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The Worst and Best Public Art in Chicago This Year (so far)

It’s already been quite the year for public art in Chicago, even if the year is little more than half over by now.  Unfortunately, “quite the year” in this case means a year I would already rather forget.

Millennium Park is undoubtedly the single most important and visible site for public art in Chicago with both permanent and temporary pieces.  Opened in 2004, four years behind its slated opening on the millennium, the park hosts two permanent public art works, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate and Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain, as well as exhibitions of temporary sculpture.

There should be high expectations for the exhibitions in Millennium Park. It’s in the heart of downtown, attracts volumes of foot traffic, and has become quite popular, all of which are good things. This year saw an exhibition from sculptor Yvonne Domenge, following exhibitions from Mark di Suvero in Millennium Park and a group exhibition of contemporary sculpture from China, curated by University of Chicago Art History professor Wu Hung. 


Installation view of Yvonne Domenge in Millennium Park, April 2011. Black metal barriers now ring each work.

Domenge’s exhibition presents swirling globes of color and a sinuous abstracted tree, all fabricated out of metal, all painted bright colors.  All utterly boring.  As I wrote for my review of the exhibition, the aesthetic is as interchangeable as the titles of the work. To top it off, the sculpture is now surrounded by eye-gougingly ugly black metal barriers. Wu Hung’s sculpture show had personality and di Suvero is pretty important, but what we received this year was art that’s boring and lacking ambition. Regrettably this misfire will remain on view through most of 2012 as well.

And then J. Seward Johnson returned with a monstrosity. Now it could rightly be pointed out that this isn't public art; it sits on private land, was privately funded and was privately selected.  But that ignores the highly public location, at the beginning of Chicago's über-shopping stretch, the Magnificent Mile, and in the Pioneer Court, nestled next to the Neo-Gothic glory of the Tribune Tower, across from the beaux-arts beauty of the Wrigley Building.  Needless to say, like Millennium Park, this location gets a lot of traffic. 

Public art doesn’t necessarily have to be on city land or paid for by public money for it to be public, but it does need the public itself, and these locations get the public in droves. 

Mike Yen via Flickr.

The high-visibility location made the installation of J. Seward Johnson’s Forever Marilyn, a giant statue of Marilyn Monroe holding down her skirt lifted from the iconic pose from The Seven Year Itch (1955), impossible to ignore.  Well that, and the fact that you can see her panties if you move around to the rear.  This fact has not been lost on many male viewers, causing middle-aged men to act like prepubescent boys.  Thanks to Johnson we now have an opportunity close to home for what was dubbed on Twitter as “group perving.” I like the Flickr guy who decided to rate the reactions.

Johnson is a master of kitsch. It’s like he read Clement Greenberg’s definition of it and mistook it for a good thing: “Kitsch is mechanical and it operates by formulas.  Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations...Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times.” Yes, Johnson’s sculpture is all of those.  At least Jeff Koons attempts to rescue kitsch, or elevate it.  Again I find myself deeply looking forward to the end date of this exhibition, no pun intended.

Chicago is really in debt -- next year's budget already predicts a shortfall of over $600 million.  The Mayor is taking suggestions.  Literally, that is -- there's a website.  I suggest imposing a heavy tariff on all cross-state importing of J. Seward Johnson's work. 

The artists inspect a newly-finished piece. 

There was a bright spot in this year’s public art so far, and it wasn’t big or expensive, in fact, it was dirt-cheap.  For the opening night of Chicago’s newest art fair, MDW Fair, artist duo Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger quietly made outlines of their bodies with dirt on the grounds around the fair building.  Discovered by groups walking to the fair itself, the outlines were quiet moments of encounter, like the way we experience art in museums, the mere trace of a one-time human presence, now gone. The outlines also wore their impermanence on their sleeve, subject to not only the elements, but also vulnerable to an unsympathetic viewer who could destroy the figures with a mere kick of the foot.  They were mortal.

It's unfortunate that two of the best locations in Chicago will be occupied by sculpture that's both bad and not indicative of artists and art in the city. Not everything has to be gigantic and in steel for it to have a big impact; I will remember Miller and Shellabarger’s pieces for far longer than Domenge’s or Johnson’s.  It is ironic that in times of tight budgets and penny-pinching, curators and the powers-that-be are bringing in startlingly lackluster artists when they could easily find better ones in their own city if they only looked.

--Abraham Ritchie, Senior Editor ArtSlant living and working in Chicago.


Posted by ArtSlant Team on 8/5/11 | tags: public-art

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