Monthly Archives: November 2005

Public Art – what it is and what it isn’t.

Proposals and documentation toward a large-scale art project along the Schuylkill River were on view November 17-28 in the Artists’ Gallery at Reading’s Goggleworks. The purpose of the exhibition was to provide opportunity for public comment on the works. The final decisions, however, are not a public matter.Public Art is essentially art by committee – so the artwork that results from this process will be a distillation of the proposals and the decision-making apparatus. The other operative definition of “public art” is that it has very little to do with the public, other than the fact that it is imposed from above upon generally uninterested – and sometimes downright unaccepting – citizens. This has been the history of very many, if not most, pieces of public art one encounters in communities across the country. The reason for this is that the sort of art produced by contemporary artists and funded by patrons and institutions is generally elitist. Its true audience is the small group of cognoscenti who explain it to the rest of us as if art were some sort of mysterious language for the initiated. In any event, these four proposals ultimately are to be judged according to their merit (whatever that may mean), their practicability as regards issues of safety and politically correct views, and their correspondence to the announced political goal of the funding organizations. I’ll quote here from the Press Release:“Art & Community Landscapes is an artist-in-residency program created by the National Park Service, National Endowment for the Arts, and the New England Foundation for the Arts. It aims to support public art that will become a catalyst for environmental awareness in selected communities.”As for “environmental awareness,” only the insensate have not noticed that a river flows through Reading.To describe these tedious proposals, I’ll quote again from the Press Release:Schuylkill River Trail PassagesBy Peter Jon Snyder, of Reading, and Peter Kenney of Pennsauken, N.J.Proposal: To create a series of monumental arches along the Schuylkill River Trail, using recycled railroad rails, aluminum, stone and mosaic tiles. The arches would also include photographs of landmarks along the river and trail and motion-triggered speakers playing environmentally-inspired sounds. Teams of local artists, children and neighborhood groups would assist with construction.Lamps and LookoutsBy Brenda Brown, of Gainesville, FL, and Linnea Tillet, of Brooklyn, NYProposal: To install a series of viewing platforms and seating areas that would provide visual access and connect people to the river. The platforms would be constructed of locally inspired materials reminiscent of the river’s industrial legacy. Lampposts featuring interchangeable shades designed by community groups would also be erected, casting reflections upon the water.Moving WatersBy Stacy Levy, of Spring Mills, PAProposal: To construct artistically inspired docks and floating platforms that would provide increased public access to the river, and inspire people to learn about the river by having a fun personal experience. Ramps, gangways and platforms would serve as launch points for paddlers and staging areas for boating and river education programs.Schuylkill ConfluenceBy Herb Parker, of Charleston, SCProposal: To construct a cave-like enclosure at the confluence of the Schuylkill River and the Tulpehocken Creek. Inspired by a 16th Century garden sculpture, the enclosure would be in the shape of a head that appears to rise out of the embankment. It would be accessed via an opening in the mouth, as well as by a ramp from Confluence Park.*Peter Jon Snyder is a local artist whose work I have always admired for its humor and lack of pretension. His proposal begins that way – the arches and structures are entertaining and somewhat engaging. However, the inclusion of less-than-good poetry by Peter Kinney adds nothing unpretentious to the matter at hand. The other multimedia bells and whistles do not add significantly to the collaboration, And the inclusion of some sort of homage to the Native-American Lenape Tribe is uncalled for.The one nice thing about Brenda Brown’s Lamps and Lookouts is that its essential aspects – lights and lookouts – could be executed at a fraction of the cost by a series of light fixtures and gazebos built by carpenters and electricians. That’s the sort of “public art” that makes sense to me. In this instance, I prefer inexpensive useful things.Stacy Levy’s Moving Waters is as dangerous as it is unnecessary. To achieve the artist’s goals as stated above one needs nothing more than is already present – the river itself. If the river doesn’t beckon citizens – I doubt that a piece of artwork will.Herb Parker’s head-shaped sculpture proposal is at least entertaining in a conventional sense. The cave is unnecessary but I can imagine citizens amused by a 3-D cartoon on the riverbank.The unresolvable issue here is conflating the needs and desires of four very different segments of society that have highly problematic relationships to each other – politicians, cultural and economic power-brokers, artists, and the general public – into this thing called “public art.” The problem is that the people who it is intended to benefit have very little interest in it.

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Velvet Buck

*Image:”Velvet Buck” Tullio Francesco DeSantis, 2005

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Unappreciated

Sticking to my boot heelsSoft flesh of rain-pelted trees Downed too early, they sayTo show the very best of fall colorAnother failure like thisAnd the whole year will endIn the middle of DecemberInstead of just freezingIt will be two weeks Of absolute zeroAnd no light at allThen we’ll be sorry We criticized Autumn’s best effort*Words by TFD

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icons of iconoclasm

100 Artists See GodToday I attended the penultimate day of the exhibition called, 100 Artists See God, at the Freedman Gallery of Albright College. It was an occasion in which students from my art class and those of another professor were making a gallery visit. The show turned out to be controversial and spawned much discussion among us on the subjects of ontology, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and politics.Before we entered the gallery, we discussed contemporary art trends that place more significance on the meaning and context of works than upon matters of craft. This is counterintuitive for most students because their prior understanding and appreciation of art is almost entirely visual. It takes some extended thought to see that aesthetics encompasses ideas in perhaps larger measure than it does imagery. However, in the end, we are left with representations of ideas. This may well be because our thoughts are visual more than they are verbal.The curators of this show, Meg Cranston and John Baldessari, indicate the relationship between ontology and epistemology in a statement on the exhibition: “We tried not to have too many preconceptions, except maybe one: we assumed the show would be not so much about beliefs as about representation.”Some artists’ representations of God attempted actual portrayal. The stuffed hermaphroditic being hanging upside-down high up on the gallery wall by Nicolette Pot presents a “conjunctio oppositorum” in more than its compound gender. It hangs as if enslaved, yet soars god-like above us. Edgar Bryan’s, untitled picture presents a homey, even folksy, image of God and his female partner ensconced in their study, where the very human deity composes a universe while planetary models hang from the ceiling.The students’ initial comments concerned the seemingly sacrilegious dimension of many of the works. That is quite understandable, considering works such as Scott Grieger’s Beware of God and Jeremy Deller’s bumper sticker emblazoned with the words, “GOD LESS AMERICA.” The politicalization of everything, which characterizes contemporary secularism is evident in spades here. Because of the particular anti-theist proclivities of the majority of creative folks in Western societies, a large portion of the artworks in this show ridiculed Christianity. This was noted and objected to by our students. For myself, I did not attempt to try to convince them otherwise. My colleague did express the fact that many artists who criticize the status quo, often do so because they intend to call hypocrisy what it is. That may be true, however I am called to point out hypocrisy in creative types more than I am interested in pointing fingers at society-at-large. I choose to operate subversively within the creative community because I do not see sufficient self-criticism among artists these days. In any event, you have one more day (Sunday, November 20) to view 100 Artists See God. After that, I’d recommend the catalog of the exhibition. This show, more than many, is quite adequately represented by its catalog. *Images courtesy of the Freedman Gallery: Nicolette Pot, Doubleplusgood, 2001/2003, cotton, wool, bronze, brass, silver.Scott Grieger, Beware of God, 1996, acrylic on canvas.

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building the blind

I use your eyesand think as you see the old placeas newtreading familiar pathwayscarefully leaving no traceno scent of my presencein our shared territorystepping back breathing it inobserving the executionof your ancient habitscomprehending the logicof your journeysand the reasons whyyou movefinding your shapes pressed in the grasswhere your kind haltsbefore stepping over the break in the rusted wirewhere you scrape the soft earthwhere you pass and have passedfor milleniayour prints still freshthe raw rubbed treesall the feral signs of your dangerous lifeyou are drawn hereby the fallen chestnutsthe white oak acornswhere the autumn sunwarms the sideof the southern hillwhere you hide at noonby the quenching waterwaythe cool places whereI spot you beneath the moonthe old paths converge herein this enfolding valleythis is whereI’m building the blindon the earthen dam above the small stream behind two treesI tie branchesto brambleslay a cover of twigsdrape brown grasslevel a spotwhen I returnI’ll sit for hourswatch the frost evaporateadmire the morning mistnote the insistenceof the woodpeckerand wait for the flashing instantI end your numbered daysthis ineffable special placeis not so uniqueeach foot of living earthis after alla place for dying*Words by TFD

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The Fall

You’re just being cruel nowWe really did all we couldTo pretty things up around hereA lot of us are trying to pick up after youBut it’s a lost cause and we know itLeaves are strewn aroundWith no concern for what’s getting clogged upDon’t you know the rain needs somewhere to go?Treeloads of berries are just rotting on the groundThe sidewalks are all stickyAnd it’s starting to smellWe have to live here, you knowIt’s cold, tooGetting fat is making senseAlready, some of us are starting to give inThose white flakes you threw in my face todayWere an insult, weren’t they?Not only thatYou threw my hat in the dirtWhen I walked out the doorAnd this killing spree of yoursGoes on and onI know for a factThe doe on the highway Was innocent*Words by TFD

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Early November

Playing the odds of one more warm dayThe last katydid is hanging toughWhile a mantis prepares for hara-kiriNervous chipmunks pool intelligenceThey’re drawing up secret maps And hiding things in burrows I hear each year they forgetWhere they’ve stashed themAnd so must struggle like the rest of usBlinded by frozen eyelidsStumbling, falling Toward utter hibernationSquirrels are in my face Staring right through mePeering for nuts I may have hiddenbehind my earsI guess I’m no threat nowCompared to what’s comingThe ones who can’t take the pressurethrow themselves in front of cats*Words by TFD

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