You know, after giving it some serious thought, I think I’m coming to the surprising conclusion that newspaper articles about public art and the public’s reaction to it are my new favorite genre of art news. There’s just so much to chuckle over. Last week, a pair of articles in the L.A. Times told of skeptical police reaction to a recently-installed sculpture outside the L.A.P.D.’s new headquarters. On October 21st, Times columnist Steve Lopez, who has a direct view of this building from his office window, confessed his bemusement at the piece, which is titled “animaline.” But Lopez’s reaction was minor compared to the distaste expressed by outgoing police chief William J. Bratton. Writes Lopez,
The cast-bronze sculptures consist of six large black blobs, with two tall, skinny structures on either side. I wasn’t sure what to make of them, so I went straight to the top: It looks like “some kind of cow splat,” said Police Chief William J. Bratton, who sounded as if he were personally insulted by the installation. Bratton said he first drove past the work and later walked back to see whether “it’s as ugly up close as it is when you’re driving by.” The answer was yes, and he sounded mad enough to have the artist arrested.
Bratton said he was not alone in his opinion; it was the talk of cops and staffers who already have moved into the new police administration building. “I don’t think anybody can figure out” what the shapes are supposed to be, Bratton said. “Bison and hippos maybe. I haven’t the faintest idea what the two tallest things are on either side.” Nor does he understand what any of this has to do with police administration, if anything. “I don’t get it,” he said. “It’s just a shame.” Myself, I didn’t see animals when I first looked at the sculptures. Peering down from my third-floor window, I thought they were giant molars. Not a good idea, I thought, to have a bunch of knocked out teeth on the grounds of the cop shop.
When I went outside for a closer look, I realized the molars were actually the torsos of animals with large rumps. Were the cops trying to tell me and my colleagues what they think of The Times, giving us a bunch of derrieres to look at? Not clear. But the animal on the northern end looked like a pig that had been knocked on its side. You have to wonder how that’s going to sit with the LAPD brass.
The same day, the Times published a more detailed story (by Yvonne Villarreal) on the L.A.P.D.’s new art collection, this one containing a tit-for-tat response to Bratton’s quotes by artist Peter Shelton, who was commissioned by The Department of Public Affairs to make the sculpture.
“I’d like to think he’d leave his post more graciously,” Shelton said in response to Bratton’s comments as he did the finishing touches on the pieces Wednesday afternoon. “He doesn’t need to bad-mouth something intended to be enjoyed by the city. I’m disappointed he thinks he’s an art expert.”
Shelton, of course, is a highly regarded L.A.-based sculptor who is represented by L.A. Louvre and has shown internationally, blah blah blah, facts I only mention in order to point out that even the so-called “good” artists make work that gets shit on sometimes. It’s outdoor sculpture, after all, and there are just as many birds in Los Angeles as there are anywhere else. I hope J. Seward Johnson takes some small comfort in that.
UPDATE: Last week the L.A. Times’ chief art critic Christopher Knight reviewed Peter Shelton’s new public sculpture series, titled “sixbeaststwomonkeys.” That review placed Shelton’s sculpture, designed for placement near the new police headquarters downtown, in in a larger historical context with respect to public art in L.A. as well as nationally. Knight also recalled the furor caused in 1955 by a sculpture by Bernard Rosenthal (1914-2009) for the just-built Parker Center, the L.A.P.D.’s former headquarters.