Out with the abstruse, in with relevance
TWO VIEWS •ÊWhen it comes to decorating open space, beauty is in the eye of the beholder
Earlier this year, the Pearl Arts Foundation closed its doors.ÊIn the trhee years it operated, the foundation brought outdoor sculpture to the Pearl District and spearheaded discussion of public art citywide.
The foundation's demise gives Portland a chance to re-
examine the kind of art most appropriate for its public spaces.ÊTo start, let's look at the foundation's projects as well as several others Ñ then consider a new, yet more traditional, paradigm for future public art.
Without exception, the foundation-sponsored works were of the abstruse, experimental kind known as 'modern' art.ÊThe first was Kenny Scharf's row of garish, Erector-set totem poles near the Pearl's Jamison Square. The second was William Wegman's 'Portland Dog Bowl' in the North Park Blocks Ñ a ground-level tripping hazard heralded as a 'Benson Bubbler for dogs.'ÊAnd when it folded, the foundation was angling for Maya Lin's 'Playground' Ñ an amorphous, 40-square-foot rubber hill.
Much other modern art afflicts Portland. In the South Park Blocks lies Steve Gillman's 'Peace Chant' Ñ three sprawling, nondescript slabs of broken stone.Ê Hilda Morris' 'Ring of Time' Ñ a rough, primitive 'O' Ñ assails entrants to downtown's Standard Plaza Building.ÊAnd installed just last winter was Pete Beeman's 'Pod,' the spindly metal pendulum at Southwest 10th Avenue and Burnside Street.
Modern art, asserted critic Harold Rosenberg, is about 'the 'desacralization' of art and the dissolution of all barriers between art and life.' And at these it has succeeded.Ê'Pod' and its ilk show modern art to be crude, chaotic and incomprehensible, devoid of high purpose and irrelevant to the history and culture that made America great.
Real art, Leo Tolstoy wrote, has as 'its purpose the transmission to others of the highest and best feelings to which man has risen.'ÊMuch of Portland's public art fulfills this purpose.ÊAnd without exception, that art is not 'modern' but representational, monumental and classically inspired.
Look at the downtown core alone.ÊThe Portland Building is adorned by Raymond Kaskey's 'Portlandia,' which evokes the heroic majesty of Phidias' 'Zeus' and Michelangelo's 'David.'ÊIn the South Park Blocks, George Fite Waters' sculpture of Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Proctor's of Theodore Roosevelt elicit pride in country and complement the dignity of nearby churches and museums.
In the Plaza Blocks between Southwest Third and Fourth avenues near the Portland Building stand two magnificent works: Douglas Tilden's obelisk honoring Oregonians killed in the Spanish-American War and David Manuel's 'The Promised Land,' which portrays an Oregon pioneer family.ÊAnd behind the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall is the Shemanski Fountain, sculpted in ornate Italianesque trefoil and featuring Oliver Barrett's biblically inspired 'Rebecca at the Well.'
This public art is relevant, realistic and understandable. It depicts our city's and nation's great heroes, events and accomplishments.ÊIt conforms to the classical Greek paradigm of beauty, contour and perfect proportion.ÊIt conveys the truth, goodness and noble purpose that powered Western civilization and America's founding.ÊAnd by doing so, it encourages virtue, industry and patriotism. Portland's future public art should do the same.
Some possibilities: Erect statues of Portland's pioneer founders on the streets bearing their names. In the neighborhood expected to rise in the Rose Quarter, raise a monument to the men and women who built hundreds of World War II Liberty ships close to that very spot. And at Northwest 10th Avenue and Marshall Street Ñ the block earmarked for Lin's silly 'Playground' Ñ construct an 'outdoor museum' of statues, sculptures and photographic plaques that depict the Pearl District's maritime roots of years ago.Ê
'Art has its share in the shaping of all aspects of life,' wrote historian Karl Schefold. In the future, Portland should devote its precious public spaces not to avant-garde frivolities but to realistic, understandable work that affirms Western culture, local and national history, and our city's seriousness of civic purpose.
Richard F. LaMountain is a former writer for and editor of the national magazine Conservative Digest. He lives in Northwest Portland.