Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Expectations: Great and Shattered

Expectations: Great and Shattered

By Tom Wachunas

Good news and bad news. First, the good news: the long-awaited installation of Tommy Morgan’s latest public artwork in downtown Canton, “Shattered Expressions,” is complete. Now for the bad news: the long-awaited installation of Tommy Morgan’s latest public artwork in downtown Canton, “Shattered Expressions,” is complete.

At this juncture I respectfully refer you, good reader, to two past posts (in the Archive box here) for some background on my thinking about not just this particular work, but public art in general. The posts are: August 15, titled “Desperately Seeking Connections, Part 2…,” and October 20, titled “The Power of Public Art…” It is with those considerations in mind that I offer the following.

The artist has explained his work this way: “I am trying to capture the essential human expressions of joy, rage, and sorrow. As human beings we cannot have one of these emotions without having all the others.” Huh? On the surface, this idea seems to be sufficiently ambiguous and arguable enough, certainly, to justify any number of esthetic solutions to the problem of giving it clear form. So I’m not really surprised that Morgan opted to treat all three emotions/faces with a stylized equality, manifested by his “decorative” surfaces of curving fragments in muted, even sickly colors. The overall effect actually undermines – in fact shatters - their three-dimensionality. This is an artwork in the throes of an identity crisis, and surely not a pretty one. Are these paintings that want to be sculptures, or sculptures that would prefer being paintings? I firmly believe that, putting aside formal and esthetic opinions of this work per se, Morgan’s idea was simply not appropriate to a public art installation. And while this $35,000, 40’x10’ disappointment cannot technically be considered an abuse of public tax dollars, it is nonetheless taxing to behold.

Beyond the many challenging questions (both subjective and objective) about what constitutes edifying or “good” fine art, though, it seems to me there are other more pressing issues here that need to be addressed, and the sooner the better. Issues that have been flapping in the wind for far too long without resolution.

I still wonder (OK, whine about…) who, if anyone, in the Canton Development Partnership, ArtsinStark, or the Architectural Review Board at the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce, has formulated any consistent operational philosophy and methodology as to the raison d’etre behind installing public artworks in the first place. Robb Hankins, ArtsinStark CEO, stated recently, “In the future, we hope to get formal public arts ordinances passed by the city and county governments here, so that we could have both a full time public arts administrator on staff, and a formal public art process.” In view of all the hype about the “explosion” of public art in Canton’s arts district over the past few YEARS, perhaps the current powers that be need to be reminded that the future has been here for a long while. In the meantime, without the just-described overseeing in place, plans are evidently still afoot to go ahead with future installations by a few other, already selected local artists.

My concern is certainly not that local artists are incapable of producing the kind of public art that would suit one of ArtsinStark’s stated goals of attracting larger audiences and garnering prestigious attention to Canton’s arts scene. Rather, my fear is that unless a process of public art installation methods and practices is formally in place, Canton will become increasingly mired in an insouciant, self-congratulatory hodge-podge of public artworks that are more embarrassing than enticing.

Photo: courtesy ArtsinStark

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