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JOHN O'BRIEN


PUBLIC ART:
ART BY MORE THAN ONE




Richard Turner, "Fair
Witness," lobby view,
mixed media, 1997.







Installation of Martin Puryear’s
“That Profile,” stainless
steel/bronze, 1999
Contemporary art, in keeping with its Modern heritage, is usually seen in a relatively intimate kind of setting. An object or image is placed in a room under controlled lighting and is viewed by one person or a group for however long they wish. This general model for the art experience is about individual appreciation as opposed to the religious model, which was about collective identification through shared symbols, and it normally goes unspoken. Most artists, in their studio practice today, mirror the expectations and roles assigned by this secular model of art appreciation. Even for the more monumental version of contemporary outdoor sculpture, the root paradigm remains that of a single artist's personal vision; it is simply done to a larger, more architectural scale.

An object or image conceived of in this way is thought to be the unmitigated result of one artist's musings. It should only be technique which could place limits on the artist's original and singular enterprise. The art experience proposed thus is a fundamentally private transfusion of one person's ponderings to another through a visual medium. Those ruminations can be of various orders, running from the spiritual to the conceptual to the beautiful, but what doesn't change is the manner in which the orders are divined: it is of one person summoning the energy to pull something out of themselves which didn't exist before and place it in the world. But like every other utterance or visible conflagration that breaks with the absolute of nothingness, contemporary art emerges so it can be seen, can be considered, can be appreciated. And that emergence is necessarily directed outwards to some constituency. Yet, the contradictory corollary of this model is that the artist be totally independent. As a result, the most highly valued member of the ideal viewing constituency becomes ineluctably the artist's self. For the rest, accounting for the appreciation of the art is left largely to the whim of time and to the vagaries of those channels that lead from art makers to viewers at large, such as the specialized press and the gallery.

There is one sphere of the contemporary arts, called Public Art or Art in Public Places, where this model for art appreciation is modified and where, in any case, the viewing constituency is externalized before the work is realized. Public art is by definition for public viewing; because of this, it is an art form that requires at least corroboration by more than the art maker. Oftentimes a representative portion of the same viewing public acts as counsel in choosing and locating the work of art, which places it in a different conceptual territory. It represents a significant deviation from the modern tenets governing art making simply by requiring the artist to accept working from a collaborative model. Whether the collaboration is profound or superficial isn't really the issue (although it does come up rather often and in very different ways). It is the change in the paradigm that marks the difference between thinking about some art as a pure byproduct of private invention and about other art as a public phenomenon. The insertion at the core constituency of another qualified viewer marks the shift from the romantic model of art (steeped in the language of genius and enforced rarity) to a model of shared creative responsibility similar to those utilized in the fields of cinema, music and architecture.

The Newton Police Station was matched with Richard Turner as part of the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department's Art in Public Places Program The station is a fully functioning part of the community into which it is set. Selected by a committee of peers, the artist had to elaborate a proposal for integrating art in the station through a panel which included arts professionals as well as police and community members. In the art program narrative, which was written by the artist to mediate between his vision of the project and the panel's approval, he writes: [the work is] "to acknowledge the role of the interdependent and mutually beneficial roles of the police and the community, to celebrate the culture and history of this ethnically diverse area, and to create art works for the police derived from the routine of police work."


Jenny Holzer, "Blacklist,"
installation, 1999. View #1.










Jenny Holzer, "Blacklist,"
installation, 1999. View #1.

In the lobby as you enter, the art is immediately visible. Up on the high central wall is Fair Witness, fine mesh copper screen applied over a steel skeleton to form a low relief oblong shape somewhere between that of an essentialized native mask or shield and an elongated badge. But this is only the beginning. Fair Witness towers over a granite block on which is inscribed a map of the Newton precinct, with the location of the station marked by a metal plug. Though it is not obvious, this is part of the station’s art work. To either side of the entryway are light boxes that alternately display photographs of community and police members. These untitled works almost disappear into the camouflage provided by a number of other photographs in the immediate area whose function is also celebratory and commemorative. Inside the area adjacent to the main desk is Eclipse of Chaos, a wall relief that has a bronze-like disk settling like a cover over a set of blackened forms that are made out to be firearms only as one draws close. Within the station, there are other works. Officers who have been promoted to the rank of detective get their tie lopped off. Turner puts this inside joke on permanent display in the form of rows of tie racks with the victimized cravats. There are also wall plaques in each of the holding cells that are low relief mazes the detainees can observe or trace with their finger while they await transfer to the main jail.

By and large, the police whom I met at the station seemed informed and interested in their art. The most information was forthcoming about the weaponry used in making the Eclipse of Chaos wall relief and in naming the people in the light box photographs.

The Blacklist is a Public Work by Jenny Holzer located in front of the Fisher Gallery at USC. It was unveiled and dedicated on November 17, 1999. This public work is a byproduct of the First Amendment/Blacklist Project initiated by faculty members of the Filmic Writing Program at the School of Cinema Television at USC to commemorate and honor the filmakers who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee about their alleged subversive political beliefs and for which they were imprisoned and blacklisted.

The work itself consists of ten stone benches arranged in a circle, with four stone marker pathways to the circular area where the benches sit, and trees in a garden. The entire stone part of the work is etched with quotes taken from the infamous questions and answers posed by the Committee, which is now synonymous with the excesses of the McCarthy Era nearly a half-century ago. The merging of Holzer's characteristic collage technique with the power of these quotes work together to stimulate a very emotionally moving experience. It has always been my opinion that image and text art is usually too obvious and sadly thin in terms of the philosophical premises purportedly underlying it. Happily, the quotes etched in the dark stone by Holzer form a vivid testimony to the American tradition of defending one's freedom of expression from political manipulations. The collaged phrases ring with the kind of poignancy that would be difficult to make up outright, or even conjure poetically. The lucidity in political thinking that the quotes manage to express came as a surprise to me as well. Conveying a palpable sense of resolution as well as of fear, here is language about politics which is now absent from our political discourse.

The simple geometry of the garden counterpoints the complexity of the epic political battle. The inscribed words themselves meander into circles within circles, next to floating inscriptions that reference the best of visual poetry. The Blacklist is a powerfulmetaphor. The words memorialized here merit the commemoration and call for sustained reflection.

At the far end of the Getty Center tram arrival plaza now stands That Profile by Martin Puryear, a monumental stainless steel and bronze sculpture. It is a beautiful, wide meshed sculpture that accents the nearby landscape in its' airiness as much as it is a counterpoint to the geometric grid of the Getty. Puryear's characteristic twists and turns of metal coil have been brought up to a grandiloquent scale. The linear profile now greets visitors at every arrival and departure.

It is the last addition to the art projects commissioned through Lisa Lyons (joining an Edward Ruscha painting, Alexis Smith's mixed media installation and Robert Irwin's Central Garden). That Profile is rather different from these other contemporary works in terms of it's sheer visibility as well as it’s formal relationship to the Getty complex as a whole. The Irwin garden is certainly the largest among these works, and it is traversed by many visitors who see the museum collection, yet it is often not perceived as a work of art. Many visitors are unaware the garden is the creation of a living visual artist, simply regarding it as a highly structured garden. In an analogous manner, the works by Smith and Ruscha are ever so slightly hidden from viewers’ direct recognition of their status as contemporary art. Smith’s wall installation is deftly absorbed into the dining facility's overall ambiance, while Ruscha's painting is somewhat hidden away in the large entry hall of the auditorium. This is not to say either work is any less interesting than Puryear’s newest entry (nor for that matter, the exquisite Andy Goldworthy sculpture buried in the Library). It is just to make the point that That Profile clearly stands out. Obtrusive and not camouflaged by any other architectural feature or function, it is thrust out at the end of the plaza and has no trouble being differentiated from it’s surroundings. Paradoxically, it is the gargantuan translation of the intimate, hand-wrought scale of Puryear's studio work that bears out the question of public visibility and how that is achieved. The answer is, finally, provided by the art rather than the paradigm.