Outdoor public art fetches up in most cities and towns, mostly ignored, with original meanings lost on new generations. For example, no one knows what to do with Confederate statues whose bygone meanings are lost, leaving only tropes of slavery’s dehumanization. However, the 55-foot orange Calder in front of Chicago’s Federal Plaza oversees the Loop’s business and tourist crowd, unobtrusively. It may possess content, but no one sees it as anything but ‘pretty’. In Anchorage, the Captain Cook statue on L Street gets driven by without notice. Cook had an extraordinary British Naval career mapping the Pacific, yet does anyone care? He probably mistreated Native populations by today’s standards, but not enough to have his aura, beneficial to tourism, removed from Turnagain Arm.
Let’s dig deeper. How do you feel when you look at art painted, glued onto a building wall? Grossed out?
Most works are observed on museum walls, or standing in classical hallways. Even occasional non-art which was conceived/executed in studios, becomes highly prized. Example: Felix Gonzales-Torres’175 lbs. of candy, ‘Untitled, 1991’ (replenished when exhibited) is a metaphor for the artist’s partner, who died of AIDS. Institutional staid-ness keeps most art free from criticism. What happens when compositions unabashedly appear on blank outdoor spaces, causing a fuss? In honor of the Stonewall Riots thirty years ago, Gonzales-Torres’ ‘Untitled, 1989’, one of the most controversial outside works, returned to New York’s West Village. The black billboard contains a run-on white phrase: “People With AIDS Coalition 1985 Police Harassment 1969 Oscar Wilde 1895 Supreme Court 1986 Harvey Milk 1977 March on Washington 1987 Stonewall Rebellion 1969.”
Artist James Temte
On the outside west wall of Anchorage Museum’s SEED LAB (109 West 6th Ave) is a mural, “THINK NEXT OVER NOW” by Northern Cheyenne artist, James Temte. He’s an APU adjunct professor teaching Climate Change as well as their project manager for Research and Community Engagement. The billboard-esque image, made up of large plastic tessellations, is of a pre-teen standing in a field, clasping a handful of dirt/vegetation. The youth could be male or female of any ethnicity. The young person is wearing a logoed t-shirt and warm-up jacket that is also gender-less. The hair is shoulder length with bangs—any kid’s cut. Some of the background squares have deliberately been omitted, creating black emptiness, suggesting what life might be like when Climate Change erases the Earth, as we know it. Since this is a parking area, ‘handicap’ signs not only couldn’t be removed they became part of the composition. One of the ‘handicap’ signs fetched up on the breast pocket of the youth’s track suit and looks like the garment came with that label. This entire piece becomes a narrative for Climate Change, with the ‘every-youth’ cradling a piece of Earth. Yes, we are ‘handicapped’ as we begin to figure out how to balance productivity with cleansing the environment. Each word of ‘THINK NEXT OVER NOW,’ executed in different fonts, makes a statement, becoming contemplative verbiage hanging over the youth, landscape, and all of us. Is the work more poignant when a trusted institution like a museum sponsors wall art, as opposed to discovering it on an abandoned building, configured by ‘anonymous’?
Briefly, Non-Conforming Public Art
Before artists like Temte got the green light to show socially conscious work on a concrete wall, it had to be accepted. According to philosopher Hilde Hein, “aesthetic enjoyment was at one time idealized as free from the cares of the everyday world….The classical museum collected, preserved, and presented things, rightly or wrongly deciphered…. Museums identify themselves with the education world and not with the entertainment world because of that ephemeral relation to truth and reality.”
As Hein elaborates, “Fascination with things whose value is intrinsic, with anything that is an ‘end in itself’ seems archaic in today’s world where nearly all art, all science, all activity is engaged or harnessed to some purpose. Even those few instances of activity that purport to be strictly autonomous, the pursuit of ‘pure’ research or the creation of ‘fine’ art, are quickly deconstructed to reveal some implicit agenda that the author knowingly or unconsciously intended….The work of art morphs into the ‘art event’, and the research project is revealed to be part of a social or political strategy (Genoways 1-3).”Even Robert Wyland, one of whose aquatic murals can be seen on the west façade of Anchorage’s JC Penney, needed a hook, in his case saving oceans. Wyland has highly profited using environmental themes; so is becoming wealthy at the expense of the environment honest/fair, even when he’s created a non-profit foundation?
A common example of non-curatorial representation is Graffiti, made by so-called ‘hoodlums’ using spray paint cans. When Guiliani was mayor of New York City (1994-2001), he went on an attack, removing Graffiti from subway cars—the art form still exists in Gotham (and I‘ve seen much Graffiti in Europe). Sometimes aesthetic-civil-disobedience becomes part of the art canon. Of note: “One of their most famous works was performed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). In 1972, [artist] Gamboa asked a museum curator, who likely did not know him, why contemporary Chicano art was absent from the museum’s exhibitions. The curator’s response was that Chicanos did not make ‘fine art’, they made ‘folk art’ or they were gang members. Gamboa’s response was to give the curator a taste of his own medicine. He returned that night, after the museum was closed, and he along with [artists] Herrón and Gronk, spray painted their name ‘gang-style’ on the side of the museum. Gamboa later described Spraypaint LACMA (or Project Pie in Da/Face) as an action that ‘momentarily transformed the museum itself into the first conceptual work of Chicano art to be exhibited at LACMA’ (Lampert 249,250).” Chicano art is now part of LACMA’s rotations.
In a New York Times article – ‘What Do Graffiti and Fine Cuisine Have in Common? Chef Edward Lee Explains (NYTimes, Lee, 2, 27, 2019)’ that Graffiti has the fleeting quality found in cooking as gourmet plated faire also vanishes. Lee grew up in Canarsie, where the only art he saw was spray-painted on walls. Lee explains that before Graffiti got gentrified and moved into galleries, the genre relieved hopelessness of ghetto living, even if it would eventually be erased by authorities. And there’s the infamous artist, Banksy, who, like spray painters, remains incognito as he leaves art on buildings worldwide, satirizing traditional institutions with his marks of aesthetic non-conformity. But, unlike most Graffiti artists, Banksy has achieved fame and fortune.
Art has, for the most part, become accepted inside or outside museums, ignoring the grumbling establishment. A quirky example of accepted work becoming unacceptable was Richard Serra’s, ‘Tilted ARC’ which consisted of 120 feet of rusting steel, placed in Manhattan’s Federal Plaza, 1981. After a heated court battle, 1989, it was removed because ‘ARC’ didn’t live up to what the public deemed sculpture should look like. Let’s hope we have moved beyond this absurdity.
Back to Anchorage and Artist Temte:
Driving by Temte’s mural forces Anchorage residents, who are going about their daily routines, to consider Global Warming—subtlety generally overrides being scolded. Climate Change has been happening/accelerating/ignored since the Industrial Revolution and can’t be fixed ASAP, which really depresses teens like the one depicted in this mural. According to Temte, “I see a need for including art specifically in the climate change conversation. As a scientist I know that data collection is important to track the impacts occurring in the arctic however, looking at an excel spreadsheet of data points may not be as compelling as seeing our stories depicted in murals across our communities. The langue of art can connect with everyone from children to our elders. The more that communities can come together and agree that actions need to be taken and that we are all a part of the solution the more ground we can make on addressing and potentially slowing down the effects of climate change.”
Temte has founded ‘Alaska Mural Project’, a business he hopes can connect property owners with empty walls for artists eager to fill them.” Like all things social and political, change doesn’t occur until a panic button is visualized, and hopefully pushed.
Mini Sleuth: ‘A People’s Art History of the United States’ by Nicolas Lampert, and Museum Philosophy ed. by Hugh H. Genoways on Amazon. Some verbiage taken from the Anchorage Museum, James Temte, and htpps://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/27/nyregion/graffiti-chef-ed-lee-art.html?action=click&…. Of note: Temte’s photo is by Anchorage photographer Michael Conti; Charlotte Rand, Bailey Gamble, and Nancy Patterson helped install the mural.
Jean Bundy aica-usa, is a writer/painter living in Anchorage