Public Artworks Unveiled

May 20th, 2011 § 0 comments

With summer on the horizon public art has been popping up around the city, from the annual and much anticipated opening of the MET rooftop to individual sculptures placed throughout the city. Summer, or at least spring as our moody weather dictates, seems to begin when PS1 opens its courtyard once again for Saturday Sessions full of art, music, and general museum lounging. Most of the city’s public art is so scattered that to see it all would require a days worth of zigzagging through the city. One of the many nice things about public art, however, is that it isn’t in a gallery with restrictive hours and locations. Stumbling upon pieces as you head elsewhere reminds us of how pleasant our cities are when filled with beautiful, odd, historical, or experimental pieces of art. They reach everyone because they are surrounded by everything: retail, restaurants, nature, sidewalks, cars, and pedestrians. While public art is the most obvious kind of art we know, it’s also the kind we engage with the most. Unlike gallery shows that seem to open and close too quickly to accommodate our busy schedules, public art usually lasts through the summer, giving viewers enough time to actually see it. Covering the fashionable preview of Alexander McQueen’s posthumous exhibition at the MET, I wandered past Will Ryman’s Park Avenue flowers, and Urs Fischer’s giant yellow Untitled bear/lamp, conspicuously sagging in front of the Seagram building. While buying Heirloom vegetables in Union Square, I crossed paths with Rob Pruitt’s shiny Andy Warhol monument. In Madison Square Park lunching with Chicagoans, I walked by Jaume Plensa’s forty-four foot sculpture titled Echo.

In my work I always try to combine fantasy with reality. In the case of The Roses, I tried to convey New York City’s larger than life qualities through scale; creating blossoms which are imposing, humorous, and hopefully beautiful.

The first time I encountered Will Ryman’s work was at a ridiculously overcrowded opening at the Marlborough gallery in Chelsea. It was the kind of show that dominates certain galleries in Chelsea, where the artwork shown is obviously chosen for its ability to sell. Like Pace, Marlborough is a chain that caters to the art market, showing only what is likely to be approved of and bought. This type of art ranges from already established artists to artworks that are both fun and easily understood: Ryman’s work is both. His colorful flower sculptures, lacking an understandable sense of proportion or scale, are whimsical at best, and aesthetically boring at worst. Intermixed with his pink flowers, as if flowers can only be pink, are insects, discarded food, and general urban trash. The overall meaning is simple—nature vs. urban living, nature as fantasy, nature because everyone loves flowers—and what is left is the visual impact of his installations. His installation on Park Avenue, The Roses, is greatly helped by the setting of the city, placed between the already landscaped dividers of Park Ave. Towering above the real pink tulips planted in beds along the avenue, his flowers do seem fantastic and inspired by fairytale landscapes. What can seem boring in a gallery can become playful and decorative outside, and while the conceptual meaning behind his work changes very little, our appreciation of it can change a lot.

A few blocks south of Ryman’s flowers on Park Ave rests the odd, garish, and colorful teddy bear of Urs Fischer. A Swiss artist working out of a studio in Red Hook, we know Fischer because of the New Museum’s massive exhibition last year titled Marguerite de Ponty. Like Jeff Koons his artworks are massive, expensive, and ironic. While his art sometimes feels like a stand-in for his own persona, his work is also absurd to the point of thoughtful. His sense of absurdity in the face of an industry that takes itself very seriously (the art world) is sometimes refreshing. Looking at his lamp/bear, slouched, saggy, and sad with a lamp stuck through its backside, I wonder what the well-dressed employees of the Seagram building think as they see it multiple times daily. Amused by the frumpy bear I was also reminded of a more sentimental lamp/bear that I had as a child. Though less dejected looking, my bear was also attached to a lamp and affectionately named Basketbear. I enjoy Fisher’s piece in spite of myself, and though I wonder if something more thought provoking could have been made, his bear lightens the drizzly mood of May. Watch the following video, however, and suddenly the bear’s absurdity seems less absurd and more calculated, and Fischer’s artwork begins to remind us of Mr. Brainwash.

Give us your rich, your glamorous, your drag queens, and drug addicts.

Rob Pruitt’s Andy Warhol monument is shiny, silver, and metallic, but strangely it makes an unobtrusive addition to the northwest corner of Union Square. Set near the actual location of Warhol’s factory, and modeled after Warhol’s characteristic 1970s fashion, the monument is much more subdued than the legend of Warhol himself. Watching I Shot Andy Warhol recently, the 1996 film about the mental demise of Valerie Solanas, I found myself wondering if Warhol’s circle really was so artificial, exclusive, and self-destructive. Meant as a tribute to Warhol, the 10-foot-tall statue feels life-size, in every sense of the word. Is a “monument” for Andy Warhol the problem with Pruitt’s piece? Is Warhol really monumental? Important, unforgettable, and interesting yes, but is a figurative monument the best way to pay tribute? They don’t make statues of the celebrities honored on Hollywood Boulevard: they lay down gaudy, gold stars instead. Cheesy and symbolic, stars seem more fitting than militarysque statues on pedestals. Andy looks awkward standing above us, thin, geeky, and self-absorbed. Part of Warhol’s genius, as Pruitt seems to prove, was his charisma, and everyone who knew him probably wishes to they could make some kind of similar monument. It’s this devotion, appreciation, and sense of nostalgia that are missing from Pruitt’s statue. For those of us too young to have known Andy, we look back upon his time, his city, and his circle with wonder, not necessarily awe, and speculation.

Though massive in scale Jaume Plensa’s looming portrait installed in Madison Square Park has a similar problem as Pruitt’s statue, in that it lacks the kind of impact something figurative ought to have. Based on the 9-year-old daughter of a restaurant proprietor near his home in Barcelona, we see the unknown and vaguely ethnic face of a young girl, frozen in a moment of calm. Linking this girl to Greek mythology through the title Echo, Plensa sought to bring calmness to the park and its pedestrians, and a new sense of serenity to the surrounding city. As a public, site-specific work it doesn’t interact much with the park, and the stark white of the fiberglass face contrasts so sharply with the green grass surrounding it that it seems to be about distortion, rather than inner peace. Her face seems elongated at some angles and flattened at others, playing optical tricks on our eyes. Unlike other locations in the city where any public art is welcome, Madison Square Park has a long history with displaying public art. Plensa’s piece is not the most engaging artwork the park has ever seen, but it’s also not the least. Plensa also has a history of working with public installations, perhaps the most successful of which permanently lives in Chicago’s Millennium Park. My fear is that Echo is the kind of unobtrusive sculpture that pedestrians grow accustomed to, and then promptly forget the existence of.

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