OTI Online
Spring 1996

Personal twists on public art:

SEVERAL YEARS AGO I FOUND MYSELF ON THE TODAY SHOW giving lip to and receiving vituperation from Congressman Richard Armey (R-Texas). The subject was the value of Robert Mapplethorpe's anatomically explicit and effusively beautiful photographs of men. Armey believed that the federal government via the National Endowment for the Arts should not fund Mapplethorpe's "homosexual pornography." I claimed freedom of expression for artist and audience. But the real subject of this kind of debate and the reason that such a conversation could now take place is rampant, ever increasing xenophobia and intolerance for difference in the U.S.A.

On The Issues Magazine - Details of Ora Lerman's luminous 60-foot mural
Details of Ora Lerman's luminous 60-foot mural, a colorful recast of the Biblical story of theFlood, forthe cathedral ceiling of the library atP.S. 176in Manhattan, commissioned by Percent for Art/New York. Oil, 1993 to 1995.
Details of Ora Lerman's luminous 60-foot mural

To my astonishment, artists have become the mythical, dangerously contaminating "others" of the moment, particularly those described with hyphenations like queer-, female-, community-based-, multicultural-, elderly-, or infirm-creator. The formerly esoteric subject of the inherent values embedded in art has become a subject for televised debate, with the most improbable of colleagues joining in.

When did Congress begin to care about whatever artists might have to say? Face it, the National Endowment has ever since its inception in the mid-1960s been tiny. So why are critically acclaimed artists with a point of view losing even this minimum of financial support and public access for their work?

Despite the traditionally marginal to nonexistent role artists have had in determining American policy, the political and aesthetic stakes here are high. Progressive women may not be much moved by the traditional American public art works that populate cities and stix alike: marble war memorials and bronzed heroes on high horses. Many are equally puzzled by today's public art displays: artist-planted corn and waving wheat in urban centers; testy, artist originated texts on T-shirts; or even Mapplethorpe's pictures (excluded from NEA exhibition funding and ultimately from exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.), projected as gigantic guerrilla slides projected on the facade of a government building.

The public art of any era is, nevertheless, always that body of works which (because of placement and in some cases permanence) is most accessible to all people in a given locale. Art in parks, on sidewalks, in university libraries, and corporation lobbies these images are a part of everyone's American landscape. The potential of this genre to reinforce the status quo or to envision the new is as expansive as the population itself. Monumental art becomes fixed in the national memory.

While feminism has been famous for 15 minutes for declaring the personal political, feminists take political issues personally too. Artists who work in the public arena have concretized their perspectives within the depersonalized yet emphatically patriarchal common space in this country as if it were our own.

On The Issues Magazine - Sheila Levrant deBretteville with her Path of Stars

STATEN ISLAND-BOUND ON THE FERRY, I FLOATED PAST THE Statue of Liberty. Despite her patriarchal past and imposed designations, I still see an inspiring, open-hearted Amazon from the corner of one feminist eye. I can American-dream too.

On the Staten Island side of the crossing, the Snug Harbor Cultural Center mounted "In Three Dimensions: Women Sculptors of the '90s," in conjunction with the New York Chapter of the Women's Caucus for Art and curator Charlotte Streifer-Rubinstein. "Issues of Gender" and "Beyond Gender" occupied virtually all available indoor space in the galleries of Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, with the work of 113 sculptors. On Snug Harbor's sizable grounds, sculptures by 19 artists were also part of "In Three Dimensions." But the transition between inside and outside changes the picture altogether. Without gallery or museum walls earmarked for art, there is a fundamental alteration in the context for assessing artists' responsibilities, assuming art's audience, and even understanding the cultural meanings of these works.

A bronze memorial full-body portrait of Snug Harbor founder Robert Randall was positioned to look onto the same waters that Liberty lights, both figures exemplifying the most enduring public art form of the past century and its mission. When you approach the statue of Randall up close, he stands on a stone base so tall that you have to look straight up as he stares you down under his three cornered hat. The larger-than-life experience of the subject fulfills the essential purpose of such sculptures: the creation of awe.

Surrounding the bronze Randall are eight works by Rhonda Roland Shearer. While they were not fashioned after the representational figure they encircled, their placement suggested that they wanted to engage in an exchange with the elder artwork. Also made of bronze and raised on bases (though much lower), Shearer's mighty homemakers were linear and airy drawings in space with literal holes in their forms rather than solid vertical masses. They didn't just stand there. They vacuumed, cleaned the toilet, pushed laundry carts, and carried children. Shearer's feminist comment on the pointedly patriarchal tradition of public art used many of its properties while taking issue with the system of values that conventional public sculpture conveys in representing both men and women.

SHEILA DEBRETTEVILLE'S "PATH OF STARS" ALSO OFFERS A COMmentary on other monuments. DeBretteville, an internationally renowned graphic artist and director of the graduate program in graphic arts at Yale University, proposed her work to the "Percent for Art" jury for New Haven, Connecticut's Ninth Square development project, which was looking for public art to celebrate and help define the revitalization of the historic downtown district.

"Path of Stars" is based on the Hollywood "Walk of Stars," but it celebrates, instead of luminaries of the large screen, nonfamous yet noteworthy New Haven citizens. De Bretteville researched three centuries of area residents and chose to commemorate 20 individuals, including dentist Emmaline Jones (1873), janitor and community representative Joseph A. McAlpine (1955), dressmaker and milliner Elnora Bess (1954), and typesetter/journalist/activist Augusta Lewis Troup (1872). "Path of Stars" is intended to be incomplete. De Bretteville hopes that "stars" will be perpetually added to her path as the New Haven community unfolds.

Kiki A La Toilette by Rhonda Roland Shearer
"Kiki A La Toilette" by Rhonda Roland Shearer, exhibited at Snug Harbor Cultural
Center, Staten Island, NY. Bronze, 1993.

Art historian ARLENE RAVEN, PH .D., is the author o/Art in the Public Interest as well as many articles on this subject in anthologies and The Village Voice, High Performance, the New York Daily News, and Ms

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