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Exhibit Is a Reminder of What S.D. Could Do

Perhaps sometime in the future, when there comes to town an exhibition like “Art for the Public: New Collaborations” (San Diego Museum of Art through April 9), the local reviewer of that show will not feel compelled to use that occasion to again lament the condition of public art in San Diego. For now, however, the projects in cities around the United States, which this show describes, merely whet the appetite for similar efforts that can give special form and expression to the unique qualities of the environment, people and experiences of this city.

Although only seven projects are documented in this show, organized by the Dayton (Ohio) Art Institute, they suggest an abundant range of approaches, attitudes and outcomes in public art. Even more basically and more relevant to San Diego, they demonstrate that successful collaborations between local governments and their communities are indeed possible. Clearly, there are lessons that can be learned from the groupings of photos, text panels, drawings, plans and scale models that constitute this informative exhibition.

Three projects stand out as especially suggestive for San Diego, although not necessarily being the best of the lot, as various sets of taste and criteria might judge.

One of these is a recently completed effort in Dayton where artist Andrew Leicester, working in a park setting, created a dramatic memorial to a disastrous flood that swept the city in 1913. The project consists of dark house shapes lying helter skelter and partly buried in one section of the site. Nearby, a fire-scarred brick fireplace and chimney stand erect, as though stripped of whatever structure they once belonged to.

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This element stands above what might be roofs of houses floating in a pool fed by an artificial stream. In the stream, three bronze horse heads posed against the stream’s current suggest the struggles of domestic animals caught in the flood. At the entrance to the artwork, the tracery of a wrought iron gate reproduces a weather map from the day of the flood, superimposed over a schematic rendering of the system of rivers that converge in or near Dayton.

Though dire in its subject and not a typical statue-type memorial, the Dayton project has gained wide support from its community, in large part because the artist turned to local people for information on the flood. The photo, mementos and stories that he collected not only influenced the final design but helped bond the project to the public that constitutes the subject, the audience and the source of funds for the artwork.

San Diego’s history may not include a similar disaster, but there have been epic events that affected whole neighborhoods and communities. The crash of the PSA jet in Hillcrest, the Normal Heights fire and the McDonald’s massacre in San Ysidro come readily to mind as profoundly unsettling experiences suitable for commemoration of a type, especially when it is remembered that such commemorations prove healing and nurturing to those who have suffered.

The experiences of people who visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington attest, on a national scale, to the value of this function. Shouldn’t this function be deemed worth the investment of public funds and civic energies, which are definitive ingredients of art that is truly public?

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Of course, epic and tragic events are not the only ones that merit such attention. After all, history has its bright moments and so does human life. In Cleveland, the ethnic diversity of the city is celebrated in a project at a downtown park where the decorative architectural elements designed by Carl Floyd are covered with ceramic tiles painted by members of the community. It’s a simple and locally rich concept that should be highly attractive here, given the neighborhood focus of our city government. But, aside from Chicano Park, where are the projects?

Another of the significant and suggestive efforts cited in the exhibition is George Trakas’ “Birth Haven,” created at a shoreline site at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s complex in Seattle. It is one of several projects at the site that are presented in the show.

The Trakas work is uniquely relevant to San Diego, however, because it offers an elegant, beautiful and sound engineering approach to controlling erosion where land and water meet. How much more satisfying it would be to see sculptural forms like those Trakas has created instead of the eye-scraping riprap and concrete walls that increasingly line our shoreline and harbor with a harsh ugliness that defies human approach.

Fortunately, a real, as opposed to photographic, example of Trakas’ vision and abilities is available locally at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, where the artist has transformed a section of the museum’s grounds into a categorically different type of landscape experience. The work was begun as part of a 1986 show titled “Sitings,” which the museum organized. That show took a much more scholarly and intensive view than that offered by the current exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art.

It should also be pointed out that the privately funded Stuart Collection at UC San Diego is one of the country’s most brilliant commitments to art of this type, and that smaller cities in the area, such as Carlsbad and Escondido, have active public art programs that are now bearing fruit.

In this larger context, the San Diego Museum of Art’s exhibition is best seen as an easily accessible, didactic presentation--more informative and persuasive than deeply insightful. But this is, perhaps, what’s needed here, given that the real value of public art can only be fully realized when such artworks take their place in the community and people, in their own ways and time, have a chance to discover the beauty and meaning of these new and different elements of their world.


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