Hansen: Open season on public art

Laguna Beach residents all believe they are art critics, which is why the real experts on the city's Arts Commission are in a no-win situation.

Loved or hated, every piece of public art in Laguna gets judged — every single day.

And now, the commission has two more members joining the fray. David Emmes and Suzanne Mellor were added recently by the last City Council, making it a nine-member commission.

The extra members, however, are not working artists. Both are professional board members of various groups. Emmes is the retiring founding director of the South Coast Repertory, and Mellor is on the board at Laguna College of Art and Design and the National Gallery.

While prestigious additions, their opinion on public art will be like anyone else: fickle.

"If you have an opinion about art — if you like it or don't like — it's better than not caring," said Ken Auster, one of the few actual artists on the commission. Auster is an award-winning professional painter whose work is on permanent display at several museums.

The Arts Commission also makes recommendations on the city pole banners, public music concerts and related activities. But it's the public art that gets the most attention.

For example, the "People's Council" in front of the fire station was controversial in 2006. But now it's hard not to smile when you see visitors posing for pictures around the stoic statutes as if they were the Moai of Easter Island.

Generally speaking, however, the public art in Laguna Beach is safe and predictable: lots of whales, surfing murals and realistic scenery.

Most often, that safety has to do with the constraints of the location and similar factors, according to Auster.

"There's been some things that have been put in that work really well, and on the other hand, there's been things that are more decorative than they are substantive," he said.

It's hard to compare the relatively small Laguna to a place like Los Angeles, he said.

"A lot of times you'll see things in public places in Los Angeles that are heroic," he said. "Whether you like it or you don't, they're large because they have big spaces to put them in. We don't have that kind of space in Laguna.

"So something that would be incredible 20 feet tall could become kind of cliché if it's only 2 feet tall. It's just the nature of the beast."

Sculptor Nick Hernandez, another working artist on the commission, often provides blunt, contrary views of proposed projects. In his opinion, disagreement is healthy, particularly for an Arts Commission that should respect its roots.

"I think to be any sort of an art advocate or a commissioner, you should be well versed in art history because without an understanding of art history it's impossible to make an intelligent decision," he said.

Hernandez, who is sometimes out-voted, favors quality over quantity.

"I tell them, 'Why do we have these cheesy sculptures on every corner when we can save some money and have a fine piece?'" he said. "I'm not real popular with the crew because I don't always follow their lead."

Auster understands the frustration of having to compromise.

"It's not really whether I like something or don't like something. It has to do a lot with what best fits the criteria for the location," he said. "People are 'outraged' that you would put something there that isn't what they believe is the correct thing. But we have to take into consideration many things — including the proportion, view issues, context — which are handicaps in many ways to getting things that people might think are more sophisticated."

The facts are that any public art comes down to perception. Since the art in Laguna is not particularly controversial — compared to global metropolitan cities — it becomes a local cultural debate that most people personalize.

In other words, how do you feel about this blob?

"Most people who look at art don't understand necessarily why they like it or they don't like it," Auster said. "Museums and art critics like to pooh-pooh anything that's representational because you can understand it. And a lot of times contemporary artwork or things that you don't understand get a favorable review because it makes the people giving the review feel smarter. In reality, sometimes the contemporary art is really bad."

Well, one thing is certain: When the alien arrives shortly at the red phone booth downtown, the buzz for our public art will skyrocket.

Call the new installation a novelty, but the tourists will love it.

And I suppose in Laguna that's the most important thing.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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