Public art review: Peter Shelton’s ‘sixbeaststwomonkeys’
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In the annals of art criticism, deriding a sculpture as looking like ‘some kind of cow splat’ is probably not bound for glory.
That was the colorful phrase used by outgoing LAPD Chief William J. Bratton in reaction to ‘sixbeaststwomonkeys,’ an ensemble of eight sculptures by Peter Shelton commissioned for the department’s new headquarters at First and Spring streets downtown and still being installed as I write. (Dedication is set for Saturday between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.) The rebuke makes for an eye-catching headline. But for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, it doesn’t even begin to come close to the furor inspired by another benign sculpture commissioned half a century ago for Parker Center, the LAPD’s old headquarters a few blocks away.
Neither does Bratton’s crack demonstrate that he knows zilch about contemporary sculpture, as one might suspect; it demonstrates instead that he doesn’t know much about cow splat. Born and raised in Boston, the chief has lived and worked successfully on police forces there and in New York City and Los Angeles, where encounters with cows are rare. Perhaps he can be forgiven for not knowing what bovine poo actually looks like.
What the sculptural ensemble does look like is a procession of monumental, smartly abstracted animal forms. Some are loosely reminiscent of such brawny beasts as hippos, elephants and bison. Shelton, whose well-known work usually abstracts human body parts, distending them in space in ways that make us supremely self-conscious of our own imperfect, slightly ridiculous assemblages of flesh and bone, has here turned his talents toward powerful animals associated with the untamed wilds of Asia, Africa and the Americas.
Cast in bronze and coated with a rich, black patina, they create a formal promenade along the Spring Street side of the new edifice. Between the sidewalk and the conventional but imposing new building, their mostly rounded shapes soften the hard edges of the street-scape. The corpulent forms are sheltered beneath a freshly planted alley of London plane trees. As it matures, the bower will further cushion the pedestrian space between the busy traffic artery and the swank architecture.
In stark contrast, the procession is flanked at either end by headless creatures atop tall, spindly legs. Their elevated bodies, presumably derived from the monkeys mentioned in the title, twist in space as if scanning their surroundings with bodily sensors rather than eyes. These animated forms begin and end the procession with an image of movement into the central city.
Between them, six limestone plinths positioned between stairs that rise a few steps from the concrete sidewalk to an upper pathway of decomposed granite hold the large, dark, smoothly elephantine forms. Half face north, half face south — which is saying something about the artist’s gift for abstraction, given that none of these beasts has a face.
One parades. Another huddles. A third seems to amble. One even appears to have rolled onto its side to wallow playfully for a moment in the sunshine. Each has a distinct personality.
In their own deep ancestry the sculptural forms also harbor memories of Henry Moore (1898-1986), albeit without the British Modern artist’s rather grandiose affinity for prehistoric bones and punctured shapes that let views of the landscape into the sculpture’s interior. Once upon a time it seemed like any new civic building worth its salt would have a monumental Moore out front, indicating a measure of self-conscious cultural pretension. Shelton’s playful bronzes tweak that sober tradition.
Why animals? Partly to put meat on those bones, I suspect.
More importantly, animal sculptures in front of noteworthy civic buildings are also common global fare, whether the imperial lions in front of the New York Public Library or the mythical dragons at entrances to the 9th-century Buddhist temple of Borobudur, nestled in the Indonesian jungle of central Java. In most every culture in most every age, powerful animals have functioned as guardian figures. Finding them now at the site of a police headquarters is hardly a stretch.
Shelton was also smart not to make his procession too literal in its civic symbolism. That error occurred in 1955, when a ludicrous uproar arose over a bronze sculpture commissioned the year before for the then-new police administration building now called Parker Center.
Bernard Rosenthal (1914-2009), the first sculpture professor at UCLA, crafted a 14-foot bronze figural grouping for the facade of the sleek, modern building on N. Los Angeles St., designed by Welton Becket Assoc. and J.E. Stanton. The sculpture, descriptively titled “The Family Protected by the Police,” also abstracts its subjects, here into angular, elongated Cubist forms. (After art school at Cranbrook Academy, Rosenthal trained in Chicago with Ukrainian émigré Alexander Archipenko.) A monumental figure at the rear — the policeman — puts his left arm around a woman holding a child in her arms at his side; meanwhile, his right hand rests on the shoulder of the young man standing slightly in front of him.
Except for their relative sizes, the two male figures are virtually identical. The continuity of a paternal police force composed of citizens is visually conveyed — albeit in limited terms of gender standards common to1950s American society.
Councilman Harold Harby was furious about the sculpture, although not because of any primal feminist leanings. A notorious Red-baiter and hater of Modern art, Harby was certain that the faceless geometric abstractions were meant to symbolize a “one world” philosophy of uniform, Communist-inspired government. (Think of him as the Glenn Beck of his day.) “It is probably the most scandalous satire and caricature of American people I have ever seen,” Harby fumed to the press, in a diatribe not without racist overtones. The brouhaha raged for months.
Harby’s efforts to get the sculpture removed from the off-white ceramic facade failed. Subsequent building around Parker Center has somewhat diminished the light-filled, open-air character of the space, which itself was meant to suggest a degree of transparency in a police department darkly shadowed by a troubled past. Together with the original building, the bronze is now part of a near-perfect midcentury Modern ensemble.
And what became of Bernard Rosenthal, the artist whose 1950s sculptures also graced the old Robinson’s department store in Beverly Hills, Bullock’s in Westwood and a fountain at UCLA? Better known as Tony, Rosenthal decamped to New York in 1960, where he died at 94 in July. “Alamo,” his revolving 1967 steel sculpture in the traffic island at downtown Manhattan ‘s Astor Place — balanced on point and commonly referred to as simply “the cube” — is among that city’s most familiar public sculptures.
Bratton, New York City Police Commissioner in the 1990s, probably saw “the cube” countless times. But no, I confess I don’t much wonder about what he thought of it.
-- Christopher Knight