Cheeky to Eeky: Where Public Art Went Wrong

Declared unacceptable: A huge yellow sign spelling out “United States” on the Canada-facing facade of the new border station in Massena, N.Y., is being dismantled because of security concerns.

After years of working closely with the architects, the New York firm of Smith-Miller & Hawkinson, the Customs and Border Patrol (part of DHS) signed off on the final version of a new border-crossing station in northeastern New York State in 2007. Yet three weeks ago, less than a month after the station opened, workers began prying the big yellow letters off the building’s facade on orders from CBP. “There were security concerns,” said Kelly Ivahnenko, a spokeswoman for CBP. “The sign could be a huge target and attract undue attention. Anything that would place our officers at risk we need to avoid.”

I kind of agree. However I don’t think CBP was necessarily balking at the idea that public art would attract undue attention; it was the choice of the huge neon letters that caused the controversy. The big yellow letters of welcome seem almost Disneyland-esqe; not quite the image that a security agency wants to promote. Save that for the welcome center with their big, showy gardens of flowers.

I love the idea; it was the execution that went haywire!


Life, Seen Through Art: Starting Young

A cherubic young girl lies in the bath, dark hair floating from her head. She is revelling in a moment of tranquil pleasure. In this self-portrait, 11-year-old Georgia Marshall Evangelou said “In other countries people would not have this water, or the time, to do such a thing.”

Nathan Roach, 17, presents a stark photographic image of himself hands stretched out in front, as if to escape the mass of dark images surrounding him, “the many pressures teenagers experience, the feeling of being trapped or suffocated under pressure to succeed, fears of being bullied because of the way we look and dress”.

The work of Emily Daniel,16, shows a girl’s face, the mouth held tight with a collection of safety pins, a strong representation of how young people feel silenced, censored and watched.

These are some of this year’s entrants in the Equality and Human Rights commission’s Young Brits at Art competition. The kids had a lot to say, socially, politically, but they are also young and inexperienced in technique. So why does this work as art?

Art is expression: the process starts with feeling some sort of emotion about some sort of something, and kids in their teens are just emerging into newer, fresher ideas, thoughts, concepts. They are trying to find a home for their new feelings, and so they are thinking deeply and trying to express themselves in ways other than through verbal or physical avenues. They are just emerging into the social sphere on a wider level, and so they have an unadulterated and perhaps unique perspective.

One competition judge said that she reviewed all the works based on the “emotional response” she felt from each work. And since younger artists have likely seen fewer and less varied works of art, they are therefore drawing from a more organic (less pre-defined or concrete) sense of expression. If so, a child’s work may convey a concept much differently than a more seasoned artist would. There’s a lot to learn by unlocking whatever runs rampant in the heads of kiddos.

Male Art, Go Gather Dust


Pompidou Center, Paris

Pompidou Center, Paris

Having put works by male artists in storage, the Pompidou Centre in Paris is preparing to open a new exhibition, elles@centrepompidou, filling its permanent collection galleries with the tale of art since the twentieth century as seen exclusively through the eyes of female artists, The Los Angeles Times reports. The exhibiton’s organiser conceeds that taking this approach to the display of Europe’s largest collection of Modern and Contemporary Art is a risk: “Excluding men and showing only women is a revolutionary gesture of affirmative action. But the museum is avant-garde. It’s part of the Centre Pompidou culture to do things differently. And we like a lot of drama. This is going to be dramatic in a big way.”

Wow, I don’t even know what to think of this. It’s a pretty groundbreaking concept: Putting works by male artists in storage.

In storage.

Feminist shows are set up all the time. That part of it is nothing new. It’s the storage thing that gets me (although I can’t think of another  solution). To put something into storage is so deameaning. It screams “object, you are so useless to me right now that you don’t deserve even a daily glance.”

Maybe I’m just thrown by that powerful intro (in storage!), but this is saying to me “move over men! We women are not only exhibiting by ourselves, but we may not bring back your stuff at all.” It’s like the women can’t wait for the dust to move in, settle down, and grow thick. Real thick.

Sorry, I’m just really hung up on words. When journalists write, they pick words very, very carefully.

I’ve said it before, but wow. Critics can really move a concept and a reader’s impression. There’s no indication of how long the exhibit will show, but I’m sure the exhibitionists are in no rush to reinstitute normalcy.

Art Critics Rock My World

So after a month of trying to figure out the real punchline of this blog, and thinking until this point that it was just a freeform commentary on all things art, I’m realizing that I’m equally (if not more) fascinated by the critics’ writing about the art as the art itself. Maybe it’s because I like to write and I’m in awe. Yep, that’s probably it.

Not only am I rocked by their descriptive language, but also their perception of the art. I think: how did they get that, from THAT?

Just “listen” to this, written by Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith for the Tate online:

Eva Rothschild’s sculptures have been likened to “artefacts from some lost civilisation or from some post-apocalyptic scenario” whose symbolic meanings have all but faded from memory or lie just beyond our current imaginings. Though leavened by wit and humour, especially evident in the choice of titles, their occasional intimations of esoteric magic also hint at something darker. Many perch on spindly stands, while some jut out from high corners, or arc precariously overhead, or appear to hover improbably in mid-air, a narrow cascade of coloured leather strips obscuring their support. Though fundamentally stable, they often appear to twist on their axes or teeter precariously. Her lexicon of forms is instantly recognisable, but surprisingly varied. It includes thick lumpen masses, thin angular slabs, sinuous coils, woven sheets, shaggy fringes and, above all, slender rods of painted wood that kink crazily here and there, creating complex, off-kilter geometries in space.

Pretty good stuff.

But a few other things: 1) without the art, there’d be no inspiration for those critics, and 2) many artists are on the fence about the critics… Bad review and your career is over, good review and you are flying high. Artists are beholden to the critics. Sometimes this does not paint a pretty picture.

Critiquing the Critic

"Winter Stories #49" (2008). Digital C-Print, 40 x 50 in.

"Winter Stories #49" (2008). Digital C-Print, 40 x 50 in.

Often when I read reviews by seasoned art critics, I’m struck by their own profound take on the art. It’s as if the critics themselves have an ethereal power to bring a piece of work to life, to move it beyond the place at which the artist even “sees” it. Maybe the impact of the art is partly predicated on what the reviewer has to say about it. Which, if you are an art critic, is a pretty powerful place to be in.

So I was clicking through my sites this morning and fixated on one particular piece describing Paolo Ventura’s works. I was musing over his dioramas (he creates the dioramas by hand, scrapping together random bits of material, and then photographs the display), which are surreal, and my mind kept wandering back to my own idea of fantastical places, like carnivals, foggy vistas, smoky lampposts. So I thought that I had been struck by the art on my own volition.

But then I realized it was the title of the review that really struck me from the get-go, and probably snagged me: “The Invented Worlds of Paolo Ventura.” (Twenty seconds later, after a few more sips of coffee, I realized that the “invented world” was actually Ventura’s characterization of his art, not the critic’s. But regardless, the description certainly takes you to “that place.” At least the reviewer was smart enough to latch on to that unique characterization in the interview with the artist.)

Anyway, I started jumping around to the critic’s powerful phrases: “startlingly evocative tableaux”  “distorted the commonplace” “precise way the light and shadow play out” “faded carnival.” The critic’s review was able to evoke the artist’s world, to take us into his mind, then back to ours, then bounce all around in regions inexplicable.