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ART : Irvine’s First Piece of Public Sculpture Celebrates the Past but Says Much About the Present

The muse of public art, promising both civic pride and cultural status, is often a siren, luring politicians and artists to jagged shores of public embarrassment. Boosterism collides with artistic conscience; projects collapse or turn bland in the hands of anxious committees.

On the surface, Irvine has fared well with the general look of the city’s first piece of public sculpture, newly installed in front of the county library at Heritage Park.

Commissioned to create a time line of city history, 38-year-old artist Mark Lere has deftly met the challenge for a work that would be both imaginative and documentary.

The core of his untitled sculpture is an intriguing ground-level spiral that looks like the start of the yellow brick road but with alternating black and white tiles. To one side rises a widening stack of black disks--like plates--resting on a narrow point. The third part is a hollow chair of slate slabs, lit at night from within.

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Lere said the black column represents man, the chair symbolizes nature and the spiral stands for time.

The concept is appealing. What undercuts its integrity as fine art, however, is the propagandistic overtone to the series of 50 inscriptions the city’s project committee had etched on the tile spiral. The overwhelming emphasis falls on dates of importance to the Irvine family and the Irvine Co. and its evolution.

There is no denying that the history of the Irvine family and the company named for it are essential to the city, but 21 out of 50 inscriptions alluding to the Irvines?

“I think it is excessive,” said Lere. “It’s a kind of Babbittry. . . . The committee went through 10 different lists before deciding on this one, with a lot of infighting over what was going to get mentioned.”

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The time line starts with an image that is virtually biblical: “30,000 B.C: IRVINE AREA RISES FROM PACIFIC OCEAN FLOOR.” The Irvine name marches on through the years: “1868: JAMES IRVINE I BUILDS HOUSE ON RANCH.”

Then come references to land purchases and corporate moves that consolidated power first of the family and then private investors: “1876: JAMES IRVINE I ACQUIRES INTEREST IN FLINT, BIXBY & CO.”

Other Irvine triumphs include: “1890: JAMES IRVINE II INTRODUCES AGRICULTURAL CROPS.”

“1892-1894: JAMES IRVINE II INHERITS RANCH AND FORMS THE IRVINE CO.”

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“1897: JAMES IRVINE II DONATES FIRST COUNTY PARKLAND.”

The sheer repetitiousness is heavy-handed. Missing are acknowledgements to mayors of the city, residents or companies that have affected the town but who are not named Irvine. Yet even the Irvine name is no guarantee of recognition: There is no mention of Joan Irvine Smith, a granddaughter of company founder James Irvine who for years battled over control of the Irvine Co.

An Irvine time line without her is like American history without political parties. It was Smith who fought to establish UC Irvine. In fact, no Irvine women are mentioned, nor any women at all.

Why no trace of Daniel G. Aldrich Jr., UCI’s first chancellor, or any of its prominent professors? The Irvine Fine Arts Center rates no mention, despite its good work. The Koll Co., the development firm that financed the $53,500 sculpture and plays a major part in Irvine development, is not mentioned.

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“This is a family town, really,” said Brenda Harrison Gallagher, who works for the city and helped coordinate the project. “And it’s been changed into a company town. Now it’s more businesslike. You have (Irvine Co. Chairman) Donald Bren, who still owns much of Irvine.”

And lest anybody forget that, or underestimate the fact’s importance, the last date recorded on the time line is Bren’s acquisition of a majority share in the company--in 1983. “That one is kind of obvious,” said Lere, smiling. “I guess Don Bren’s important, but hasn’t anything of importance happened here since 1983?” Lere, a North Dakota-born graduate of UC Irvine, was as much bemused by the sculpture’s historical side as he was critical of it, and pointed out that non-Irvine moments are recorded, including the opening of the Santa Ana Freeway, a literally earth-shaking event. Lere said he cut the original number of inscribed tiles from 85 to 50 because “a lot of what they wanted was really trivial.”

“I can’t blame them, because I gave them control over (the inscriptions). It just went too far.”

The increasingly well-known artist said he works often on public art projects and is intrigued by the process. “What you see reflected there is the power structure of Irvine, and to me that is fascinating,” he said. “The question for the artist is: Do you make some compromise or do you go with a ‘60s thing where the artist insists on total control? I’m very interested in how art works in a non-elitist situation, in a place where you don’t expect to see art.

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“If any place is bland, white milk toast, it’s Irvine. The people are the same, the houses are the same--and I know this area. . . . Very few artists live here, and I don’t think art is something a lot of people are exposed to. That’s why public art can make such a difference.”

He pointed out that a time line of the city’s history is hard to fill because Irvine is so young: it was incorporated in 1971. “This is the history they have, and I think that people will be interested to see it, no matter how mundane it might be.”

Lere said the time line can easily be extended, just by continuing the spiral of inscribed tiles round and round. “What interests me,” he said, a sly gleam coming into his eye, “is what comes after the one about Don Bren. What or who will they deem worthy to follow him?”


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