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COVER STORY : Not Just an Exercise in Futility : Public art is almost always controversial, but sometimes it’s even popular. As it becomes more commonplace, isn’t it worth considering a few pieces that really work?

<i> Christopher Knight is a Times art critic</i>

The “Great Wall of L.A.,” unfurling for nearly half a mile along an unlovely concrete flood channel that slices through Van Nuys and North Hollywood, must surely rank among the largest paintings anywhere in the United States.

The mural, a loosely linked sequence of 41 scenes painted intermittently between 1976 and 1983, tells an almost cinematic history of California from the prehistoric era to the present day.

Aside from the oddity of its mammoth size, the mural also ranks as a significant and compelling work of public art--a standing that is no small achievement in that typically beleaguered realm. Notable successes in the public-art genre are less than abundant, even though the field is increasing in visibility throughout Los Angeles.

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What is it that makes some public art echo and resound in the imagination, while most of it just sort of sits there, looking variously pompous or forlorn, annoying or indifferent, in the way or out of place?

Why do some works of art seem born to vividly inhabit the public realm, rather than to require the more enclosed world of the gallery and museum?

The question is worth considering, in part because public art is becoming commonplace in L.A. and in part because the genre is itself of great significance.

Art is necessary to a civilized world. Throughout history, governments of all kinds have been principal patrons for art; in order to achieve a civilized democracy, public patronage needs to generate art in the public realm.

The proliferation of public art locally is a result of the cumulative effects of federal, state and city laws, which began with the National Endowment for the Arts’ Art in Public Places program of the late 1960s. Today, more than half the states and dozens of cities mandate percent-for-art commitments from a mix of public and private developers.

Santa Monica, Culver City and Los Angeles are among local governments that require a portion of redevelopment or city construction funds to be devoted to the commissioning or acquisition of public works of art. A big boost has come from Metro Rail, with its highly visible $10-million Art for Rail Transit project, which has involved artists in subway station design.

In addition to government, a few private local entities also have become involved. Foundations and independent real-estate developers commission art intended not for private consumption but for the public realm.

Controversies certainly aren’t alien to the subject. Sometimes a specific work causes a flap, as happened in 1991 when a congressman and a federal judge objected to a new sculptural ensemble by Tom Otterness at the Roybal Federal Building downtown. (Their objections did not prevail.)

Other times, as in a recent storm in Culver City over whether or not the quality of newly built architecture could legitimately satisfy a percent-for-art requirement, it is the larger philosophy of public art that takes the heat. (That stew still simmers.)

Producing public art is becoming so familiar an activity in Los Angeles, while issues surrounding the topic remain not unexpectedly blurred, that a four-day conference, including two days of panel discussions Friday and Saturday at the Biltmore Hotel, was hatched to explore its many facets.

“Public Art: Realities, Theories and Issues,” with backing from the California Arts Council, the Community Redevelopment Agency and the city’s Cultural Affairs Department, will attempt to address the subject from as many angles as possible.

There is, of course, no single magic-bullet answer to the question of why some public art works and most doesn’t. The “Great Wall of L.A.” was collectively produced by scores of muralists drawn from various communities--a sampling of the public, you could say, engaged in making public art--but other, similarly conceived and executed murals don’t come close to exerting the imaginative pull of the “Great Wall.”

Systematic formulas just don’t work for art--which is not to say they don’t get tried. For instance, a ruling convention of public art today is that a thorough understanding of the public site in which the work will exist is crucial to the art’s success.

So some artists try to comprehend a site by becoming researchers--an amateur historian, sociologist, demographer, anthropologist. The art they produce illustrates what has been discovered during the investigation.

Some of the dullest, most tediously academic public art gets made that way. Still, not only does the method flourish, it’s even taught in art schools.

One reason it thrives is that it makes for an art that’s easy to explain. And public art, unlike art made in the privacy of the studio, usually needs explaining--lots of it, even before it ever gets made. The plan needs to be explained to patrons and committees of bureaucrats and review boards and politicians and funding agencies--any or all of whom may regard modern art with suspicion. The show-and-tell school eases doubts by giving everyone a comfortable little story to embrace.

Conventional wisdom also has it that abstract art is best avoided in public places, since abstraction is supposedly incompatible with the interests of a wider public. If that’s true, why is it that Maya Lin’s breathtaking Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the single greatest--and most widely beloved--work of contemporary public art in the United States, is an abstract sculpture?

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Neither a brilliant artistic form, by itself, nor a rich public site, by itself, is enough to galvanize a work of public art. Necessary instead is a sparkling dialogue between them. And the dialogue, as with any public conversation, won’t be worth much unless there are plenty of openings for an eavesdropping public to pipe in.

Sculptor Siah Armajani, who has designed several successful works of public art around the country, once explained the crucial importance of coaxing forth the hidden parameters of context when making public art. It demands something other than the inert illustrated research so prominent today.

“In public art,” Armajani told interviewer Calvin Tomkins in 1990, “there is no room for focus on the ego. You have to get lost in the context of the work.”

Conventional wisdom has long held that the free reign of artistic ego can wreak havoc with art destined for the public realm. Conventional wisdom has been right.

Yet it hasn’t gone the full distance. Notice that Armajani did not specify whose intrusive ego could pose problems. Nor did he limit the identity of who it is that finally needs to be released, able “to get lost in the context of the work.”

The often disregarded fact is this: It isn’t only the artist’s ego that must be consciously set aside for successful public art, because there are two sides in the public art equation. The bumptious ego of the patron can inflict just as much havoc as the intrusive ego of the artist.

When the public or its representatives--the patrons for public art--demand that its prideful vision of itself be put on perpetual display, there is no more room for viewers “to get lost in the context” than there is when an artist’s bloated sense of self is grandly filling up the space.

For evidence, look around town. Although the numbers are modest--Los Angeles has lagged somewhat behind cities such as New York, Chicago and even Seattle in generating public art--some exceptional work has indeed been completed here in the last 10 or 12 years. Its variety offers a sense of the scope to which the genre aspires, as well as the range of commissioning mechanisms through which it comes into being.

What follows is a selection, by no means comprehensive, of five well-known works of public art. The list was assembled to reflect a variety of types of projects, commissioned in a variety of ways. Two were made by a relatively new class of American painters and sculptors who regard themselves specifically as public artists; three were not.

If this diverse group can be said to have anything in common, it is not just the creation of an interesting object, image or place to be looked at or used--although of course they have all done that.

Critical to their success is the uncanny power those objects and places have to galvanize the environment where they appear. For public art, context is crucial.

‘Great Wall of L.A.’

Judy Baca and the Mural Makers

A n African aphorism asserts that it’s the lions who get to tell the story of the lambs. In the “Great Wall of L.A.,” the lambs assertively take their place at the podium.

The painting, formally titled the “Tujunga Wash Mural: History of California,” begins with a bit of dinosaur-studded prehistory, quickly jumps ahead to the early migration of settlers from Asia in the first millennium and then gets right to its main purpose: telling episodic stories of the struggles between repression and liberation for ethnic minorities, women, Jews, gay men and lesbians, Dust Bowl refugees, labor organizers, political dissidents and more.

Other events do get chronicled along the way, such as the development of the movie industry and the mobilization of citizen troops in World Wars I and II. But, with rare exception, this is not a history of the state as told through the lives of Establishment figures.

As such, it is also a monument to the expansiveness of the civil rights movement during the fateful period in which the mural was made, as well as to the muralists who made it. The painting was executed in five big chunks--1976, 1978, 1980, 1981 and 1983--by five groups of mural makers, mostly young people and principally led by artist Judy Baca, who conceived the project and found the funds to do it. Altogether, the names of 187 muralists are listed on the wall, while a shifting array of government, corporate and private sponsors is also identified.

The “Great Wall” builds on an important Chicano tradition of assembling fluid, multifaceted yet structured groups of people in order to establish a vital interaction between aesthetic goals and social engagement. The mural’s makers would research and select historical episodes for depiction, and these would be developed into pictorial form under the supervision of Baca and other lead artists.

That organizational sense of “structured fluidity” is bracingly reflected in the mural’s composition, which unspools as a continuous narrative. Its 41 scenes are not isolated, independent events, rendered like discrete panels in a comic strip. Instead, symbolically charged, sometimes witty episodes flow in and out of one another, across the wall’s horizontal expanse.

T he visual effect is to endow the imagery of sociopolitical striv ing with a sense of both timelessness and presentness. The human struggle for independence is shown to have a long history, while every episode reverberates against every other.

Stylistically, a sharp break occurs in 1980. The two earlier mural segments speak with the untrained visual eloquence of folk art; the three subsequent ones suddenly pump up the volume, evolving into a highly sophisticated graphic montage with a distinctly Pop sensibility--Jose Clemente Orozco meets Madison Avenue. The shift suggests a new status and strategy for the mural’s subject.

In an extraordinary metaphorical engagement of its physical context, the huge mural unfolds along a half-mile stretch of the Tujunga Wash, which is part of the San Fernando Valley’s flood-control system feeding into the Los Angeles River. The mural runs parallel to Coldwater Canyon Avenue, stretching along the western wall from Burbank Boulevard to Oxnard Street.

The Tujunga Wash flood channel is a concrete scar, an ugly waste space necessitated by the water-management system pivotal to L.A.'s history. The broad, deep channel cuts through middle-class suburban neighborhoods on its way from Hansen Dam to the river. Where the channel passes Grant High School, the mural suddenly appears.

The mural’s content, celebratory and defiant, sends an electric current through a trash-strewn no-man’s-land, which stands as silent testimony to a complex web of civic power relations in L.A.'s history. That the chronological pageant unfolds northward against the flood-channel’s southward flow adds a subtle grace note to its imagery of struggle against the tide.

* Judy Baca and the Mural Makers, The “Great Wall of L.A.,” Tujunga Wash, Coldwater Canyon Avenue between Burbank Boulevard and Oxnard Street, Van Nuys.

‘Corporate Head’

Terry Allen and Philip Levine

‘Corporate Head” is that rare accomplishment, a laugh- out-loud-funny sculpture backed by a percussive resonance that lingers long after the smile wanes. Immediately accessible as an image--watch for a few minutes as passersby instinctively engage with the playful work of art--the sculpture peels back in provocative layers.

Terry Allen’s bronze figure of an anonymous businessman, nattily dressed in suit and tie and carrying a trim briefcase at his side, bends at the waist before the entrance to downtown’s towering Citicorp Plaza. The familiar pose suggests a simple act of homage at the gates of a royal palace of modern American life. Simultaneously, it presents the figure’s ignominious backside to the bustling crowds who hurriedly ascend the steps behind him.

One more thing: The bronze businessman has no head. Or, rather, his neck disappears into the pinkish granite slab of the office tower that rises before him, just beneath the polished-brass numbers that announce, “725 South Figueroa.” Suddenly, the urban environment for blocks around takes on the vivid glow of a gargantuan Conceptual art project: the businessman’s brain made manifest.

Yikes!

The slightly larger-than-life-size figure, who would be about 7 feet tall if he could stand upright, is at once funny, threatening and poignant. He is part blockhead, part uniformed automaton, part human fly trapped in modern amber; we instantly recognize him as--us.

A brass plaque embedded in the ground at the sculpture’s feet carries Philip Levine’s brief poem:

They said / I had a head / for business. / They said / to get ahead /I had to lose / my head. / They said /be concrete / & I became concrete. /They said / go, my son / multiply, /divide, conquer. / I did my best.

As you bend to read the wingtip-warrior’s words, you assume the bowed position of the businessman, and take your place in line behind him.

“Corporate Head,” a 1991 collaboration between a poet and an artist, writer and musician, is the outstanding commission for Citicorp Plaza’s Poets’ Walk, a group of half a dozen collaborative projects between artists and poets scattered about the building’s ground-floor public spaces.

In this devastatingly concise and thoughtful sculpture, the Western civic tradition of the hero rendered in bronze is brought with conviction and humanity into the contemporary world, after having languished for nearly a century.

* Terry Allen and Philip Levine, “Corporate Head,” Poets’ Walk, Citicorp Plaza, 725 S. Figueroa St.

‘Ballerina Clown’

Jonathan Borofsky

E veryone is comfortably famil iar with the gesturing giants that provide eccentric signage for commercial businesses, like the friendly genies that loom over Carpeteria stores or the grinning Big Boys that gleefully offer a gigantic burger to passing motorists. The colossuses of roadside America are pop-public sculptures, put to work by private enterprise.

They are also ancestors for Jonathan Borofsky’s wildly imaginative, wonderfully poignant “Ballerina Clown,” a cartoonish 30-foot-tall figure of an eye-popping performer. Since the moment it was erected in late 1989, the sculpture has been a landmark at the busy Venice intersection of Rose Avenue and Main Street.

Commissioned independently by a private developer for the facade of a mixed-use building of shops, restaurants and upscale condominiums, Borofsky’s magnificently idiosyncratic sculpture is nonetheless pointed in addressing the public realm. In fact, one source of its stunning significance is the way it speaks to the modern dilemma of public art itself.

“Ballerina Clown” is an image of the gentle soul who wants nothing more than to add some pleasure and beauty to the world but who is pitilessly being made a laughingstock. In these brutish times, sounds like an artist to me.

The brightly painted female figure of a ballet dancer in a fluffy tutu is perched on a soapbox high atop an architectural pedestal; it sports huge, oversize gloves and the big, bulb-nosed mask of a sentimental circus clown, whose hobo style recalls Emmett Kelly or Red Skelton. Behind the dancer balancing precariously on pointe, a spotlighted curtain provides a jaunty theatrical backdrop.

The sculpture is a modern version of the artist cast as clown or ignoble entertainer, subject to the volatile tastes of whatever forms of social and political power happen to hold sway. This image is at least as old as Watteau’s 18th-Century paintings of the melancholic mime, “Gilles,” or Velazquez’s pungent portraits of the dwarfs at the 17th-Century Spanish court. In the raucous circus of contemporary life, Borofsky’s “Ballerina Clown” steps forward to take its place at center stage.

The sculpture has received its share of rotten tomatoes from the passing audience too. A few neighbors--who would likely have paid little attention if a Carpeteria genie had been put up on the block--howled loudly when Borofsky’s dancer was first erected. It has since become a distinctive landmark, although still the occasional target of dimwitted vandals.

The hostility that some viewers feel toward Borofsky’s sculpture is emblematic of the larger public suspicion toward modern art. But “Ballerina Clown” is brilliant precisely because it gives stunning visual form to the otherwise invisible social stresses and strains of art in our time.

Borofsky lays out the artist’s modern dilemma in all its playful tawdriness and hopeful pathos. His sculpture is an unlikely civic symbol for the estrangement between artists and audiences, both of whom are bound by deeply human desire and equally human failing.

* Jonathan Borofsky, “Ballerina Clown,” Rose Avenue and Main Street, Venice.

‘Unity’

Komar and Melamid

I n the bureaucratic labyrinths of city government, peculiar ideas regularly get hatched.

One of the most outlandish was an option provided to major L.A. developers, who are required by city ordinance to commit a percentage of their building costs to public art. A developer, if he or she wishes, can exercise the option to choose the project and the artist to execute it, without any participation whatever by representatives of the public.

This is a Postmodern variant of aristocratic noblesse oblige, in which a corporate oligarchy is required to behave nobly toward the huddled masses. It has brought us lots of tired stuff, including an actual dime-store knickknack blown up to monumental scale (in Little Tokyo) and a sculptural metaphor for a skyscraper’s high-tech air-conditioning system (near the financial district).

One magnificent exception proves the general looniness of the rule. That’s because the artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, have an unusually good grasp of the internal workings of political bureaucracy, power relationships and glorious, civic-minded odes to The People.

Emigres from the Soviet Union well over a decade before its collapse, they were steeped from a young age in the officious, pictorial rhetoric of social uplift demanded by their government. They know how to turn it on its head.

On the ground floor of downtown’s First Interstate World Center, Komar and Melamid’s painted 1993 relief-mural “Unity” is a beautifully executed, wildly funny satire on that rhetoric’s hardy American cousin. Its subject is the predicament of multiculturalism in a capitalist economy, as packaged for consumption by the public. If Americans of every moralistic stripe seem convinced that the only good art is art that is good for you, then it follows that corporate interests will champion only art that seems good for business.

“Unity” is a big, undulating triptych whose form is extrapolated from 13th-Century paintings of angels found in the Porciuncula Chapel near Assisi, Italy--the church from which Los Angeles takes its name. The triptych centers on an exuberant relief of a skyward-gazing angel, who is rendered with a vaguely bathetic demeanor. The androgyne has the moony look of saintliness typical of Baroque paintings by Guido Reni.

The chromatic lushness of the symbol-laden figure is reminiscent of a Russian icon. It’s cloaked in exquisitely articulated symbols: a red-and-yellow Buddhist banner, a golden halo borrowed from pre-Columbian images of an Aztec deity and a mahogany headpiece derived from Nigerian masks.

The angel’s spreading silver wings are poised to whisk the celestial creature heavenward, much as the bank of elevators in the lobby below stands ready to send you up, up, up--to the ethereal realms of the skyscraper’s 73rd floor. These grand wings claim a rather different source than the angel’s other assorted parts, one that is considerably closer to home: They’re copied exactly from the wings of an American eagle, as depicted on the back of an ordinary quarter directly beneath the motto E pluribus unum .

In “Unity,” Komar and Melamid have managed a double-edged achievement, at once celebratory and sobering. While the beauty of the relief-mural pays aesthetic tribute to a multicultural mingling of Euro-, African-, Latino- and Asian-American cultures, the idealized image of social harmony is finally being driven by, and subject to, the commercial prerogatives of business. At the base of the tallest bank building in town, “Unity” nimbly clarifies the context within which so much social dialogue today takes place.

* Komar and Melamid, “Unity,” First Interstate World Center, 633 W. 5th St.

‘The Poetry Garden’

Siah Armajani

Neither a painting nor a sculp ture, “The Poetry Garden” (1992) is instead a functional environment designed as an inviting outdoor room in which visitors can sit and talk and read.

The garden, privately commissioned for an existing 50-foot-by-70-foot courtyard adjacent to the offices and galleries of the Lannan Foundation, was intended as a kind of vest-pocket park open to the public in an otherwise bleak light-industrial neighborhood near Marina del Rey.

Iran-born, Minnesota-based American artist Siah Armajani created a place that aspires to be a living metaphor of nothing less than the democratic ideal.

It works.

Among its dazzling array of simple yet elegant elements, “The Poetry Garden” deftly merges a host of conflicting forms: Shaker-style benches of golden-hued wood slatted like the clapboards of an old New England house; a garden-within-a-garden reminiscent of Persian miniatures; a dramatic, monumental gateway whose style recalls early-20th-Century Russian Constructivist plans for public information kiosks; a double row of anthropomorphic ceramic jars stacked suggestively one atop another, lip to lip; the hand-hewn enclosure of a Spanish Mission-style courtyard; ecologically sound plants, capped by a magnificent California live oak, appropriate to its semi-arid desert setting, and more.

Lots more.

Two inspirations seem pivotal to the design. One is “The Anecdote of the Jar,” a poem by American poet Wallace Stevens, which the artist prominently printed on ceramic tiles above the backs of the benches. The other is the general layout of a classical Islamic paradise-garden, which Armajani knew from childhood.

The Stevens poem addresses the relationship between nature and culture. Through the magical metaphor of a jar placed in the wilderness of Tennessee, the civilizing function of art is deftly asserted.

An Islamic paradise-garden, enclosed by high walls and carefully planted according to custom, is meant as a refreshing sanctuary from the brutal desert environment beyond its fortifications. The connection between this ancient Middle Eastern form and Stevens’ ode to a ceramic jar taking dominion over the American wilderness links two disparate cultures.

They are, of course, the two cultures shared by an Iranian immigrant to America. Armajani explores and memorializes his own history in “The Poetry Garden,” but he does so in ways that subsume the merely personal into a larger celebration of democratic principle, in which all can share.

* Siah Armajani, “The Poetry Garden,” Lannan Foundation, 5401 MacConnell Ave.

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There are other noteworthy examples of public art in town, such as the Otterness sculptural ensemble at the Roybal Building and a magnificent pair of maps--one of the Pacific Rim, the other of starry constellations--in an expansive terrazzo floor designed by Alexis Smith at the new Los Angeles Convention Center. The artists responsible for all these remarkable projects have made works in which the social background and physical environment of art--its context--have been profoundly engaged. That engagement is key to their exceptional level of accomplishment.

Yet it’s worth emphasizing that considerations of context do not stop at the physical, geographic, social, political, historical or any other academically researchable condition of the site. For the context of any work of art, public or otherwise, is profoundly shaped by our assumptions about art itself.

These stellar examples of public art distinguish themselves--in no small way--by boring deeply into the conventional subjects, functions and expectations we hold for art and for artists, and for their relationship to the social realm. Discovering what art itself might be is the most basic job description for any artist who means to be a citizen of the world, which is what public art demands.*

* For information on the conference “Public Art: Realities, Theories and Issues,” Thursday to next Sunday at the Biltmore Hotel, call (213) 258-4924.


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