Archive for the ‘Artist’Category

Picasso at the Seattle Art Museum

I saw the Picasso exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum

Picasso at the window

yesterday. I can say that without question it is the finest exhibition I’ve ever seen at SAM in the past 25 years.  It is truly a blockbuster and if you are living in the Seattle metro region it is a must-see. It is extensive, comprehensive, and beautifully displayed, giving the viewer  a broad spectrum of the massive productivity of this 20th century master. There is even a glimpse into the inspiration of a few of his large scale public works.

There were a couple of quotes of his displayed on the walls that I thought were particularly poignant for all art making and for public art practice too.

“ Art is not made to decorate rooms. It is an offensive weapon in the defense against the enemy.”

“Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.”   Pablo Picasso

When I think of his infamous painting “Guernica”, one of the great anti-war masterpieces of all time, these quotes resonate for me.


12 2010

Larry Rivers Sculpture and Building Codes for Public Art??

"Legs" by Larry Rivers in Sag Harbor NY

"Legs" by Larry Rivers in Sag Harbor NY

The Wall Street Journal just printed an interesting article by reporter Lucette Lagnado on a controversial Larry Rivers sculpture in Sag Harbor, recipe NY. The sculpture is of two nude legs, female, standing over 16 feet tall and is displayed outside of a private residence for the public to “enjoy”. It has become controversial for several reasons, but the biggest legal issue is whether it must subscribe to local “building” codes. The building codes in that upscale NY town state that structures above 16 feet tall must be permitted and approved by the historic and landmark committees. This work would not likely be approved. So must publicly displayed art subscribe to the building codes??

My view is that building codes per se are meant for habitable structures, like houses, stairways, electrical circuits, foundations, etc and are designed to protect the residents and the public from disasters like fires, earthquakes, storms and the like, as well as shoddy construction, so they require review by engineers for structural integrity.  Technically speaking, a sculpture does not fall into the habitable structure category. However, it is very common practice in the genre of art that is displayed in publicly accessible areas to require a structural review by a licensed and certified engineer, to ensure that there is no danger present to a public audience and passersby. So if this Rivers sculpture could fall apart due to weak welds in high winds for example and land on a pedestrian sidewalk, it would be wise to have it evaluated by a structural engineer and certified for its safety and integrity. This also serves to relieve the artist, and/or commissioning agent or owner, of liability should something devastating occur, assuming the work was built to designed engineering requirements.

Larry Rivers

Larry Rivers

Alternatively, a “sculpture code” or “public art code” could be adopted by a city that outlines the engineering process and requirements that may be unique to public artwork, but this has not occurred in many cities, if any, to my knowledge. Some arts commissions have adopted across the board structural review guidelines, but they are not code. This seems like a fair solution, since artwork is usually not “lived in” the way a building is inhabited and would demand different criteria for approval. But there may be some issues that will require flexibility on the part of the evaluating engineers, since art is always unique in form and structure, and not always an isolated object but sometimes could be interactive and environmental or even architectural in nature.  A thorny issue brought to light…..

You can see a video interview with Wall Street Journal reporter Lucette Lagnado.

Finding artist’s intent

“How can I find out about the artist’s intent behind a work in my community?”

This is a terrific question and one I get asked all the time. It’s NOT EASY sometimes, cheap and this is the main reason we decided to do this TV series. Here’s a typical example of the problem:

Paper Chanse by Sonya Ishii

What is it? Found in the bus station in Seattle's International District

My friend Lori passes by a gigantic public artwork in the Seattle Metro Bus Tunnel every day on her way to and from work. It is a large piece of welded and painted metal that runs the entire length of the station (hundreds of feet), prescription and it looks like giant folded metal. It has painted images on it. The station is located in the International District, viagra which is the center of Seattle’s Asian Community. Lori is an educated professional who has training in graphic design and the sciences, and she is bright, curious, and visually acute.  Unlike most of the public, she even spent the time trying to find some sort of explanation plaque or brochure…any kind of information!…near the work. She could not find anything that would enlighten her.  So she asked me, “I see this everyday. What does it mean? What’s it all about?”.

Paper Chase by Sonya Ishii

Art in the Seattle Metro Station: Paper Chase by Sonya Ishii

When I explained that this was humongous origami, an Asian craft of which she was familiar, and that its theme was about the love between a princess and a priest that could never be consummated due to their different stations in society, she understood it immediately and was thrilled! All it took was about 2 minutes of time.

Here are the challenges you face as a viewer to a new work you may encounter: most artists do not want to spell out their intentions for you on plaques;  they hope that you will work a bit to try to figure it out, which they believe will make for a more profound experience for you . In Lori’s case though, she tried hard but still could not “decode” the work. Understandably, she needed some assistance…the images were too esoteric, and she found no assistance at the work itself.

Another problem is that some artists are trained in visual language and are not very good at verbal language, so they would shy away from words anyway. A third problem is that arts commissions usually wish to abide by the artist’s wishes, but sometimes will publish brochures that include artist’s statements about their work, or the arts commission’s explanation of a work. Such a brochure was indeed available for a time at the International District Station in the 1980’s for example, but 30 years later no one has the budget or inclination to reprint it. To me this is an error of judgment by the arts commissions, who have a responsibility to continuously educate the public about their collections. This would also serve to broaden their support base if more people understood what they were doing!

The good news is that recently you can indeed find artist statements or arts commission descriptions on the various arts commission websites. In addition, individual artists often have their own websites these days, where you can see examples of their works and descriptions. Another place to find info is the local newspapers that will often do written reviews by professional art critics of newly installed public art projects. See this guide to art in Seattle Metro Stations on their web site.

I wish I could say that most colleges and universities offer courses and lectures on contemporary public art, but there are very, very few that do. Usually their art courses end in the mid 20th century at Abstract Expressionism or Minimalist museum art. And in these times of economic hardship for educational institutional budgets, these public art “extra” courses are the first to get cut.

Fins Project by John T. Young

Fins by John T. Young

As you know, I am an active sculptor and public artist, and I try to practice what I preach. Check out my own website and take a look at the large entry plaque to the Seattle Fin Project:  I think it was important to include a good explanation for that particular project to assist the public in understanding the layers of meaning in that work.

Ultimately, the best way to decipher public art is to learn how to do it on your own. And that is exactly what this series is all about…giving YOU the skills you need to understand Public Art!  So “You Call That Art?!”   Well yeah….and soon you will figure out why.

John T. Young

You can see HD clips of our program: You Call That Art?!  HERE


10 2010