Remember last year's "Donkey Cart" incident? Artist David Avalos created a replica of a prop commonly used by Tijuana street photographers who peddle visual mementos for tourists. His work, however, was a mordant statement about the plight of illegal aliens.
Although Avalos had permission to install the work in the plaza at the Federal Building on Broadway, a federal judge ordered it removed to a storage area, where it was metaphorically "under arrest."
After its release, Avalos' work was shown in other San Diego County sites and traveled as far as the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Museum of Art. A suit protesting the removal, initiated by the artist and Sushi gallery, Avalos' sponsor, is pending.
The "Donkey Cart" had been part of Sushi's first public art project. Undaunted by last year's contretemps, it has launched a second. Although the international reputation of San Diego's premier "alternative space" is based on its presentation of performance art, Sushi has been adding exhibits of "static art," such as paintings, sculpture and installations.
Titled "Streetsets," this year's project includes four site-specific sculptures installed downtown and an exhibit of 10 project drawings in Sushi's lobby gallery (852 8th Ave.). All the works explore the theme of public spaces and social interaction.
"We want to bring sculpture of artistic merit to an audience broader than the one that visits galleries and museums," said Lynn Schuette, Sushi's founder-director.
"Our requirement was that the works should be site-specific, that they should relate to the place where they're installed.
"They are oriented toward issues confronting our society, such as border relations and the effects of the Vietnamese war. These are not just pieces to decorate public spaces.
"We also want to stimulate dialogue about what public art can be. For example, these works, in being temporary, violate the idea of permanence."
For the project, James Luna created "The Artifact Piece," an installation that documents the life of a contemporary Luiseno Indian. The piece, exhibited for ironic effect in Balboa Park's Museum of Man, includes artifacts that are evidence of the problems of alcoholism and violence. Others parody commercial Indian art and museum artifacts themselves.
"The intent of the piece," Luna said, "is to make a statement concerning the display of the American Indian as a relic that perpetuates myths about Indian peoples."
The artist, whose works have been exhibited at the Hippodrome Gallery in Long Beach and the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park, is a counselor in American Indian services at Palomar College.
At the Community Concourse, Michael Schnorr has erected a fence symbolizing the U.S.-Mexico border. Titled "Fence Border Line Boundary," it includes a taped sound track made at the real border with a commentary exploring the idea of a boundary line as an authentic barrier and a mythical symbol.
Schnorr, an art instructor at Southwestern College and a member of the Border Arts Workshop, has exhibited widely.
Also at the Community Concourse is Ron Williams' installation, which represents his experiences in Vietnam. Titled "Palace Guard," the sandbag structure, measuring 10 by 12 feet, is surrounded by constructed oversize representations of bullets, aiming posts and sharks' fins. Williams' works have been exhibited at the Patty Aande and Pawn Shop galleries.
As a team, Walter Cotten and James Skalman have created an installation titled "The Office" in Sushi's executive office. The piece, constructed to conform to the traditional office floor plan (including entrance, reception room, waiting room and inner office areas) is intended as a metaphor for a generalized social and psychological experience.
Cotten, a professor of photography and printmaking at San Diego State University, has exhibited widely. His work was included in the precedent-breaking "San Diego Exhibition" at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art in 1985. His partner, Skalman, an art instructor at SDSU and Grossmont College, created a room-size installation for the same landmark exhibition.
The exhibit in Sushi's lobby includes drawings for possible public projects by Amanda Farber, Gary Ghirardi, Tom Grondona, Margaret Honda, Eduardo Lopez, Christine Oatman, David Quattrociocchi, Brent Riggs, Roberto Salas and Deborah Small.
A panel of professional San Diego artists that selected the works included David Avalos, artist-in-residence at the Centro Cultural de la Raza; Richard Baker, SDSU professor of art; Schuette, and Sushi visual art coordinator Leah Younker.
"Streetsets" is funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the City of San Diego, COMBO and the California Arts Council, for a total of about $4,000.
The City's Public Arts Advisory Board approved exhibiting the projects in the Community Concourse.
It is a point of pride for Schuette that all of the exhibiting artists received honorariums for their efforts.
"It's time for our society to move beyond thinking that artists should work for nothing," Schuette said.