City Hall Park Needs to Rid Itself of New Terrible Sculptures

by Ian Marshall on July 29, 2013 · 14 comments Opinion

"The Humans" by Olaf Breuning. Photo by Nora Gomez. Courtesy of the Public Art Fund

What is up with those ass-ugly sculptures at City Hall Park? Thanks to the Public Art Fund for bringing us yet another crummy show. Lightness of Being comes on the heels of their well-promoted but ill-received Ugo Rondinone show of figures made from boulders.

The exhibition title plays on Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being by showing that even serious art can have a fun and flirty, playful side. Of course, if anyone involved in the exhibition had read Kundera’s book they would have chosen a different title; after all, no rephrasing can positively spin the book’s subject, which is about infidelity and civil unrest in 1960s Prague.

Daniel Buren, David Shrigley, and Olaf Breuning are the biggest names featured. I’ve never known Buren to be a particularly whimsical artist, and his “Suncatcher” sculpture lacks the critical bite of his iconic earlier work. The structure consists of a multi-colored oval glass canopy supported at a quirky angle above a platform, which resembles a work installed at Petzel Gallery earlier this year. Buren already made one of my all-time favorite institution critical artworks in 1973 when he strung a line of his classic striped canvases out the window of John Weber Gallery; in comparison, this stained glass platform might as well be titled “How the Mighty Have Fallen.” On the other end, Shrigley, an artist renowned for his droll insight on the art world and cheeky (disturbed?) illustrations, gives us a pair of forgettable life-sized steel flip flops that are so simple they come short of quirky. Meanwhile, Breuning gives us sad, strange marble figures called “The Humans.” Some are pierced by arrows, others look like the victims of a hapless chainsaw sculptor. All are frowning. Each is tacky. Not exactly a pick-me-up.

Other sculptures apply photoshop-style transformations of everyday objects. James Angus’ “John Deere Model D” and Alicja Kwade’s “Journey without Arrival (Raleigh)” offer little more than cheap transformative gestures. Both skew the form of a mechanical object—a tractor and a bike, respectively—but say very little in doing so. Given the theme of the show, we took home the following message: Warped perspectives of objects are fun!

Sarah Lucas’ oversized vegetable sculptures likewise reproduce recognizable objects with a simple transformation (here, scale), but since the raw concrete color evokes memorial and traditional public sculpture her works seem at least a bit more interesting to consider, especially since she’s giving us giant pickles. If Sarah Lucas took over the entire park with similar works, the Public Art Fund would have made a better and more cohesive show.

Lightness of Being is just strange collection of artists to throw together in a public park under the rubric of whimsey and fancy. In the end, we’re left with an ill-conceived sideshow of pastel banality. That’s no good, but sadly, what we’re coming to expect from the Public Art Fund.


ace bandit July 29, 2013 at 2:56 pm

While I’m not fond of the exhibit, your snide takeaway of, say, Angus’ “John Deere” seems more about your critical limitations than the work itself. One could as easily note an upended tractor as a metaphor for the state of farming, agriculture, mechanization etc., all well covered ground for sure, but “warped perspectives are fun”? My guess is you’ve probably gushed over Banksy tedium(Wow, fatuous, propagandized paint-by-numbers-on-a-wall!) waxed poetic about Turrell tanning(wow, even the Mexicans know this shit needs velvet painting accompaniment!), burbled fancy about a Rothko (wow, great! I see the frame, now where’s the painting?) or Solomonly prayed

before a Serra portal (Gosh, Guggenheim slot canyons with my head as the gestural erosive material: who said Pomp can’t be fun!). Perhaps you should cut the guy a little slack…..

Paddy Johnson July 29, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Those metaphors are so obvious they really detract from work (which is bad to begin with). You make a reasonable point about failing to mention them, but the issue here is that the curatorial framework isn’t allowing for the interpretation that’s there. This is supposed to be a show about lightheartedness and fun. I think the point that Ian was trying to make was that these concepts are glossed over in the curation so the reading you end up with, is the one he offered up.

ace bandit July 29, 2013 at 4:46 pm

Perhaps I’m missing something but mocking individual works of the show as “ass-ugly” has nothing to do with curatorial framework–seems more like an insiders’ smack-down of a show that probably belongs in a small midwestern town. I’m happy to shit on the fou du roi claymations and tractors and/or the organizers along with you, but you haven’t given me a reason to join in with your guffaws. And its not due to lack of material–I mean you could go on for pages about mis-understanding Kundera’s bright among the bleak book as “light-hearted.” Just saying, you want to be a trend site with trashy thumbs up/down, or a critical site that back up its reviews with substance…

Paddy Johnson July 29, 2013 at 5:48 pm

My point was that the meaning of piece you named, the John Deere, was undermined by the curator’s disregard for its meaning. I was responding to a comment you left that specifically mentioned the piece and I think anyone who reads the comment will understand the difference. I certainly wasn’t drawing the connections you took the liberty of making for me.

That said, I’m guessing you did that because you also take issue with the mocking tone of “ass-ugly”. I’d agree that name calling isn’t a good policy, but in this case, which I think is extreme, I still feel like I can defend it. It’s accurate, and I don’t think that’s an insiders evaluation. To cite just one example, every single one of those blocky Breuning sculptures with tacky gold finishings has a frown on its face. I’ve not met a single general audience that responds to that, and it’s not hard to understand why. To paraphrase a friend: Olaf Bruening fell on the wrong side of irony a long time ago and is now deep in the region of authentically bad art.

That’s the insiders game most audiences won’t get and though I rarely say this, I don’t see what benefits there are for evening knowing that background if you’re casually encountering the work. It coats the whole project with a gauze of condescension, and makes the sculptures worse for it.

Anyway, I’m curious why you don’t like the sculptures/ curation of this show.

ace bandit July 30, 2013 at 12:34 am

I agree to the disconnect between the exhibit’s art and curation: PAFs pr is dumbfounding, a seeming preposterous Tuttle/Buttle mix up between this and some other programme. But clumsy curation is the rule these days as mer-curial superstars work to justify salaries with ever more audacious moist audience handholding. Oz at work, you know. Personally i think the display would be better framed as a prequel to a reality tv competition: “Driving Cattelan.”
As for Angus’ Model D and the “ass-ugly” comment: the issue I raise is one of craft. Contempt for curation, fine, but Marshall I think shoots the messengers.
I don’t particularly like the works either, but I think it would be fair to muster more than a few flip comments. The show’s artists sport all the chest bling of their generations and I gather put some effort into their pieces. Perhaps you folks could unpack things a little more than ass-ugly? Bruening’s stuff: where’d the marble come from? The faces seem anxious not sad. Is there a evolution among the pieces, do they relate? Tacky gold; is it supposed to be tacky? Circular bike. skip it. Deere Model D: same position as Bugatti, kind of boring. Position, construction dull. Signification of model series, well it was the first Deere tractor, outcompeted during a pricing war with the mass-produced and financed nazi-supporting Ford tractors. Could be something there. As for meaning undermined by curation, it’s not as if everyone soaks up PAF drivel. The iron gimcrack sits there, if a critic won’t help sort out the details, what chance is there to assess?

John Ryan July 30, 2013 at 2:55 pm

Ass-ugly is a subjective opinion. Saying it is accurate does not make it an objective fact.

The example provided is muddy and seems to boil down to “things with frowns are ass-ugly”, which is still a subjective opinion.

The claim of not having met an audience that responds to either these sculptures or frowns in general suggests that some sort of consensus needs to be reached in order for a subjective opinion to move towards an objective fact. (I assume that you are talking about favorable responses, and not just any response. Though I suppose it could be any response that is not indifference).

Basically the ass-ugliness of something is somehow determined by some sort of audience response.

Donald Frazell July 31, 2013 at 10:24 pm

Too much talk going on, art is the visual language. Ass ugly can certainly sum something up. No content, all attitude is what it means. What we have here is a failure to communicate.
Illustrations of adolescent concepts is not art. Its a twelve step program.

Paddy Johnson July 30, 2013 at 10:51 am

I think we’ll need to agree to disagree on the choice of words “ass-ugly”. But yes, your points about how this work could have been unpacked more are well-taken.

Paddy Johnson July 30, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Who cares? Criticism needs subjectivity as much as it does objectivity. I like hearing unapologetic subjective opinions. In fact, I find it refreshing.

John Ryan July 30, 2013 at 3:48 pm

I care. That’s why I wrote all that stuff.

There was a claim that an opinion was accurate. I was curious because the defense didn’t make sense to me.

ace bandit July 31, 2013 at 8:49 am

The problem to me is one of authority. I expect subjectivity, but want to see more than a cursory internet knowledge of subject. The crumb of rationalism in me wonders why grape soda cans in Menckentown receive the critical hand of kindness, while the PAF show gets the vulgar gong treatment. The argument offered–things are ass-ugly ’cause they’re ass-ugly– is underwhelming. No tin-foil hats here, just an observation. Such questions arise because the answers don’t seem to be in the text. I have offered up that perhaps the reviewer didn’t take time, but it just as well could be a hangover, a misunderstanding, groupthink, butterfly wings in the tropics…..The over-arching idea i none too successfully tried to relate was that reviewers could benefit from considering a little more profoundly the whys of their llikes and dislikes. I enjoy AFC Paddy because you have spent time not just describing but assessing work. But there appears a worrying trend of flip and, yes, trashy reviews that read more like high school gossip columns than criticism. I understand the profusion of art material forces sites to fight for eyeballs with ever more salacious headlines, i just didn’t expect the battle to be at this doorstep so soon.

Paddy Johnson July 31, 2013 at 9:04 am

John Ryan, sorry for being dismissive. My bad bad.

As for the other stuff, I’ve heard the complaints. You don’t like the use of “ass-ugly”. You fear AFC is sinking into a hole of lazy criticism. This point has been made, what, six, seven times in this thread alone? It’s been noted. Now let’s move on. This horse has been flogged.

ace bandit July 31, 2013 at 11:10 am

Got it. Sorry for stopping by

Paddy Johnson July 31, 2013 at 10:48 pm

Oh hey, come on. It’s great feedback and I appreciate it, but you gotta admit you guys have offered up the same feedback about the blog’s criticism at least half a dozen times and it’s been acknowledged. What are looking for that I haven’t yet given you?

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