Pete Rose, Journey to Q'xtlan,
From the otherwise fabulous Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia.
By Gretchen Giles“Are these all monuments to war?” the Colombian journalist shouts up from the back of the bus. As seen from a hired coach lurching along in June’s humid heat, Washington, D.C. resolves as a kinetic collage of green vegetation, burdened tourists and white structures honoring dead men who fought old wars. Not all, the tour guide reminds, remembering to point out the small marble bandstand commemorating the District of Columbia itself, the few nods to such virtues as valor, the Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln memorials and a newly constructed monument to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the four-time president who didn’t actually ever serve in the armed forces. Otherwise? Well, yes.
Washington, a grand city built with the specific intention of being the nation’s capital, relentlessly celebrates its wars and its war dead. A country so young is a country that still bristles with the don’t-tread-on-me creed of a challenged adolescent. Born of war, the fight and its human loss are celebrated in Washington. But is this really how America wants to be seen?
Indeed, America seen and America defined are central tenets to the art collections a rushed visitor flits past in many of the capital’s galleries and public spaces.The country’s largest war memorial, Arlington National Cemetery—virtually a city, peopled as it is with thousands of school groups, weary parents and foreign visitors—has a surprisingly refrained manner of honoring its dead. The white marble headstones of those who have served are placed exactly 22 inches above ground and 22 inches below ground, their markings noting the rank and home state of the soldier who lies beneath. Others are simply carved with a woman’s name, her dates of birth and death, and the left-handed phrase “His Wife.” (Who “he” is remains a mystery to those unschooled in military etiquette or the cemetery itself.) On a hill overlooking the city, John F. Kennedy’s grave is guarded by an endless flame, his widow and their dead children placed close beside him. Lying adjacent to a silent infinity pool, Robert Kennedy merely has a single exquisite cross marking his spot.
In contrast, designer Lawrence Halprin’s 1997 monument to FDR wanders on for some seven acres, features five noisy water areas, three statues of the president and one of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, three bronze scenes of the Great Depression, several bas relief installations intended for only the tallest blind people and even a large friendly depiction of the White House dog. Set along the sweet-smelling Potomac, the rushing waters of the monument and its many seating areas provide the visitor relief but its flabby narrative ramble finally exhausts any captivation. How about just a single exquisite cross?
Naturally, the era defines the style. The Kennedy brothers were honored with the grief-stricken minimalism of the 1960s; FDR, with the money-drenched over-blow of the 1990s. The newly completed WWII memorial is as commodious as a Costco, but inviting to heat-flushed families, the children splashing through the generous fountain, the adults glad for a seat. Maya Lin’s 1982 tribute to the dark failures of the Vietnam War is a burial slash in a hill that visitors file past, some making rubbings of the names carved there, some leaving flowers, some crying; everyone can see themselves reflected in the polished granite face. Death, death and more death mark the traffic circles and lush parks of the city that defines America.
Outside of the marbles of the nation’s capital, America has easily defined itself as a nation through the skill of ad men and art directors, who readily show us who we are by what they want us to buy.
Less than an hour south of D.C., a private cache of art so uniquely American that none other than Americans crave it is thoughtfully displayed at the Kelly Collection of American Illustration. Situated in the private home of Richard and Mary Kelly, this is art that wasn’t intended to be such. Rather, these work-for-hire pieces—painted by such masters as N. C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle and Charles Dana Christie—illustrate the heroic tales found in young boys’ books, the chaste romance of women’s serials and the many allures of pianos, matches and new-fangled socks. Primarily crafted during a swift 50-year period after printing got cheap and before photography became king, these works richly accompanied the texts of the day, moved magazines and fueled purchases. More importantly from the Kelly’s point of view, they regularly brought art into American homes, making art accessible and populist. Representational, dramatic and fully activated, the work collected here is surprisingly rendered, the artists doing full-fledged easel paintings, earnest completions, that may give as much pleasure from the wall as they did within the covers of a swashbuckler.
While some Saturday Evening Post and Life Magazine covers are displayed among a delightfully quaint handful of advertising fancies, the majority of the work at the Kelly was commissioned to accompany fiction and, almost without exception, depict the moment just before or just after the story’s denouement. The actual events tend to occur, just as Americans like them to, exactly offstage. We don’t really wanna know.
Thrilling children with full-color imaginings of tidy pirates and depicting the rosy warmth of the perfect white Christmas not only sold books and gloves but showed a nation just out of infancy a new ideal, forming an outline of who a prosperous American, relentlessly fair-skinned and trim, should be.
Some of the artists made noncommercial efforts, most notably Harvey Dunn, one of eight illustrators commissioned by the U.S. government to document WWI on paper. The Kelly Collection has a handful of the gritty canvases that were prompted by Dunn’s experience of that horror. The U.S. government has perhaps none. The work that the eight artists brought home, drawn directly from battleground experience and relentless in their depiction of war’s truth, were deemed by the government to be too unsettling to exhibit.
Surely it would have been better if Dunn had only shown heroes amid triumph and, of course—made them from marble.
Third and Mission, San Francisco:
"When I think of public art," Boback Emad keenly observed during an interview earlier this year, "I think of a bunch of children holding hands around a globe."
It was no surprise, then, that when Emad's wife finally succeeded in convincing him to enter Santa Rosa's call for artists to decorate the triangular intersection of College, Healdsburg, and Mendocino Avenues, he discovered that one of the other finalists had submitted, yes—a sculpture of a bunch of children holding hands around a globe.
Emad's design won, and we can all be grateful. You can read about it in the profile I wrote on Emad and his sculpture in the the Bohemian; additionally, what you're seeing here is a computerized image of what the intersection will look like once his sculpture is installed. Nothing arouses the ire of citizens quite like public art, but in the context of some truly terrible public art in Santa Rosa, I'd say it's a virtual godsend.
On or around June 28, in the middle of the night, the sculpture will make its way slowly down the middle of College Avenue, clearing the Highway 101 overpass by just a couple feet (anyone ever see X's film The Unheard Music, where they film a house being carted through Los Angeles in the dead of night?). I'm planning on watching it, and if anyone else wants to check it out too, lemme know and I'll keep you updated on the exact date.In other public art news, does anyone out there have a name yet for The Fish installed earlier this week at Prince Gateway Park? Somehow I find it fitting that the inventor of LSD died the same day that this multi-colored delight appeared in a hallucinogenic reincarnation. That said, we could dub the fish sculpture "Albert"—or, since the park's very inviting, downhill entrance reminds me so much of Gate D at Fenway Park, how about "Ortiz"?
And, since I can't mention Santa Rosa Creek without mentioning the complete atrocity of the creek being forced into three blocks of concrete tunnels in the late 1960s, I'll say it again: the creek is looking better than ever, but please, don't let's abandon the idea of pulling it out of its underground cell one of these days. Yes, it'll be expensive, but an open creek, running through downtown: can you imagine it?
What if you put on one of the most exciting art exhibits in the North Bay and no one came? Aside from a handful of students and some of the artists themselves, that’s exactly what happened with Sonoma State University Art Gallery's compelling new show, "Projected Image," which opened Feb. 21.
Closing off the gallery spaces to outside light using heavy black curtains, curator Michael Schwager and exhibition coordinator Carla Stone have assembled a compelling selection of new media works concerned with how the projected image mixes with traditional art media and/or prompts fully-realized three-dimensional notions of its own.
The work of conceptual artist Paul Kos introduces the exhibit, his two paintings (Sierra Snowstorm, Drips and Drops) fluidly sluiced with pulsing light as though they were at the bottom of a sunlit creek bed or, indeed in a high Sierra snowstorm. Kos, a longtime instructor at the SF Art Institute, is known as a pioneer of Bay Area conceptual art who often appropriates technologies devised for industrial purposes into his artwork. His reworking of Chartres Cathedral (below) is one of the many pleasures of the di Rosa Preserve.
Around the corner are two installations by San Jose-based digital artist Jesus Aguilar, a recent MFA graduate who completed a full year as an artist-in-residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts, is interested in the collision of technology with our innate humanness. In one instance, he has done as we all have and Googled himself.
While some of us, say, have a doppelganger who loves to row, Aguilar’s namesakes include a Cuban boxer, a mathematician, personal trainer, a classical guitarist, and a death row prisoner. Aguilar was at the opening reception and said that his interest was piqued by the differences in his namesake’s lives and their sheer humanity.
His other piece in "Projected Image,"Dante’s Inferno in 8 Minutes 34 Seconds takes the entirety of Dante’s text and mashes it up upon itself. Aguilar purposefully chose a very narrative ancient work that is meaningful to him purposefully to chew through with a computer; the words that are revealed in the mash were photographed from the screen, making it just that more of a step away from human touch.
Also present at the opening was Jeanne C. Finley, whose collaborative effort with John MuseCatapult, uses old discarded windows found during their own residency at the Headlands Center and uses them to refract and tunnel the images of flight and water that they project on to them. (Other of their collaborative work is seen above, with the butterfly image.) "The windows are just perfect!" Finley told me. Why? Because of the old glass in them? "No," she replied with a laugh. "Because they’re so dirty."
Finley and Muse also scavenged a wrecked old chandelier from the Headlands and have that on a rotating motor so that it swings slowly from the ceiling behind the exhibit, which is physically composed of some 12 old glass windows hanging from the ceiling. It’s treacherous to navigate through, a point Finley concedes. That is, after all, part of the point of this work, which examines escape and constriction through a Victorian-style lens. The artists have taken "The Blue Danube" as a mix, overlaying several different performances of the song so that the sound is haunting and almost familiar, but difficult to place.
Other work in the show is contributed by Rebecca Bollinger whose suburban photos collected as Here to There is projected onto boxes that butts objects against each other in the unusual setting of 3-D "canvas," and Tony Oursler ’s talking sculptural loop, Ligloc."Projected Image" shows through March 16. See it. SSU Art Gallery, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. 707.664.2295.