StreetSites Art Works Pound the Pavement With Social Statement

Times Staff Writer

It's definitely stop-you-in-your-tracks art.

Pedestrians, business people and transients alike try to puzzle out the figures perched on each corner at Broadway and 3rd Avenue. Most don't know what they are, but have fun trying to figure them out.

The sculptures, installed Feb. 10, are one of five works created by San Diego artists as part of the StreetSites public arts exhibit. This year's display consists of four outdoor works and one installation at the Sushi performance and art gallery.

Passers-by might be amused listening to the tape-recorded messages of the Broadway exhibit, but the work, titled "Disinformation, Connectors and Terminal (Or, When Did You Stop Being Paranoid?)," has a serious point.

The display is meant to make a statement about how verbal abuse, directed at children, adults and other groups, is an "unacceptable epidemic" in today's society, said its creator, David Beck Brown, an arts gallery director at Grossmont College and arts instructor at Cuyamaca College. "Verbal abuse is equivalent to physical abuse," Brown said, equating it to "aggravated assault."

'Issues in the Public Arena'

This year's StreetSites is, as in past years, an attempt to make a social statement about our environment and human interaction, said Berne Smith, visual art coordinator for Sushi Inc. "The artists' concerns are different, but they're all dealing with social issues. . . . We try to address issues in the public arena," Smith said.

In 1987, a controversial Sushi "Streetworks" display of a Tijuana donkey cart was ordered removed from the U. S. Courthouse plaza by a federal judge because it posed a security risk. The artist, David Avalos, claimed that the judge censored his piece, which showed a Mexican illegal immigrant being arrested by the Border Patrol. But Sushi, now in its ninth season, continues to sponsor the annual public exhibit, which was initiated four years ago to "bring art into public spaces," said Vicki Wolf, managing director of Sushi.

Brown's sculptures on verbal abuse include a mutilated trash can that repeats the oft-false children's chant, "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me"; two masked mailboxes, which demonstrate gossip as a cancer; and a "verbal abuse" phone message built on top of twisted children's building blocks that is supposed to demonstrate the contradiction between idyllic childhood and reality.

Reaction to Brown's work has varied from commendation to condemnation. His work, attacked by vandals, has been found several times strewn in the street.

2 Categories of Art

For those who don't understand his methods, Brown says: "Art is divided into two basic categories: the traditional--the already explored--and the exploratory, which is mine. Part of exploratory art is that it is thought-provoking. This is not beautiful art; the subject matter is not beautiful, either."

Some passers-by agree with Brown.

"It's ugly, but it attracts people's attention," Shuiang Hwu said as he walked by.

Martha Sanchez and her friend, Veronica Weinstein, stopped to look at the sculpture on verbal child abuse. "It's junk, but it tells a message; that's obvious," Sanchez said.

But Teresa Burris, a local attorney, took more time than most to ponder the sculptures. "I walk by here four times a day, every day. It's fascinating," she said.

'Makes You Stop and Think'

"I commend the artist on it. It makes you think. . . . I don't know if I necessarily understand everything it stands for, but it makes you stop and think," Burris said. "Artwork like this helps us become more sensitive to the needs . . . of everyone. I know I'll never forget it."

Of the works in the StreetSites exhibit, perhaps the most scathing social commentary comes from artist Ruth Wallen, whose "Greetings from San Diego" at the Sushi gallery is a parody of the way San Diego is marketed and packaged like candy for consumption by the public, but suggests that something bitter lurks just beneath its sugar-coated surface.

Wallen, a Del Mar resident, creates a reflection of San Diego with her tourist gift shop, complete with generic post cards, T-shirts that picture sewage spills, gift-wrapped bottled water and promotional housing ads.

Her focus is on exploding suburban development, and she juxtaposes luxurious housing ads with photos of migrant workers to create an image of irony that "forces you to think," Wallen said.

Although she does not address the subject in her work, downtown San Diego--with its homeless against a backdrop of Horton Plaza--is a paradox to Wallen: "There's either absence of place or prepackaged fantasy," she said.

A 'Veiled Aquifer'

Artists Dan Corson and Laurie Covill have created "Veiled Aquifer," at Crown Point Shores Park on Mission Bay, that symbolizes San Diego's fragile water supply. The hundreds of contaminated water bottles are reminiscent, according to the artists, of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner": "Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

Stuart Flaxman's "Contemporary Landscape," in the window of Java at 837 G Street, examines a society bereft of personal interaction in an age of mass communication.

"Neighborhood," by Ellen Phillips, is a sobering metaphor that depicts the inaccessibility of housing because of expensive redevelopment or slow-growth initiatives, both of which slam doors in the faces of hopeful home buyers. Situated downtown at the Community Concourse Plaza, the sculpture is composed of houses surrounded by a chain-link fence, woven with yellow bands that read, "Caution--Do Not Enter."

StreetSites is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts/Visual Arts; The Combined Arts and Education Council of San Diego County, with the NEA locals program; the City of San Diego and the California Arts Council and Art Matters Inc. The exhibit may be viewed until March 11. The Sushi Gallery is at 852 8th Ave. and is open Fridays and Saturdays, from noon until 4 p.m.

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