Sunday, September 06, 2009

vera on the esplanade

Vera Katz statue, Eastbank Esplanade

Today's adventure takes us to the east bank of the Willamette River, just north of the Hawthorne Bridge. This location is home to this statue of former Portland mayor Vera Katz, located on the, uh, Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade, not to be confused with Vera Katz Park in the Pearl District.

I'll spare you my usual rant about naming things after living politicians, even though this would be the perfect opportunity for it. I'll just pass along this news story about the statue's 2006 unveiling, a surprise event to which the real Vera Katz was invited. The story features a photo of her sitting next to the statue, which is one of those things that just shouldn't ever happen. To anyone. Any person so honored -- you, me, an ex-mayor, anyone -- is bound to feel a number of things in this situation: You will be embarrassed, you'll be flattered, and you'll be creeped out. So will anyone else. Any difference here is just a matter of percentages. I'd be all "aw, shucks, you shouldn't have" at the ceremony, and then I'd rush straight home and blog about how weird and creepy it was sitting next to a life size bronze copy of myself, a copy that will likely be around long after I'm gone. I'd go on about how it wasn't even a good likeness, how the body language is all weird, etcetera, and generally not have anything positive to say about it. And secretly, a little, deep down, I'd be just a bit flattered. And I'd never, ever admit it to anyone, lest people think I'm shallow or egotistical or something.

Vera Katz statue, Eastbank Esplanade

So about the statue. It's titled simply "Vera Katz", and was sculpted by Bill Bane, a local artist out of Newberg. It happens to be #60 at ThingsAboutPortlandThatSuck, and Portland Public Art describes it as "Vera Katz - unimpressive sculpture". (PPA has posts about other Bill Bane works: Captain Carlton Bond at the Pearson Air Museum up in the 'Couve, and former Governor Vic Atiyeh. at the Portland Airport, plus he's done a bas-relief of pioneers at the Clark County Courthouse, also up in the 'Couve.)

Vera Katz statue, Eastbank Esplanade

I wouldn't call this my favorite sculpture in town either. It's not the worst, by any means -- that honor would go to the stupid Promised Land pioneer sculpture in Chapman Square. But it also falls short of, for instance, the Abe Lincoln in the South Park Blocks. And to be fair, the things about it that I don't like seem to be stylistic trends in contemporary sculpture, or at least in the contemporary sculpture our fair city buys, such that offhand I can't think of any recent statues I'm very fond of.

First, the composition is on the mundane side, not larger than life or heroic or idealized in any way. It's deeply unfashionable these days to depict politicians (living or otherwise) boldly striding forth into the heroic future, and I'm sure that's a desirable thing in general. But when you agree those are the ground rules, and you put up statues of your politicians anyway, the results often aren't very impressive. Of course it doesn't help matters when your politicians are kind of tiny and gnome-like.

Second, I don't care for the rough, almost lumpy look of the statue. It's as if it constantly wants to remind you that it's a big chunk of cast metal, not a person. I'm not sure of this, but I think this look may be intentional, since seemingly all contemporary sculptors do this. I think it's a sort of modernist tic, something about being honest about your materials and the frank expression of how things are made. Similar to how you're supposed to be able to see the imprint of the wooden forms in concrete buildings. Or, I guess, the lack of sets in a Bertolt Brecht play for that matter. Although it's also true that it's easier and cheaper if you don't care whether your statue's skin looks sort of slag-like. So that if buyers are willing to settle for cheap rough-n-lumpy statues, artists of a more perfectionist bent are soon driven out of the marketplace. But I'm in an unusually charitable mood today, so I'm inclined to blame this on a stylistic choice I happen to disagree with, rather than the buyer being cheap or the artist being unskilled.

Vera Katz statue, Eastbank Esplanade

So it's not a work of art for the ages, but it's still useful in that it practically begs to be posed with, decorated, or otherwise roped into some sort of creative scheme. A few examples, from across the Series of Intartoobs:

  • A silly sequel to the famous "Expose Yourself to Art" poster, starring -- count 'em -- three ex-mayors. Note that in addition to the trio here, we have two more ex-mayors, plus the current guy. One ex-mayor, Frank Ivancie, is in his mid-eighties, and is of a fairly conservative bent by Portland standards, so we can probably rule him out. And the other two, well, it would be pretty weird and creepy to include either in a photo like this, for obvious reasons.

  • Vera with an Arrogant Bastard (No, I don't mean Sam Adams, the mayor or the beer.)

  • An empty Flickr group that requests: "Take a photo of yourself and Vera Katz wearing your bike helmet." There's also a single-post blog here, with a single photo. So not much to see here, but the fad may yet catch fire, and hipsters will line up around the block to take part in the latest ritual of the tribe. Or not.

  • stereo anaglyph - more anaglyphs in same photostream

  • with a teddy bear in the snow

  • con sombrero y margarita

  • And there's a MODKATZ group on Flickr dedicated to decorating the statue, although not a lot of photos there right now.
Vera Katz statue, Eastbank Esplanade Vera Katz statue, Eastbank Esplanade Vera Katz statue, Eastbank Esplanade

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