ART : Irvine's Public-Art Program Has Problems Growing Up

When you're in a museum, you know the rules: No touching, no doodling, no climbing on stuff, or the guards will come running. But outdoors it's a different story. There's no one around to police you, no decorum you've been trained to follow.

If you saw a sculpture in a public garden or plaza, you would certainly feel free to touch it. Depending on its shape and size, children would be likely to sit on it, swing from it or balance on it. If it yielded to the touch of a penknife, teen-agers might try to cut their initials in it. If it had flat surfaces, bored and restless types might be tempted to embroider it with spray paint.

Public art--long a target of public outcry--is also a sitting duck for physical interaction. The nature of that interaction depends primarily on how welcoming or hostile the art appears to the viewer and the types of activities suggested by its contours, materials and size.

Recent events in Irvine--which has been attempting unsuccessfully to implement a public-art program for several years--suggest that city employees are confused about what's entailed in placing sculpture out of doors in a public area and calling it "public art."

Angie Bray's "Wavering Poles"--a group of 54 hollow aluminum poles in graduated sizes from 3 1/2 to 8 1/2 feet, anchored with flexible steel joints to a flagstone base--was recently removed from the temporary "Sculpture on View" exhibit on the Plaza of the Irvine Civic Center because city officials claimed that it was potentially dangerous. The city's argument was that the slanted tops of the poles might cause injury if someone pulled on them.

Bray, who says "Wavering Poles" is meant to be played with--and also to respond to and reflect changes in air circulation and light--had submitted photographs, a description and a diagram of her piece to the city. No one in the city or FHP Healthcare, which is co-sponsoring the exhibit, raised any objections until the sculpture was installed late last month.

The delicate-looking piece was incongruously surrounded by stanchions and police barrier tape, removed for the opening ceremony to make things look as though all was well, and replaced as soon as the public and press took their leave.

Granted, we live in a litigious age. It behooves the guardians of our public places to guard against injury on their turf, if only to ward off long and costly legal battles. But the watchwords should be consistency and reasonableness.

If the sharp-edged metal light fixtures alongside the steps of the plaza are OK, a work of sculpture with similar properties shouldn't be condemned. There should be a clear set of safety guidelines for public sculpture, and they should be implemented in the planning stages of an exhibition, not after a work of art has been installed.

Just before she removed "Wavering Poles" from the plaza, Bray noticed that while children were pulling gently on the poles in her piece, watching them sway and tap one another, they approached the other pieces with a different kind of energy.

Children shimmied up two nine-foot-tall steel pieces, Bret Price's "Passage" and Daniel Miller's "Wandering Mobius." They jumped off Joyce Kohl's three-foot-tall concrete work, "Two-Square," threw the gravel inside Pat Warner's "Earth Wheel" and plunked their little bodies on its slim wooden "spokes," which do not seem to have been designed as weight-bearing components of the piece.

"Each piece invites people to do something," Bray said. "My piece does not invite people to be violent; it invites them to be contemplative and gentle.

"If the city . . . had certain expections of the viewer, why isn't the viewer made aware of them? Why were pieces picked that clearly invited viewers to do things that were forbidden?"

Certainly, every public-art program is entitled to its growing pains. But Irvine's program remains a gangly adolescent that seemingly won't listen to the voice of experience.

The city's involvement in public art began in 1984, when the City Council appointed an Art in Public Places advisory board. After much palaver and requisite fanfare, it commissioned a piece for Heritage Park by Los Angeles sculptor Mark Lere. The piece, installed in 1988, became a hymn to the Irvine Co., in which 21 of the 50 inscriptions carved into the artist's spiral of tiles symbolizing "time" refer to the corporate entity.

The board's second venture into public art was Art Spaces '87, a program that borrowed six undistinguished works from six artists--including a brother of one of the board members--and plopped them down in various outdoor city locations for a one-year period.

Last year, an Irvine resident whose family owns numerous pieces by Jack Zajac, a Southern California sculptor whose star was bright in decades past, received permission to install them for five months at the Civic Center.

Meanwhile, the Corporate Patrons (a membership group of Art Spaces Irvine, the advisory board's fund-raising wing) decided to donate $4,500 to purchase a hunk of marble for emigre artist Marton Varo to carve one of his blandly derivative figurative tableaux.

These various and sundry activities do not add up to the kind of public-art program likely to put a city on the cultural map.

Should we be sympathetic because the program--hatched by the city but without public financial support--has had to beg for corporate and private donations?

Hardly, considering the personal and corporate wealth waiting to be tapped. A more logical response is sheer impatience because the program still has no proper leadership. No respected art professional is associated with the program, no one who has significant experience with public art, wide-ranging knowledge of the sophisticated world of contemporary sculpture and a genuinely broad and innovative vision.

Ann Thorne, the city's current part-time public art consultant, is dedicated and well-meaning, but she has an unsubstantial background in art and lacks the requisite clout. It remains to be seen what clout and direction will be forthcoming from the city's fledgling Cultural Affairs Commission, whose members include Peggy Mears, former director of the Irvine Fine Arts Center.

Viewed simply as an outdoor-indoor exhibition (pieces by three artists are in the Civic Center lobby), "Sculpture on View" is not exactly a show-stopper. The cheekiest of the works still on view is Leslie Robbins' two-part "Modern Times": a telephone pole that leans crookedly against the building and a small plaster and cement cross-shaped piece that sits nearby on the plaza.

Although the meaning of the smaller piece remains unclear, the pole sends a big raspberry to the cleanly anonymous architecture of the building and the broad, blank plaza--and, by extension, to the airbrushed image of the 19-year-old master-planned city. Considering that Irvine actually has no working telephone poles--the cables are all buried underground--the image seems even more apropos.

O you city of the future, where the most grievous sin is to be unsightly, and where folks must be protected against the small urges that overtake them when face-to-face with public art.

"Sculpture on View"--with work in the lobby and on the plaza by Joyce Kohl, Daniel Miller, Bret Price, Karen Innes Reid, Leslie Robbins, Dunnieghe Slawson, Richard Turner and Pat Warner, remains through July 13 at the Irvine Civic Center.

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