Public art begets public controversy
June 21, 2014
Sculptor James Surls and his work have prompted a fair bit conversation in Carbondale for nearly two years now. These days, it centers on a piece he’s sculpting for the new roundabout at Highway 133 and Main Street.
“Sewing the Future” will stand 20 feet tall and be one of the most visible features in town framed by one of the most visually prominent mountains in Colorado, Mt. Sopris. Surls and his piece are lucky to share such a magnificent gallery with Mother Nature.
Sewing the Future is a distinctly modern piece of art that will be a source of inspiration for some and consternation for others. That is, it will join the pantheon of public art installations around the world that get people talking.
Carbondale has had Surls on its mind for two years thanks to the scotched plan to build a museum on the site of the now-closed Gordon Cooper Library that would have been curated by Surls himself and featured his work. It was one of two serious proposals for the town-owned library space in 2013, and garnered support from six of seven town trustees; me included.
It was a controversial decision, despite strong support on the board of trustees, in part because it meant another good proposal was rejected. As a trustee, I saw the museum as an opportunity to create something with significant educational and artistic value that would populate downtown with people who might not otherwise have a reason to visit. I think my fellow trustees shared that opinion. In the end, the project proved untenable, but that didn’t end the conversation about James Surls or his art.
The decision about the roundabout was made 11 months ago with a 6-0 vote by the trustees. (I was out of town.) Yes, there should have been a better public process with the roundabout. I think we missed that chance. But please keep in mind that the idea had been discussed in public meetings of the Carbondale Public Arts Commission and the trustees for several months before the final vote.
As it appears now, we are moving ahead with the plan to accept the donation of an original piece by a nationally prominent sculptor for the new roundabout.
James Surls is donating his vision and time working on the piece (sweat equity). Private donations are covering the costs of materials and transportation. Carbondale residents, who aren’t inclined to pass up a good controversy are nevertheless still debating the merits of the sculpture and the decision to accept it.
Public art controversies are easy to find because they are so numerous. Silt is in the midst of one now, over a particularly racy piece (by that community’s standards) that now adorns a visible and public locale.
Flavorwire.com’s list of controversial public art displays begins with the story of the federal General Services Administration dismantling a $175,000 piece, Tilted Arc by minimalist Richard Serra, in 1989. The agency commissioned the piece for the plaza in front of its building in New York City, but removed it after employees complained about its location and other people complained that its stark nature contrasted with surrounding buildings.
The contrast was the point however, according to Serra: “The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes … Step-by-step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes.”
A 2011 piece by Seward Johnson in Chicago called Forever Marilyn, a 26-foot statue of actress Marilyn Monroe in the famous scene in the movie “Seven Year Itch”, where she is holding her skirt down, proved too controversial for the Windy City. It was vandalized and became a source of lewd photographs. Eventually it was relocated, Flavorwire.com reports, to California, where Marilyn probably belongs.
Closer to home, Westword newspaper recorded an outcry several years ago after “the Boulder Public Library decided to hang a string of multi-colored ceramic penises from a clothesline as part of an art exhibit on domestic violence. ‘Hung Out to Dry’ also included a noose.”
Painter and sculptor Edgar Degas once said “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Hopefully, this conversation about art in the roundabout will allow Carbondale residents to see something about themselves they have yet to notice.
— Allyn Harvey’s column is published on the third Thursday of the month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.