole deal — you take a soil sample, get an engineer out.”

To get to its new San Antonio home, “Deer” traveled on the back of a flatbed truck, a journey that took a few days.

“The truck driver told me that it was the most-viewed shipment he had ever made,” Paris said. “Because the deer is 12 feet tall, it’s about 20 feet long. And imagine that with just a couple of blankets on top of it on a flatbed coming from New York to San Antonio.”

A crane was used to hoist the deer from the truck bed, then settle it onto four pillars put in place for its hooves.

“I gotta tell you, even though my colleagues did a great job of setting that and making sure everything was right, it’s still hair-raising as it’s suspended in mid-air and you’re bringing it down onto those (pillars), hoping that you really did get the right dimensions,” Paris said.

The sculpture stands in a bed of jasmine. Eventually, the plants will obscure the pillars.

Since it was installed in October, “Deer” has popped up in quite a few Instagram posts. And Barilleaux is considering another way for visitors to engage with it: He’d like to have a contest asking visitors to name it.

He’s also hopeful that the museum will be able to add “Deer” to its collection. For now, it’s on loan.

It has arrived at the McNay as the renovation of the museum’s grounds nears completion.

It is not the only recent addition to the grounds. Others include “The Sole Sitter,” a striking bronze seated figure made from the forms of enormous high-heeled shoes, by Willie Cole; “Hashtag-Orange,” a playful piece depicting stacked hashtags, by Alejandro Martín; and “Standing Tulip,” a graceful aluminum work capturing a 13-foot blooming flower, by Tom Wesselmann.

The hope is that the new works will give folks an additional reason to visit the McNay, even if the pandemic makes them wary of stepping indoors.

“Some people still are not comfortable with going inside buildings, even a museum, even though we’re taking all the precautions,” Paris said. “This is a nice thing that you can still do outside. And once the landscaping plan is completely done, even if you’re still not quite there yet, not quite comfortable, there’s so much here to see and interact with.”

— dlmartin@express-news.net | Twitter: @DeborahMartinEN