Inversion: Plus Minus — Plusses and Minuses

Inversion: Plus Minus has been up for almost two years now, but I’ve just gotten around to really looking at it. Really looking at it means not just driving by on Grand Avenue, or passing it going on or off a bridge.

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Here’s the basic description from RACC:

Inversion: Plus Minus  is a set of towering site-specific sculptures created by artists/architects Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio. Using weathered steel angle iron, the artists are presenting “ghosts” of former buildings at two similar sites along SE Grand Avenue. One site, at Hawthorne Boulevard, will feature a matrix of metal that almost appears as a solid building. The second, at Belmont Street, will render an enclosure around the perimeter of a “building,” emphasizing the negative space of the subject. In the artists’ words, “The sculptures reference the outer shells of ordinary industrial buildings found in the Central Eastside Industrial Area like those that once existed on the project sites.” [http://racc.org/about/bold-new-public-art-projects-now-underway-portland’s-east-side]

Richard Speer went gaga for it in Willamette Week:

“With its open composition and oxidized materiality, the work evokes the gritty past of the Industrial Southeast waterfront. It also suggests an abstracted banyan tree or the ghostly outline of a barn, its perpendicular planes dancing midair in a complex visual fugue. As you walk or drive around the sculptures, their forms seem to change shape in a rapturous, ever-evolving dialogue with negative space. Although architectural in scale, the work’s conspicuous lack of any roof opens it up, leading the eye skyward. It is a cathedral with only clouds or stars for a ceiling. Sublimely elegant…” [http://www.wweek.com/portland/article-20854-nepenthes_and_inversion_%2B__.html]

And after walking around the pieces the other day I found a lot to like about them, but there are fundamental problems that, for me, are lessons for public art in general.

What I liked: The scale, the downright ambitiousness of the work, the overall sculptural qualities, how it is put together just feels “right” (because nothing felt “wrong”).

The basic problem:

Speer said, “As you walk or drive around the sculptures, their forms seem to change shape in a rapturous, ever-evolving dialogue with negative space..”

The basic problem is walking or driving around the sculptures. First of all, drive-by art is a waste of art. Something as complex as Plus Minus cannot be caught in glimpses. You might be stopped at a light, but it is unlikely that you are in a mood to look at art at that point.

IMG_5264And, the work’s form, its openwork (which is important to its sculptural interest), camouflages it.

IMG_5254IMG_5247Someday there might be pedestrians who walk this uninviting stretch of Grand Avenue (a few cross the bridges), but nobody was there when I was looking.

IMG_5252If nobody is there to see the art, is the art being used? Is this working as something more than art storage in public? A very few, like Richard Speer, or me (finally after a couple years), might make a point to go check it out, but then is it functioning as “public art” should?

So, interesting sculpture placed so that it is difficult to look at. Like the Oregon Symphony playing next to a rock concert (or vice versa).  Back on October 18 I wrote about Nepenthes in the Pearl District. As sculpture those pieces are nowhere near as interesting as Plus Minus, but they also would be served better by improved placement.

Some might say that context is important for Plus Minus as they are “ghosts of former buildings,” but although there are architectural references (some clear, most obscure), there is nothing in the work that says the “former buildings” were at these sites, so the architectural reference could work anywhere — even on a green lawn in a park.

Some little nitpicky stuff:

Big strong mighty steel sculptures — what’s with the dinky rocks in holes at the base? Why isn’t a firm attachment to foundation celebrated?

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And why not just have concrete paving around the works if the “planting” is allowed to become weeds and trash?

IMG_5248But, these little things are like repeating typos in an interesting novel. The novel is good enough to enjoy anyway — if you can force yourself to deal with it.

Public art doesn’t need the equivalent of a quiet library, but careful siting is crucial to making public art useful. In this case, the siting just isn’t working.

 

The Rough Rider

Back when I taught a class on contemporary art a question often arose: Why don’t they put up meaningful statues that people understand instead of those obscure abstract sculptures?

Then I’d ask: How many of you know that sculpture in the park in front of the Portland Art Museum—the guy on the horse?

Most hands would rise.

Then I’d ask: Who is it?

I’d say that over the years less than 5% of my students could answer.

So much for “meaningful.”

But I was intrigued by the work, and I wrote a piece about it for Encore magazine (before I began teaching), a magazine that was published for the Portland Opera and the Oregon Symphony. It turns out that the sculptor, Alexander Phimister Proctor, was a pretty interesting fellow, and the unveiling of the work in 1922 was a really big deal.

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On July 16, 2000 The Oregonian published a reprint of page one from Armistice Day 1922 with the statue dedication noted in the right hand column.

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Proctor’s autobiography is very entertaining and there are a couple copies at Powell’s (and lots at abebooks.com).

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Frontispiece:

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You can see other works by Proctor at the Portland Art Museum:

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Indian on Horseback , 1898, bronze, Gift of Mrs. A.L. Mills, Mrs. T.H. Bartlett, Henrietta E. Failing, Mary Forbush Failing, Mrs. H.C. Cabell, Charles Francis Adams, John C. Ainsworth, William D. Cartwright, and T.B. Wilcox, © artist or other rights holder, 11.2

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Lions , 1911, bronze, Bequest of Winslow B. Ayer, © artist or other rights holder, 35.182

Or if you are at the University of Oregon you can see:

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The Pioneer, which predates The Rough Rider. From the U of O web site: This sculpture, located across from Johnson Hall, was dedicated with great ceremony in May 1919. The sculptor, Alexander Phimister Proctor (1862-1950), used a trapper from near Burns, Oregon, as his model. The 1918 bronze statue, mounted on a base of McKenzie River basalt, was a gift of Joseph N. Teal, Portland attorney.

And:

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The Pioneer Mother, 1930—according to the U of O web site, but from Sculptor in Buckskin…

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And, there are works by Proctor in this new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:

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From the Met’s web site:

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Buckaroo, 1914 (cast 1915 or after). Denver Art Museum, Funds from William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection by exchange (2005.12)

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Stalking Panther, 1891–93 (cast ca. 1905–13). Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Bequest of James Parmelee (41.79)

And, if you are in New York and see the William Tecumseh Sherman monument in Central Park note that the whole is by Augustus St. Gaudens, but Proctor did the horse:

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