Updated 8/6/06: Actually this is an unfair characterization, and I was being snarky and unreasonable, as I often am. Sadly, this is my way. So by all means, go visit the Portland Public Art blog. I may not always agree 100%, but it's worth your time, and mine.
The problem I've noticed is that the PDX arts community is very, very small, so that it's unwise for anyone to burn their bridges with anyone else. It's like being in Congress: If you want to get along, you go along. Therefore, everyone pretends to like everyone else's work, no matter what it is.
We're also a small and insecure city, and we perceive that we're a tiny island of culture in a sea of primeval ignorance (i.e. loggers). We know "they" hate and fear all art, so we have to like all of it, just to show that we're different from them. It's assumed that if you criticize a supposedly "difficult" artwork, you must be an uneducated philistine, and probably a Thomas Kinkade fan. You've just voluntarily voted yourself off the island.
Luckily I'm not part of the tribe, and don't wish to join, so I've got nothing to lose. I've already listed a few of the ugliest buildings in town, although it's not a comprehensive list, certainly. Surely our inventory of bad public artworks deserves similar treatment. Here are a few off the top of my head. I reserve the right to add more art to the Hall of Shame, since I'm absolutely sure there's more bad art out there I haven't thought of yet.
- "Essential Forces", the fountain at the Rose Garden arena. One of those timed, computer-controlled fountains beloved by casinos and some (but by no means all) small children (and by them only on hot days). Actively anxiety-inducing, which is really remarkable for something made entirely of running water. And that's even without the "fire feature" running, which only happens before big sports events at the arena.
- A certain horrible sculpture in my general neighborhood. I've forgotten the official name, but I've taken to calling it "Rusting Chunks No. 5". A massive pile of rusting steel with a bit of burnt-orange enamel on the side, plonked down right in your way so you have to detour around it, a la Tilted Arc. It's really worse than I'm describing it. I'll post a picture if I can find one, or I can take one that really does it justice. [Updated: I did find some pics. Look here, if you dare.)] At least they had the sense to site it in a dead-end plaza where it only offends the residents of neighboring condo towers. If they'd put it in the middle of town, it'd have been melted down years ago. Certain artists love the idea of confrontational ugliness, art that inconveniences you, aggressively gets in your way, reminds you that the government (who paid for the thing) is huge and powerful and doesn't care whether you exist, much less care what you think. Resistance is futile! One hopeful sign: there used to be a "companion" piece in the area, a tall cylinder covered in ceramic tiles, all in the same burnt orange color. It was set in a small grassy plaza, with a long series of steps leading up to it as if it were some sort of edifying monumental work. A formal setting, but with mute, soul-crushing emptiness at the center: Instead of a winged Victory, there was a parking garage pillar, encrusted in tiles swiped from a groovy 70's-era public toilet. It's gone now, plaza and all, replaced by Portland State University's new CompSci building. I'd have to call that a real, quantifiable improvement. No word on what happened to the old "sculpture". Perhaps it was dynamited.
- "Untitled", at the ODS Tower, in which Judy Pfaff went all Abu Ghraib on a poor innocent tree. This is the best pic I could find. Most pics of the ODS Tower don't show the tree, and for good reason. Depressing and authoritarian as anything you've ever seen. Manages to surpass the "best" works of the most hardcore 60's brutalists, and gets extra brutalism points for incorporating an actual dead organism, instead of just working in grey concrete and rusting steel like in the old days. Someone should convince Dick Cheney to buy this thing and take it off our hands. It's right up his alley. On top of everything else, the artist couldn't even think of a name for the thing.
- South Waterfront Park. You guys really like walkways. You like the idea of people ambling around idly, enjoying nature, or whatever. We got it. Enough, already. The triangular garden part feels like the grounds of an expensive nursing home, except without any flowers. You can just imagine affluent oldsters scooting around the place with their walkers, with greedy, beady-eyed next-of-kin in tow, pretending to be all caring and attentive. You can practically see it with your own eyes. But the best part is the series of paths that angle down to the river. They just sort of angle down to the river and end up in the river. If you're bored on a summer afternoon, it's fun to grab a park bench and watch the bewildered tourists. They'll try one, figuring it goes somewhere. Maybe there's another path that continues closer to the river or something. That would be a reasonable guess, but no, not here. The paths just take you down to the river's edge, where you'll do... what? Nothing, probably. It's certainly not a boat launch, or a beach, or anything useful. Perhaps you're supposed to try to imagine what the landscape artist had in mind, if anything. This is a classic overdesigned control-freak Portland park, where your every move has been unsubtly shaped by the artistic Powers That Be.
- Oh, but it gets better, oh so much better. Take a peek at our shiny new Tanner Springs Park, where rule number one is "look, but don't touch". Our latest and conceptually greatest city park, the one that comes with an instruction booklet, in which you're basically scolded not to touch anything whatsoever, lest you upset the delicate (and completely artificial) ecological balance, with unimaginable consequences. At the very least, the ozone layer will collapse, or something. The park caters to the vanity of aging rich boomers, by letting them feel they're really making a difference just by not letting their precious pugs crap in the grass. The first park in the Pearl District was Jamison Square, which has a really fun fountain that's become a hit with the kids. It even attracts suburban kids and their parents. They ride the train into town, and then the streetcar up to the park, and have a great time splashing around in the water. It's great. The park's so popular it's even attracted its own hot dog stand during the summer. None of this was anticipated by the Powers That Be, and so to avoid a similar calamity with the next park, they designed the next one to be "contemplative", with an unattractive water feature full of dank, muddy water that no parent would ever let their kid wade in. Or even their dog, for that matter. Sure enough, walk past both parks on a summer's day, and one's full of people, and the other's nearly empty. Mission Accomplished! The most telling thing about the park is the east edge, which is marked by a high wall built out of rusting rails (the area used to be a railyard, in its formerly-useful days). You can tell this was a compromise; I expect that if they'd been given free rein, the design team would've surrounded the entire park with such a wall, so that only the elect few (professional architects, designers, "creative class" types) could gaze upon its ecological wonders. And to top it all off, this artificial bit of nature sits right next to actual nature. The WIllamette River is just a few blocks away, and Forest Park is a 10 minute bus ride away, where you'll find real streams, with plants that grew where they are on their own, with no human intervention. Many streams even have fish in them, fish that also got there on their own, with no human intervention. But without a human being to put a stamp on the thing, a la Duchamp, it's Nature, not Art, so it really doesn't count. In this case, Art is an cheesy imitation of Nature, sanitized for your protection, and with a big rulebook. If I was more extroverted, and had more of a performance art bent than I do, I'd build a makeshift raft, put on a Huck Finn outfit, and sail around that prissy little pond of theirs, asking all passersby if they know the way to the Mississippi and points west. I doubt anyone would get it, though. As a city, we're far less educated than we let on. Also, they'd arrest me for sure; I'm sure there's a rule against rafts, and probably the Huck Finn outfit would violate a dress code or constitute disorderly conduct, or something. And if I could convince anyone to play the part of Jim, he'd be arrested as well, for being black in a nice part of town.
- David Manuel's "The Promise Land" (yes, it's "promise", not "promised"), that pioneer family in Chapman Square. This was surprisingly controversial when the artist first offered it to the city. It was criticized as patriarchal, racist (as in anti-Indian), and reflecting an exclusive white male perspective, etc. I think the criticism was basically justified, although it was phrased so that nobody except graduate students could understand it, or take it seriously at the time. The arts community hated the statues for not being Real Art, since the sculptor has a studio off in Eastern Oregon and sells a lot of his work directly to tourists passing through the area. And again, they had a point. The statues are inferior from a purely technical standpoint, on top of whatever fussy political objections one might have. It's like a Thomas Kinkade painting in bronze. While I have to roll my eyes at people who honestly think it's the end of the world every time somebody buys a Kinkade "painting", it's also intuitively obvious that all things Kinkade, and Manuel for that matter, are kitschy crap. If we're going to do kitschy crap, I'd rather have my tax dollars go for the world's largest velvet Elvis. That, at least, would be something we could brag about to out-of-towners. IIRC we got stuck with the world's ugliest pioneers due to a feud between the city and the county. The city didn't want it, if memory serves, but the county stuck it in a city park anyway, with Mr. Dead White Male Pioneer pointing an accusing finger right at city hall, no less. All just so the county could show the city who's the real boss around these parts.
- "MLK & Friends" statue at the Oregon Convention Center. It's extra hard to criticize public art when it's made with high-minded noble intentions, but this grouping of statues is poorly executed, looks cheap, and feels "educational" in the classic Soviet style -- although the Soviets did it much better, to be honest. I've never heard anyone else criticize this thing. I guess we all cut it some extra slack for PC reasons. The real irony here is that the convention center sits roughly where the heart of Portland's black community used to be, until it was all bulldozed in the 60's in the name of "urban renewal". The city's quite happy to rename a street MLK Blvd. set up a third-rate statue next to it, anything except come to grips with an actual injustice it perpetrated within living memory.