The Universal Notebook: The power of public art

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The power of public art to animate and elevate a city is a great thing. A city without public art is a city of robots. Art has a humanizing and civilizing effect on public spaces. It’s also a good thing that art possesses the power to stir the public’s passions.

In recent weeks, Portland has been grappling with several aesthetic decisions of interest.

The twisted street lamp sculpture proposed by Portland artist Aaron Stephan for Woodfords Corner was not universally applauded by the citizenry. And more than a few folks were upset that there are no Maine artists among the four finalists the Portland Public Art Committee selected for a $100,000 commission in Congress Square. The fact that there is a difference of opinion about art is natural. The fact that no Maine artist made the cut is lamentable.

Portland, of course, has a checkered past when it comes to public art that makes a lot of people wary of the whole process. The most notorious failure was Boston architect Shauna Gillies-Smith’s “Tracing the Fore,” the eyesore installation in Boothby Square that eventually had to be removed. Then there was the brouhaha over Rhoda Sherbell’s kitschy family figure group outside Hadlock Field, home of the Portland Sea Dogs. The public liked it, but the public art committee didn’t. The public won.

It’s always something when it comes to art in public places, whether it’s the recent loss of Chris Dennison’s landmark Blueprint trompe l’oeil mural on Free St. or the recurring controversy over John Laberge’s googly-eyed Jesus mural, now obscured by a dying tree on the side of Holy Cross Church in South Portland. Art provokes, makes demands. That’s a good thing.

It’s too bad, however, that there are no Maine finalists for the Congress Square commission. Don’t get me wrong, the Portland Public Art Committee knows its art. Member Alison Hildreth is one of the state’s most important artists, and member Pandora LaCasse’s light sculptures for Deering Oaks, Congress Street and Commercial Street are probably the most successful works of public art in the city. And the committee came up with a great short-list of artists – Ned Kahn (California), Patrick Marold (Colorado), Matthew Ritchie (New York) and, best of all, Sarah Sze (New York), one of the hottest artists in the world and my first choice.

But, like the Art All Around project, for which the Maine Center for Creativity raised $1.3 million to have Venezuelan artist Jaime Gili paint abstract patterns on South Portland oil storage tanks, the Congress Square commission looks as though it will be another missed opportunity to celebrate the talent and creativity we have in our midst, rather than just our refined artistic tastes.

Surely, sculptor John Bisbee could create an elegant welded nail sculpture equal to anything proposed. And Ogunquit resident Jonathan Borofsky’s “Hammering Man” sculptures are in cities from Seattle to Seoul, so why not Portland?

In the case of the oil tanks, Maine artists were considered but not chosen. For the Congress Square project, I am told very few Maine artists submitted and the requirement that the artist have demonstrated experience working closely with a community and landscape architect may have deterred some. The final four consist mostly of artists who do large public projects for a living.

One way to avoid a lot of the unhappiness surrounding public art would be to make it temporary, an idea I first heard a few years ago from former Portland Museum of Art curator Thomas Denenberg, now director of the Sherburne Museum in Vermont. Denenberg essentially proposed installing changing works of art around the city. Don’t care for Gili’s oil tanks? Maybe you’ll like Mark Wethli’s oil tanks better next year. Or Lauren Fensterstock’s the year after.

And that’s the idea behind TEMPO Art, a private group that commissioned Swiss artist Judith Hoffman to install “American Dream,” a construction of four stacked model homes, in Lincoln Park for the next year. Again, not a Maine artist, but a local initiative nonetheless.

My personal preference would be for projected works of art, light shows that illuminate and edify the built environment. From Winslow Homer and Marsden Hartley through John Marin, the Wyeths and Louise Nevelson to Alex Katz, Dahlov Ipcar and Robert Indiana, Maine has a very special art heritage. Why not project the greatest works in Maine art history onto buildings in Congress Square, oil tanks in South Portland, blank walls in the Old Port and anywhere else we can imagine?

That way Portland would be curated rather than decorated. Transient art for a transient human experience. Next image, please.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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