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JR and Public Art

Saturday, April 21st, 2012: Arts, Musings.

Just finished reading the Juxtapoz interview with JR, the new international art star who empowers the anonymous by pasting their images across the urban landscape. And it again challenged my antipathy toward public art.

I live in a small rural town that’s mural-crazy. Murals tend to bug the shit out of me now, but in my younger days I was a public art repeat offender, and I still identify strongly with street art and graffiti. I absolutely love JR’s work – it’s clearly some of the most potent, socially conscious urban art ever made – but where does it really fit in the overall ecological, or ethical, landscape?

The first public art I can recall doing was the collaborative sculpture I made with my performance-art band the summer after I graduated high school. We made it out of salvaged junk in the barn lot of my grandma’s farm, along a country road. It was almost twenty feet tall, and I have no memory of what happened to it – I went away to college shortly after it was completed. All I know is that it was a lot of fun and we definitely intended it to surprise and puzzle people – that was the extent of our adolescent vision.

In college, in Chicago, I was surrounded by monumental public art both historical and modern – everything from heroic to humanistic to the abstractions of Picasso and Calder. The city was new to me and I took it for granted that cities had this stuff, for better or worse.

In the 1980s, after art school and in the wake of the punk rock revolution, I joined my peers in two divergent tracks of public art. The urban track consisted of guerilla performances and wheat-paste poster attacks, one of which ended up on the cover of the book Street Art. Still aiming to surprise and puzzle. In one of our performances, we did a maypole dance around a particularly ominous public sculpture.

The other track was even more rural than my high-school farm sculpture: ephemeral paintings and rock alignments in the remote wilderness of the Mojave Desert. Long before hearing of Andy Goldsworthy, I gradually discovered that other nature-loving artists like me were sporadically and spontaneously creating little zen-like, anonymous, short-lived interventions in nature, driven by our irrepressible creative urge and the liberation from the studio that was the art school legacy of the 60s and 70s.

As I became committed to a specific desert site that was becoming an ecological preserve, I did the usual urban artist thing – I put together a proposal for a large-scale project that would presumably add historicity to the site, foster ecological and cultural awareness, and otherwise jibe with the mission of the preserve. It would consist of enigmatic signage along trails and roadways, keyed to an educational subtext. That proposal was a turning point of sorts – as I went over it with the preserve director, I suddenly realized that the last thing I wanted to do was add more man-made shit to this place which was already littered with the detritus of ranching and mining. Instead, I stopped leaving my own marks on the landscape and started paying more attention to the ancient markings of others.

A long field study of Native American rock art transformed my stance toward visual art. I came to feel that the entire culture that my society had inherited from Europe was illegitimate. Nothing in our arts seemed as well-integrated with our environment as the petroglyphs and pictographs of the Indians. I continued to make visual art, but it stopped being pictures of things and became purely a series of enigmatic symbolic expressions, like the rock art panels I was finding in remote desert locations.

Then I fell into dire financial straits, and my only way out was by embracing the digital revolution. In the early days, my generation saw “new media” primarily as a way to increase the democratic and participatory nature of the screens that were already a pervasive part of our environment. Forgetting my ill-fated desert project, I proposed new site-specific works, this time a network of kiosks throughout the urban landscape that would serve as access points to the deep history and culture of each site.

But as the idealism of new media rapidly devolved into the big business of the internet, and as information overload became a cliche, I realized again that our landscape was already carrying a crushing burden of signs, text and images demanding our attention and becoming a level of background noise equivalent to the glare of public lighting, the blare of horns and sirens, the roar of traffic, the hiss and hum of plumbing, heating and air conditioning that form the urban sensory environment.

That’s one reason why I grew to hate murals and public sculptures and was ambivalent toward graffiti. I felt that there was already far too much man-made junk, far too many signs, an overload of images. The ethical thing for an artist to do would be to refrain from adding to it. I wanted to see those walls come down, not turned into more screens for our redundant likenesses.

Which brings me back to JR. They say some of his work can be seen from space, like the Great Wall of China. The message of these anonymous faces seems to be “Look at me! I’m here! I’m human too!” That’s an important message when people are downtrodden, but in a larger ecological context, do we really need more attention to the human? The European tradition was to literally put people up on a pedestal. Oppressed or not, hubris is not one of our healthier traits.

Looking at photos of his work makes me so glad I don’t live in one of those landscapes of concrete, glass and steel. It also gives me more respect for the Islamic proscription against representational images – images of people. Traditional societies used representational images carefully and with restraint, recognizing their power. In Orthodox Christianity, representation was restricted to religious icons, often sequestered in cavern-like sanctuaries. And of course, there are the famous painted caves of southern Europe, where the magic of representational images was buried deep underground.

I think maybe we need to tone down those walls and public spaces, attract less attention to them and to the human presence which is already overwhelming. Then, maybe we can focus more on the changing seasons and get back to learning from our non-human partners in this risky dance of life.

 

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