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Public art should speak to modern world

Devotees of representational, classic and monumental sculpture believe, as does Richard F. LaMountain, that public art must convey 'the truth, goodness, and noble purpose that powered Western civilization and America's founding.' These critics complain that 'modern' public art is incomprehensible, unrelated to common purpose and ugly.

Their argument is based upon several erroneous assumptions, the first and most basic being that it fails to acknowledge that the public, for which contemporary art is made, is not homogenous. The American public today consists of a wide variety of people with different beliefs, tastes, backgrounds and interests.

There have been times Ñ medieval Europe, for example Ñ when Roman Catholicism dominated life, as well as cultures such as those based on the Koran with its doctrinaire art. So prevalent were the influences of dominant Catholicism that, for a brief time, it seemed that content and style were understood by all those for whom it was created. That we now live in a much different, more complex society is reflected in art as in all other aspects of our lives.

Public art in Portland that is funded by public construction projects is administered by the Regional Arts & Culture Council. The staff and the council's Public Art Advisory Committee Ñ made up of artists, architects and other art professionals, as well as representatives of governmental jurisdictions Ñ are responsible for the practices promulgating our area's public art.

The official guidelines plainly state that the purpose of the public art program 'is to integrate a wide variety of public art into the community and reflect the diversity of communities, artistic disciplines, and points of view.'

To that end we have at one extreme of the contemporary art spectrum Raymond Kaskey's monumental bronze sculpture 'Portlandia,' which meets LaMountain's standards. It should be noted, however, that few people realize that what appears to be a mythological goddess is a figment of Kaskey's imagination Ñ a reinterpretation of a figure on Portland's seal. At the other end of the spectrum, Pete Beeman's recent interactive steel sculpture, 'Pod,' signals its connections to the dynamism of its location on a traffic island at a busy street intersection.

The west-side light-rail art project exemplifies particularly well the policy of relating art to its social and physical environment. Each station along the route from downtown to Hillsboro features art that relates to the station's neighborhood. Possibly the most dramatic of the many installations is Bill Will's 'Timeline' at the Washington Park Station. When the tunnel was dug beneath the park, a 300-foot core sample was taken. The artist enclosed it in glass tubing and placed it along the granite wall horizontally with signage and images that form a record of geologic history.

Another false assumption is that abstract sculpture is both incomprehensible and unrelated to civic life. We're all inclined to look askance at the new until time gives it familiarity. Think of the controversy surrounding the Eiffel Tower when it was built. It was criticized as a blight on the landscape, a monstrosity disgracing the classical beauty of Paris architecture. Now, 135 years later, it is one of the world's best-known and loved icons, instantly conveying myriad associations with Paris.

Abstract art may not tell a story or depict a hero, but it is quite capable of conveying associations and emotions. Maya Lin's 'Vietnam Veterans Memorial' wall in Washington, D.C., for example, is one of the most moving works of art in the United States.

Most newness Ñ or innovation Ñ today isn't as strange as the Eiffel Tower was to 19th-century Parisians. Newness is so ingrained in technology Ñ which affects all the arts, entertainment and work practices, not to mention our everyday lives Ñ that a willingness to accept the new is necessary to being at ease in the world.

But all innovation springs from the past; artistic innovations, too, have evolved from the traditions that

LaMountain espouses. While nobility of purpose and classical beauty are still viable, they are joined by diverse ideas outside the Western canon of art. Our global village includes art and culture as well as technology and politics. We must continue to embrace new materials, new processes and new visual styles that convey complex issues unheard of in past centuries.

Lois Allan is a member of the Regional Arts & Culture Council's Public Art Advisory Committee and is the author of 'Contemporary Art in the Northwest' and 'Contemporary Printmaking in the Northwest.' She lives in Aloha.