Critic Missed the Humor and Symbolism
I’ve survived the riots, the fires, the earthquake, a mugging at gunpoint, and now the aftershock of Christopher Knight! In his review, “Caution: Bad Art Up Ahead” (Calendar, Jan. 19), he voiced a few less-than-sympathetic feelings toward the Hollywood La Brea Gateway. I was not surprised--from the earliest Times press coverage of the Community Redevelopment Agency project, I suffered untold press-crucifixion paranoid fantasies. Knight delivered beyond my wildest expectations.
My first objection to his review is that he critiques the gateway as if it were a piece of gallery art--where the artist has freedom of expression. This shows a complete misunderstanding of the process I encountered for creating “public art” in this city. Despite the admirable intentions of the CRA, I ended up designing to meet archaic city codes, mysterious tastes of influential council members, unorthodox contract supervision-administration and budgeting systems and delays, and the agendas of countless non-elected city officials and committees.
Some of the specific design restrictions were baffling:
* Structure could not be colored red, yellow or green (it would be mistaken for traffic signal).
* Structure could not sit on a raised platform or incorporate any steps, even if a ramp was provided (people could trip on steps).
* No benches, however small or uncomfortable, could be included (people might loiter).
* No “abstract” or “futuristic” art would be approved (“that doesn’t play in Peoria”).
These and other countless roadblocks to the project were only revealed gradually in the extended two-year process of dealing with an enormous, sprawling organism--our city bureaucracy.
However painfully the process influenced the structure, Knight clearly missed the humor and the reasons behind the final design. Vogue magazine’s December issue describes the gateway as “a pop homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age” and “simultaneously heartwarming and high camp.” The design embraces and pokes fun at the glamour, the polished metallic male form of the Oscar, and the pastiche of styles and dreams that pervades Tinseltown. The women were chosen because they broke the mold--pioneering roles for women of different cultures. Each woman made unique and largely unheralded contributions to our film heritage as actors and, in the case of Mae West, as the writer of her own material and creator of her own outrageous, original image.
Knight’s accusation of sexism for my use of “curvaceous silver screen beauties” in a “sculptural ode to a restrictive tradition of straight, female sexual power” was troubling. Knight explicitly condemns Hollywood for its heterosexual bias and lambastes my design for keeping this “pitiful drumbeat going.” Clearly, he would denounce any work that did not express his narrow perception.
Knight further writes: “It is not Hattie McDaniel or Margaret DuMont who is doing caryatid duty.” I did choose to depict four women who could be described as “curvaceous.” While many people find the curves of the female form to be aesthetically pleasing, Knight is apparently keen on the robust, matronly sort of feminine ideal as typified by McDaniel and DuMont (fine actresses both).
But it is alarming that to him, the sight of a woman like Dorothy Dandridge (the first African American to be nominated for best actress) is a “depressing . . . demeaning . . . anachronistic” experience. For our art critic, a stroll through the great cityscapes of Paris and Rome must be a harrowing ordeal, what with the countless images of curvaceous women--some even nude!
On a recent visit to the gateway, I encountered two women on a blanket eating lunch under the dome, a Mexican film crew speaking with pride about how “Delores Del Rio is right here on Hollywood Boulevard,” three Asian tourists posing for photographs with Anna Mae Wong, and a couple circling the piece, discussing each actor.
That is the purpose of the structure. People are interacting with it--proud to discover that Hollywood was created by people of many cultures and that women, as well as men, can make valuable contributions.