Monday, January 06, 2014


The Oregon state office building near Lloyd Center is home to Ideals, an odd and spooky little statue at the corner of NE 7th Avenue and Oregon St. Its Smithsonian art inventory entry describes it as:

Standing female-like figure in the form of a hooded drapery garment with no visible figure inside. The proper left arm is raised.

The sculptor, Muriel Castanis, was known for this sort of figure. Her technique involved draping resin-coated fabric over store mannequins, and removing the mannequin once the resin had hardened. The finished product was typically a bronze duplicate of the original form. A search for other works of hers in the Smithsonian database shows that many of the others look quite similar to Ideals. The Portland Public Art blog griped about this some years ago. I don't entirely buy that argument. It's not that rare for an artist to stick with a technique that's led to a steady stream of commissions and sales in the past. This may be more notable here because Castanis's style is so distinctive. Generally whenever you're doing bronze castings of something, there's a possibility of making more than one copy of the same design. You can either call that "commercial" and sneer, or accept it as part of the nature of the medium. I guess I don't feel particularly harmed by other cities having their own draped-fabric, invisible-figure sculptures, and I don't see how one is devalued by the existence of others, either identical or similar, unless we're talking in a purely monetary, supply-and-demand sense. And in that case, if the local one isn't for sale, who really cares whether the others are sufficiently rare and expensive? I'm just not seeing the point there.

Her 2006 New York Times obit points out that Castanis was self-taught (which the art world generally sees as a Bad Thing), and only took up art in earnest after raising a family (which I understand is also a Bad Thing, at least in the more traditionalist, male-dominated parts of the art world). The gatekeepers seem a bit puzzled how someone like this managed to sneak into their clubhouse, and, moreover, make a living at it.

Her most famous works are probably the "corporate goddesses" atop a Philip Johnson skyscraper in San Francisco. At one point these and other works of hers were hailed (or derided) as major works of postmodernism, full of Classical references emptied of their traditional meanings. Standing outside a government office building, it looks like it's been put there to make some sort of statement, like the blindfolded Justice statues of old, but there's no specific meaning intended here; that's the whole point. By buying Ideals, the state was tracking the cutting edge (or at least the current fad) in the contemporary art world, which is something that we almost never do here. This is especially surprising so soon after the city's unhappy experience with the Portland Building. Art movements and trends come and go, of course, and postmodernism is no longer the irresistible shiny object it was twenty years ago. Back then, I once took an entire college class dedicated to the notion that postmodernity was going to overturn everything we knew about the social sciences as well as the arts. Nobody really talks about that anymore. It's probably just as well, although I did get an 'A' in the class and it would be nice to think I went to all that trouble for an idea with a longer shelf life. (Although at the time I was sure those PoliSci classes on the politics of the USSR and Warsaw Pact would be valuable too.) In any case, Ideals isn't contemporary anymore, and it's not yet old enough to be interesting from an art history standpoint. Maybe in another generation or so, the people who decide what's officially important will stumble across the weird buildings and paintings and statues of the late 80s and early 90s, and someone will write the definitive book, and suddenly major museums and collectors will be crazy for the stuff. That's what usually happens, anyway, and I don't see why it would be any different for a movement that proudly embraced the idea of art as commodity.

But do I like Ideals? Yes, I think I do. I posted an Instagram photo a while back calling it the "Ringwraith Statue of Liberty". That sounds kind of pejorative, but I didn't really mean it that way. The strange thing is that it seems a lot less spooky in person than it does in photos. That might be because it's sort of hobbit-sized in real life and doesn't seem all that ominous at that scale.

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