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LAPD gets ‘cow splat’ for art

As luck would have it, the nearly completed LAPD headquarters is right outside my office window, so I’ve been bird-dogging the project from Day One to make sure taxpayers don’t get ripped off. Which brings me to the $500,000 worth of public art that’s just been installed on the west side of the building.

The cast-bronze sculptures consist of six large black blobs, with two tall, skinny structures on either side.

I wasn’t sure what to make of them, so I went straight to the top: It looks like “some kind of cow splat,” said Police Chief William J. Bratton, who sounded as if he were personally insulted by the installation.

Bratton said he first drove past the work and later walked back to see whether “it’s as ugly up close as it is when you’re driving by.”

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The answer was yes, and he sounded mad enough to have the artist arrested.

Bratton said he was not alone in his opinion; it was the talk of cops and staffers who already have moved into the new police administration building

“I don’t think anybody can figure out” what the shapes are supposed to be, Bratton said. “Bisons and hippos maybe. I haven’t the faintest idea what the two tallest things are on either side.”

Nor does he understand what any of this has to do with police administration, if anything. “I don’t get it,” he said. “It’s just a shame.”

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Myself, I didn’t see animals when I first looked at the sculptures. Peering down from my third-floor window, I thought they were giant molars. Not a good idea, I thought, to have a bunch of knocked out teeth on the grounds of the cop shop.

When I went outside for a closer look, I realized the molars were actually the torsos of animals with large rumps. Were the cops trying to tell me and my colleagues what they think of The Times, giving us a bunch of derrieres to look at?

Not clear. But the animal on the northern end looked like a pig that had been knocked on its side. You have to wonder how that’s going to sit with the LAPD brass.

On the far side of the building I found a bunch of city employees with clipboards and asked about the sculptures. The first guy said it wasn’t his department’s jurisdiction, and I should check with the Bureau of Engineering. Then a bureau employee showed up and told me it wasn’t her deal; I should call the Cultural Affairs Department and ask for Felicia Filer in the public art division.

It’s easy to understand how a $300-million building project ended up costing closer to $450 million.

Filer told me that two artists were selected from roughly two dozen under consideration, and they split $1 million for separate projects at the police headquarters. The other work was a wall of etchings in the new auditorium representing an orange grove. A live orange tree was proposed as well, but police rejected the idea, fearing that citizens would pelt the building with low-hanging fruit.

Despite the city budget crunch and police staffing challenges, more art projects are in store for the new police headquarters because of a city requirement that 1% of any major project’s cost be spent on art. Artists for the rest of the works will be chosen the same way the first two were -- by a panel of city officials, artists, neighbors and a civilian member of the LAPD.

Filer said Bratton first squawked about the sculptures when he saw the drawings. Bratton told me he liked the orange grove better because “it has some semblance of what it’s supposed to be -- trees and leaves.”

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I spent a lot of time wandering the new police grounds this week, taking in the building and its surroundings, and I’d say the Parker Center replacement looks pretty good overall. But if Bratton thinks there’s cow splat on the west side, wait until he sees all the dog splat on the south-side lawn, which has quickly become an outdoor toilet for neighborhood pets.

As for the sculpture, passersby had mixed reactions.

“That’s a lot of butts on display,” one woman said.

“It’s nice,” said another. “But is this a pig, or what is it?”

Elizabeth Shah, a state employee, shook her head in disgust.

“What kind of stupid thing is this?” she asked, claiming she’s been an artist for 40 years, though a painter, not a sculptor.

Most people who made such comments were unaware that the pony-tailed man with a caulking gun, sealing the base of the sculptures, was the artist himself -- Peter Shelton.

“I’m generally getting very nice comments,” he said.

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Others don’t understand why, if a piece looks somewhat like an elephant, it couldn’t have looked more like an elephant.

“Well, does it really need to look more like an elephant?” wondered Shelton, whose work has appeared at the Getty and MOCA.

By the way, Shelton said he spent roughly $400,000 of his paycheck on supplies and casting, so he won’t be retiring just yet. As for Bratton’s cow splat comment, the artist took that as more of a comment on the chief’s lack of knowledge about contemporary art than on his own work.

Shelton said that throughout Europe and Asia, animal sculpture is commonplace outside public buildings, regardless of the business inside. He got the job after telling the Cultural Affairs Department that he didn’t care to make a statement about the Los Angeles Police Department; he wanted to create a playful and provocative street-scape that might evoke all manner of reaction.

Larry Osborn, who works for the city’s General Services Department, strolled by and said at first that he didn’t know what the objects were or whether he liked them. But as he continued looking, he decided he did.

“If it causes a person to stop and wonder,” he said, it’s working. He also said the figures are whimsical enough to soften the image of the LAPD.

I don’t know. I could see the police hoisting criminal suspects on top of those beasts until they talk, or plopping them up there as a form of public punishment -- like stocks in medieval times.

I’ll keep an eye on that through my window, and on all the illegal parking by -- guess who?

Yeah. Now that the new building is almost complete, cops are parking out there all day long, right next to the “No Stopping Any Time” signs. And a couple of blocks away, City Atty. Carmen Trutanich seems to be spending hours going through the City Hall phone book each day, looking for colleagues to threaten with jail time.

Where are you on this one, Nuch?

I can eyeball it for you from my window, if you want to do business.

--

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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