Public Art, Moving Beyond the Box
by Linda Wysong
Try balancing on a ladder with a bucket and scrub brush while polishing Abraham Lincoln’s nose and you will soon learn that there are many people who care about public art. During the short time I was employed by RACC as a sculpture cleaner, I came to expect art conversations with strangers. A man in a business suit paused to share his renewed appreciation of freedom and the right to vote while I balanced beside Abraham Lincoln in the Park Blocks. Then a woman walking her dog stopped to chat about public art and its importance to community. Later as I moved my bucket to the mall, a pierced and tattooed teen told me that she always stopped to examine James Hanson’s, “Talos No 2″ because it reminded her of space aliens. Then there was the family who traveled all the way from Kansas to Grant Park to pose with Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona and Henry” by Lee Hunt. As an artist and maker, I found the public’s engagement both exciting and an unexpected confirmation of the value of art in public places.
There is more than a little irony in the fact that public art has long been regarded as a second class venture by art critics. Democracy, engagement, and accessibility are highly valued attributes in the contemporary art dialog. Additionally, public art is out of the white box, engaged with the community and connected to the everyday. Yet it is often discounted and ignored.
Possibly, we in the art community are unconsciously guilty of contributing to this exile by always looking for work with the stamp of curatorial approval or the aura of the new. Or is the myth of the lone romantic artist living in a garret so pervasive that work produced in, around or through the system is ignored? So often we walk briskly by and do not see that sculpture which has been in the park for as long as we can remember. But if you pick a warm sunny day and head out with a bucket and brush and position yourself next to a random piece of sculpture, your experience will be radically different. People from all walks of life will inevitably engage you in fascinating conversations about aesthetics, politics, community, and urban development.
As I begin this adventure of systematically thinking and writing about public art, it seems appropriate to define the term. Public art usually refers to work that is permanent, institutionally sanctioned, and publicly funded. Heroic soldiers, politicians and Greek gods, as well as, murals and large abstract Modernist forms immediately come to mind. In this digital world the physicality of large scale sculpture can indeed be powerful and engaging. “The Big Pipe Portal: Making the Invisible Visible” (2009) by Rhiza A+D with its spiraling form and placement on the edge of the Willamette River is one such example. But the world of art and life is much larger then a single format. In addition to traditional stand alone sculpture there is a cornucopia of temporary, dance, performance, text, design, digital and guerrilla options. Linda K. Johnson’s, “Daily Movement Journal,” was a series of mini performances, that allowed chance encounters with dance. Nan Curtis and Martin Houston created a moving narrative when they placed signs along the road in their “12th Street Project.” Rose Bond continues to animate (literally) urban structures with her window projections. Art in the public sphere is enormously rich and I intend to explore this terrain.
A gallery strives to be a neutral environment that functions as a blank slate for the presentation of unique and beautiful objects. By contrast, the street and the garden are sites where the character of the place is an omnipresent force that shapes both the form and the experience of the work. For the understanding of art is one of encounter where both the physical properties of the piece and the cultural space are fundamentally linked. Even though the viewer’s experience may be a solitary one, the encounter is understood within the larger web of history, culture and site.
As Nicolas Bourriaud states in his essay Relational Aesthetics, “The art practice thus resides in the invention of relations between consciousness. Each particular artwork is a proposal to live in a shared world, and the work of every artist is a bundle of relations with the world.” To investigate public art and art in public is to delve into human nature and our connections in a constantly changing world.
Note: This is the first of a series by Linda Wysong on art in the public realm. Please comment and suggest topics for future articles.