Art Smarts

What We Need Is A Place To Put All This Weird Stuff.

By Jeff Smith

TUCSON IS A community that, deep in its collective soul, has anesthetic that manifests itself, naturally and somewhat chaotically--but ultimately beautifully--all over the urban landscape. The preceding sentence is an unintended example of the danger of art criticism: an exercise in the turgid and obscure.

Smith I didn't mean to meander off into this sort of thing; I only wanted to say that left to our own devices, we natives of the Old Pueblo have a way of making our homes, our neighborhoods, barrios and slums, our shops and malls and junkyards...our lives and our corporeal persons...a sort of atmospheric and performance art. Jesus. I'm beginning to sound like Pamela Portwood.

But as the town has grown to become a quasi-city and take on airs of self-importance, the suits in City Hall have aped their brethren in bigger burgs along both coasts, and gone to paying hired guns to lend the place a bit of the polish we associate with the fine arts. Public art, which used to be best exemplified by the bull in front of Casa Molina, with its neon balls, or the old lumberjack (now gone) next to Leo's Auto Supply (also gone, which is an even more grievous loss) went pro, with dubious investments like those clothes-pins on the UA mall, and the truly hideous rip-off, "Sonora‚" outside the new main library. That orange bastard was welded-up by some auslander artist who named it after some Japanese city so he could sell it to the Nipponese (because at the time they were making money like Sears Roebuck and buying everything with an American label), but even the boys who offered cash money to every hustler who offered them the Brooklyn Bridge wouldn't touch this butt-ugly piece of sculpture, so the artiste retitled it "Sonora‚" and sold it to Tucson. For $6.3 shitload.

Since that nadir in metropolitan management of cultural investment, it has been a matter of public policy to spend one percent of the cost of public works projects on art; and a few nice pieces of ceramics and local folk art have been installed around downtown public buildings and commons, along with what the artistic community likes to call "interesting" treatments to bridges and overpasses on new highway projects. But on the whole I'd have to say that the one percent would have been more wisely invested if we'd just given every tagger in town fifty bucks for Krylon, with the proviso that half his pallet be in something other than black, and that he doesn't put the propellant up his nose.

The most recent flap in the municipal art world has to do with war and peace and impenetrability, themes common to the art world, which too often prides itself on its elitism and inaccessibility to mere mortals. The City Department of Transportation, which is for some reason exempt from the one-percent art investment policy, but which, to its credit, it voluntarily abides by, had intended to install an artwork called "From Swords to Plowshares" along a reworked stretch of Silverlake Road, between I-10 and Mission Road.

This sculpture, consisting of a dozen fins--diving planes off old submarines, weighing eight tons apiece--cost $60 grand and was bought off another out-of-town slick, Seattle artist John T. Young. I have not met Mr. Young, but I congratulate him on his stones. I admire a lad with the brass to shovel shit against the tide on a truly epic scale. I just think that as long as we're encouraging this sort of behavior, we should be sinking the money into our own indigenous art/gene pool.

And the social satirist in me appreciates the amusing notion, as voiced by a spokeswoman for the Tucson-Pima Arts Council, that the half-buried fins will communicate a message of nonviolence--swords into plowshares...get it? Diving planes off submarines, only now they're stuck in the dirt. No, y'see your submarine is a weapon of war and these diving planes--they're those things that you tilt to make it go underwater--they're not even in the water anymore, they're in the dirt. That's where the plowshares thing comes in. Is any of this getting through to you? Oh never mind--I don't believe this putative symbolic message is sufficiently self-evident to be safe to install along a major surface arterial. A large and wordy bronze plaque explaining the thing would be necessary, and death and destruction would result, as motorists slowed to either read the plaque or regard the work and mutter, "What the fuck...?"

Is this the message of peace we wish to put our 60 large into? I think not.

And the sensible folks of the westside agree, seemingly. They told the city they could take their fins and stick them somewhere else, thank you.

Which would be fine by me. I am not against art, nor am I against submarines (ex-submariners are among the most vocal lobbyists in behalf of Mr. Young's artwork), nor am I against using ex-military hardware as cost-effective public art. I have long admired equestrian statuary, and I really like it when they stick one of those cool fighter planes on a pedestal in public parks. Now there is artistic symbolism every stratum of society can understand. I'm especially partial to the F-4 Phantom.

My suggestion to our civic conundrum is this: Build an art park where obscure and confusing installations of not-immediately-recognizable ironmongery with not-readily apparent symbolic meaning can be viewed and studied by pedestrian traffic with minimal risk, and then explained to those who finally give up. We could even move that ugly sonofabitch from the library, sandblast the orange off it and let it rust, and park it so folks could point and laugh. Then the venues for legitimate public art could be occupied by imaginative works from local taggers and muralists, along with truly accessible artworks such as your Pancho Villa statue, your Padre Kino, perhaps some lowriders based on mid-'50s Chevrolet products or late-'40s Mercuries.

What I'm getting at, essentially, is that if los vecinos were given a little encouragement, a few bucks and a loose rein, the whole damn town would begin to glow with the outward expression of the inner vision that is our birthright. Cruise the streets of the westside and enjoy those pink and purple paintjobs on old adobe houses and you'll see what I mean.

AND NOW a word from our sponsors:

My plea of three weeks past, for assistance in the matter of the Laguna/Mingura class, elicited a truly heart-warming response from the community. I wandered off to Montana immediately after writing the column, and my answering machine was filled with offers of support. As was my e-mailbox and even a few notes in actual ink, pencil and crayon.

Thank you for your support. As it works out, I am able to sponsor the Laguna family by putting my house up as collateral. If I haven't called or written personally to thank you, forgive me. My thanks, and the gratitude of Erasmo, Nena and the rest are yours. Some of you, whose voices sounded particularly alluring on my machine, may yet receive a personal response. Don't call the police. TW

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