Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Kelly Fountain

Kelly Fountain, Portland OR
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Here are a few photos of Portland's "Kelly Fountain", at 6th & Pine on the once and future transit mall. These were taken back in August, while the fountain was still running. Like most public fountains, the city shuts it off for the winter in case we get a spot of freezing weather (and probably to save money, too). This is kind of hampering the nascent fountain project I recently semi-embarked on. There can't be any new photos of fountains in operation until next spring, so I'm pretty much stuck with whatever I've already got lurking in the archives. It's like the old saying goes, you have to blog with the fountain photos you have, not the fountain photos you wish you had. That may not be exactly how the old saying goes. It's been a long time, or at least it feels like it's been a long time, thankfully.

Kelly Fountain, Portland OR

I put "Kelly Fountain" in quotes because it isn't quite the official name. The water bureau page linked to above says its true name is "Untitled Fountain", one of several untitled fountains here in town. Which is dumb. The Smithsonian's public art inventory has a page about the fountain too, and they insist it's actually called "Anchor". Which is the first time I've ever heard that name. Why is this so complicated?

Kelly Fountain, Portland OR

The "Kelly" in the name is actually the fountain's creator, local sculptor Lee Kelly. He happens to be the auteur behind the notorious Leland 1, or as I always call it, "Rusting Chunks #5". He's the auteur behind a lot of cheesy public art around town, actually -- besides this fountain and the Chunks, there's the fountain up at the rose garden in Washington Park, the tall spindly stainless steel thing in Waterfront Park next to the Steel Bridge, and a few assorted stainless steel bits at the new "Howard's Way" plaza, between a couple of new residential buildings next to PGE Park, as well as smaller gallery works.

As you might have gathered from the last paragraph, I'm not a huge fan of Kelly's work. In fairness, though, the fountain is better than Rusting Chunks #5 in a number of important ways.

  1. It's a fountain. The running water helps a lot. Without running water, it's just another big inexplicable hunk of metal looming over the sidewalk. Although that's exactly what it is when the fountain's not running, which is most of the year, actually.
  2. Stainless steel is always better than rusty steel. This is inarguable. The 70's fondness for rusty metal is yet another example of that decade's pathological aesthetics, just like macrame and blue ruffled tuxedos.
  3. It's further away from home, so I don't see it all the time. As much as I like fountains, I'd probably tire of this one rather quickly if I had to look at it every day.

So, ok, it's not a very long list, and it's kind of a glib list, but my point remains. The fountain's fine, I guess. It can stay, as far as I'm concerned.

Kelly Fountain, Portland OR

Going by the dates on Mr. Kelly's public artworks, it looks like the 70's were his heyday, but his stuff at "Howard's Way" is less than a year old, so clearly he's still got a few eager customers out there. I find it remarkable that, in all this time, he really hasn't changed his style all that significantly. At some point in the late 70's he switched from rusty Cor-Ten steel to stainless, and then recently he started welding inane Zen-esque affirmations to his creations (about which, see this First Thursday post of mine from August '06). That seems to be the sum total of his creative evolution over the last 30 years. Despite that, the local art-world Powers That Be seemingly can't get enough of his stuff. I've never seen the point, really. While trying to get a handle on how this public art racket works, I ran across a few articles about Mr. Kelly. A Willamette Week article mostly fawns over him, but it contains a telling passage:

The type of work he makes belongs to a past not much revered these days. Steel sculpture has gone the way of innocuous corporate decoration. You see it now and again in public parks, plopped there by some now-defunct committee. "Clearly, I'm old hat," muses Kelly. "I don't spend a lot of time thinking about whether I fit in. I'd like to stay around long enough to see how this all pans out. I am curious to see if we'll come back to appreciate some sort of object that's more or less permanent."

An Art in America piece about a 1995 show of his insists that "Kelly's structures radiate an appealing warmth and sense of humor, qualities not usually associated with large-scale metal sculpture". I'm sorry, but I'm just not seeing it. A PNCA profile contains what may be the secret of his success:

When asked what advice he could give to young artists, Kelly jokes, “Maybe I can come up with a half of an advice: If you’re trying to do it as a livelihood, it’s really tough. I’ve just worn the bastards down after all these years.”
Kelly Fountain, Portland OR

As shown in the above photo, there's a sort of low beveled lip around the base of the fountain, I suppose to help keep the water in. It's only a couple of inches, but for some reason skateboarders seem to find it irresistible. I always see skaters hanging out around the fountain, and I just can't figure out the attraction. It seems like they just sort of mill around, as if they all have a gut feeling the fountain's got to be good for something, but they can't work out what it might be. Kind of like the opening bit with the apes in 2001. Occasionally you see someone try out a move, but it's never anything very impressive. Maybe the fountain is the beginners area or something. Beats me. I actually searched to see if I could find any mentions of the fountain in a skate context, but I couldn't find anything on the net. Maybe they call it by a different name or something. On what I'm sure is a completely unrelated note, the RACC's page on public art conservation has a photo of someone removing graffiti from the fountain.

Kelly Fountain, Portland OR

Elsewhere on the interwebs, the Waymarking page for the fountain comes with a bunch of photos. There's at least one photo of the fountain on Picasa, and on Pbase there's a very cool detail shot of part of the thing. But all in all, there's less stuff on the net about it than I would have expected. Which, in all likelihood, means that once this post goes live, if someone searches the net for useful/interesting info about the fountain, they're likely to end up at this humble blog instead. That's the interwebs for you, I guess.

Kelly Fountain, Portland OR Kelly Fountain, Portland OR Kelly Fountain, Portland OR Kelly Fountain, Portland OR Kelly Fountain, Portland OR

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