Saturday, September 15, 2007

Hyde Park Anti-Progress: Part II

Take a Deep Breath. It's Time for a Discussion About Murals.

When we talked about this gem, I pointed out a dilemma with public art: who decides when it has served its useful life?

At the risk of being publicly excoriated, I'm going to talk about murals. Murals that some of you may love.

But before we start I want to make sure you understand: I'm not a white wall fanatic. I'm not a gated-community board-member type who likes to tell people what color to paint the trim on their houses.

I LIKE art.

Some of my best friends are artists.

And yet...

I think this puppy should go to mural heaven:

The Chicago Public Art group recommends restoration of Under City Stone, although there is currently no funding for it. (The University of Chicago and the Southeast Chicago Commission have arranged funding to refurbish the murals under the 56th Street viaduct [Childhood is Without Prejudice, and Where We Come From...Where We are Going].) But even if there were thousands of dollars available I just can't see how restoration would work on this one, and whether we should spend money that way. After all, the above section is one of the only ones you can still see.

Most of it looks like this:

And this:

I suppose that professional restorers have found Rembrandts under paintings of dogs playing poker and have successfully, painstakingly brought the masterpiece to life.

But will you flay me for saying this isn't a Rembrandt? I mean, look at that guy's head in the middle of the segment below -- the guy who's tilting his face up, with the underbite (you may click the photo to enlarge). He looks like a cartoon next to everyone else. What's with THAT?

There are entire sections that are blocked out, to cover up tagging, so someone will have to find archived photos to try to reproduce what was there...

On the east end, the metra tracks leak onto the wall, so that the image AND whatever tagging was there are completely obliterated:

Here's what I think, taking as given that there are either public funds or private donations aplenty for public art (which there aren't):

1) We should consider outdoor murals to be temporary in nature. They're not inside the Sistine Chapel, after all -- they're exposed to the elements, to the railway drippings from above, and to taggers who ought to be ashamed.

2) We should periodically paint the slate clean and give another artist a shot at temporary fame.

3) We should subject potential artists to a competition in order to choose folks with genuine talent. If I'm on the panel, I'll vote for representational artists. But I'd better not be on the panel, because it should be professional artists -- not a neighborhood committee -- who do the picking.

4) We should make it clear to the artist that his work is temporary, so that he won't get all huffy when it's time for it to go.

5) We can document the different murals over time through extensive photos. Perhaps the Hyde Park Antiquarian Society would take on this job.

A Little Bit about the Mural:

In all the years Under City Stone has been up I've never read the poem above those poor downtrodden, mostly pregnant folks. To tell you the truth, as a kid I avoided looking at the mural at all, because it seemed to want desperately to disturb me, and I refused to comply. Besides, I always seem to be walking in the wrong direction or on the wrong side to actually read it, or I was in a car going west under the viaduct.

The artist is Caryl Yasko, who (through the ever trusty Google search) seems to be alive and well in Wisconsin.

The text is a poem by James Agee (1909 - 1955), with a fairly grim message about the alienation of commuting by subway -- a message I don't much agree with, after driving around L.A. in my car for a year (that's alienation).

Rapid Transit
(c. 1937)

Squealing under city stone
The millions on the millions run,
Every one a life alone,
Every one a soul undone:

There all the poisons of the heart
Branch and abound like whirling brooks
And there through every useless art
Like spoiled meats on a butcher's hooks

Pour forth upon their frightful kind
The faces of each ruined child:
The wrecked demeanors of the mind
That now is tamed, and once was wild.


Famac said...

I was going to guess some grade school kids did that mural. Thanks for researching it!

It's possible the artist has a photographic record of the mural, though if age has made him wiser - he won't be able to find it.

But, you know what -- as a comuter and taxpayer - I find the message of that mural totally insulting -- and demoralizing!

I'm sorry but that's not the purpose of public art in a public place.

Personally, I would like them to tile under the viaducts like they do in so many subways. They could tile them in white with large blue letters indicating the stop.

chicago pop said...

I can't stress strongly enough that the artistic decoration or enhancement of public space should not be subject to the decisions of ad hoc neighborhood committees, or to politicians allotting space to constituencies as if they were doling out funds for street repairs.

Any public space that is dedicated to art should solicit the best proposals from the widest applicant pool possible, to be judged by a qualified panel of the City's recognized members of the arts community.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Under City Stone is probably very well documented in photographs, and I think "restoration" would entail repainting it. Another mural created by this artist in Whitewater Wisconsin (The Prairie Tillers mural) was painted over when the owner of the building decided that the mural was peeling too badly to repair. The community objected, and Caryl Yasko repainted it. I think they prepared the brick surface with another material, so that the new mural would last longer. Here's a link that shows the 1980 original, and her 2003 re-painted version:

Famac said...

Don't any of the people who liked the art that was there before Yasko's mural have a voice?

Elizabeth Fama said...

I'm starting to realize that public murals are an inherently controversial thing, because peoples' tastes in paintings and artistic styles are so varied (and often so strong). Someone I love dislikes much of Van Gogh's work, and that seemed unbelievable to me, until I heard her explain her point of view, and then I saw it was at least a well-thought opinion -- even if I didn't agree.

It's true even of sculptures: not many people defended the Picasso downtown when it was installed. You'll still find artists who despise it. Yet it has become iconic and beloved.

chicago pop said...

There's no accounting for taste!

Which is why I'm content to let public art be juried and curated by accomplished folks within the arts community that have regional or national reputations. Two neighbors on the block are probably a) not going to agree and b) not be in tune with what the most meaningful developments are in the national art scene and what is therefore most worth hosting.

Famac said...

What would we do if they decided some type of graffiti-style art was suitable to Hyde Park underpasses? Every underpass might end up looking like a giant tag. Wasn't this the case at 47th Street before it got painted over?

So, it’s not so far fetched! Look what got put up in the Sixties - a piece ridiculing people commuting to jobs - right at the entrance to a train station.

What would a panel of artists (i.e. liberals) think appropriate in these charged times? There's a very good chance it would fall along those lines.

The solution is no art, particularly in high tagged areas like train stations and underpasses. The City and Metra need to be able to clear these areas of tagging without being burdened by worries about murals.

Finally, we already have enough people scared to come into Hyde Park. We can't afford to have the entry ways into the neighborhood be uninviting.

chicago pop said...

I wouldn't be opposed to the idea of tiled underpasses, either...perhaps with some kind of mosaic decoration appropriate to each station, like you find in some subway systems (New York, Paris)...easy to clean and neutral.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I'm just waiting for someone to blast famac about wanting clean, neutral walls so that people won't be scared to come to Hyde Park. When famac offered that opinion in a Hyde Park Herald letter to the editor, he was ridiculed in a subsequent letter for being a racist.

I couldn't understand why that was -- why someone's dislike of public murals is equivalent to prejudice against other races.

I have to credit famac and Chicago Pop with bringing the tile/mosaic option to the discussion. I think I prefer that solution, too. Besides, mosaic art can be really beautiful.

J/tati said...

I do not feel qualified to weigh in on the politics of public art here, but must sheepishly admit to finding the Yasko murals rather endearing. I'd like to see more public art, not less... and of course plenty of investment in timeless, beautifully urbane public works.

But as a train station fetishist, Chicago disappoints. I love pedestrian paths, breezeways, and underpasses. Whether or not they're decorated with "public" art, it's comforting to see that they have some sort of intentional design.

* Bayview Station, Toronto
* Trafalgar Square, London
* Barcelona! 1 2
* Tokyo. 1 2
* Bangkok
* Aoshima
* Wooster Street Art

As for the "graffiti" sub-topic, maybe it's best left to its own thread. It too is a very loaded topic, yes?

chicago pop said...

Thank you J/Tati from Afghanistan, for the awesome pics of train station/subway art, and the many ways to approach it.

Elizabeth Fama said...

J/Tati: those are really outstanding, and I'd prefer many of them to Under City Stone (which, despite Yasko's importance in the public art world, I find depressing, dated, and worse -- artistically weak). But I don't think you can count the Chiba Bridge mural and the Wooster Street Art examples that you included as "intentional," do you? You're sneaking us into the graffiti thread, because those are "volunteer" art, aren't they?

But more importantly, how the heck do you embed the URL link in a comment? I wanna do that!

J/tati said...

So as for the links, I just typed in plain html.

As for the graffiti reference, well, I'm new here, so I won't wade into the topic except to point out that it's really a very grey area.

In fact, the person responsible for the Chiba bridge is actually a commercial artist who has been hired by firms such as Coca Cola, Sony/Playstation, and Disneyland Japan to do, well... mural advertisements in the style of street graffiti. This is a trend seen throughout Japan, but also it is quite prevalent in New York, LA, Barcelona, Rio, and Miami.

I should point out that I personally am not really a fan of the contemporary street art aesthetic. I really like Soviet building murals, Diego Rivera's work in San Francisco, and the large scale murals done for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic games.

I guess it's just surprising to me that for such a rich city with great public works largess, there aren't more public and high quality "street" art projects. In terms of the south side alone, there are hundreds of potential sites nearby that could benefit from intentional design.

By intentional, I am mean architecture, urban design, street art, and formally commissioned artists' works. And for that matter, this necessarily would include commercial adverts, yes? Richard Layman, a DC "urban revitalization activist" writes quite a bit about this. The opposite is in many ways what we seem to have here on the south side: plenty of forgotten and unused, unattractive and unadorned spaces. This is not to say that there cannot be beauty in disrepair (the mysterious Metra drips can be seen as graceful, I guess; weather-beaten concrete is popular among amateur photographers)... but intentionally designed spaces can be uplifting, inspiring, or at least provocative.

Famac said...

j/tati - Welcome!! Freedom for Afghanistan!

I think Mayor Daley favors the green approach - focusing on gardening as art, which I am totally in favor of.

Love the Soviet murals, too!

My opinion about public spaces is; safety first. If I'm creeped out walking under the 57th Street underpass at night, what is a 70-year old person going through?

Public areas should be designed to promote our civil rights, then our culture. When art inhibits the use of public spaces, I classify it as a nuisance.

Does anyone think that Soldier Field having a mural of bears being shot and skinned is a good idea at the ticket gate?

It's the same thing.

J/tati said...

I guess we can respectfully disagree about the nature/intent of the Yasko murals, but I do agree of course on the safety (or perception of safety) around transit hubs... but doesn't this actually have far more to do with lighting, utilisation rates, density, and plain old foot traffic? I am used to living in neighborhoods that were either designed around or adapted to transit hubs. Even those with rampant graffiti and aggressive vagrants "felt" much safer to me than Hyde Park did when I first moved here. The lack of station-adjacent commerce and eerie quiet after 6PM near the tracks kind of creeped me out. The murals? Not so much.

Sorry for the digression here. I know we're discussing the murals and I realize that many locals must find them trying. But seriously, if Istria stayed open until midnight, the smell of fresh espresso and some steamy late night windows would help to address the perceived safety problem at least in the case of the 57th Street exit.

Perhaps I am missing something here, but I don't completely understand the notion that the implied message of the murals somehow intimidates transit users. Can someone enlighten me please? Thanks! :)

chicago pop said...

Here's where I'll try to step up to the role of moderator: famac has some objections in principle to the way the public space of the viaducts is used for art of a certain type, and this is legitimate. I'm not a fan of the murals either. I think a lot of this sensibility that famac and I share has to do with living in Chicago through times that were much worse than they are now, and the associations that come with that. The murals sort of look like graffiti; graffiti symbolizes gang-ridden neighborhoods and drive-bys; this can bring up bad associations.

However, I think that these associations don't necessarily translate into real safety issues at these viaducts. Maintenance of the viaducts, and J/Tati's observations about how the Metra stations are more transit "adjacent" than transit "oriented," and how Hyde Park retail unfortunately shuts down at night -- for the many reasons we try to analyze on this blog -- have a lot more to do with the general vibe of insecurity that wafts in late in the evenings. Even with blank or tiled walls -- which I don't object to -- these areas would still be scary late at night. Conversely, if there were cafes all over and a few bistros spilling onto the sidewalk, the viaducts could be plastered with posters and tags, and people might actually like it.

curtsy said...

Instead of the use of graffiti, why not just hire young men of color to "aimlessly" hang out underneath the viaducts in order to intimidate white northsiders and suburbanites from visiting HP?

curtsy said...

As for a potent mix of public art and a sense of Danger underneath the 57th Street viaduct, why not pipe in the sophisticated strains of Ludwig van's 9th ala Kubrick for some swingin' ultra-violence? It would be quite dramatic, even cinematic.

Famac said...

Bright colors reflect light. Dark colors don't.

An increase in lighting would obviously help, but it would be much more energy efficient for the walls of the viaducts to promote lighting, rather than hinder it.

The murals that are there now don't promote efficient lighting -- in fact they act as camoflage to any cops driving through there.

JavaChick said...

A voice for the mural.

I grew up walking by "Under City Stone", since I lived at 55th and Cornell for many years. In High School and afterwards my friends and I recited the poem every day as we walked under the viaduct at 55th.

This poem helped shape who I am, helped me be conscious of all I have in life, and I love it as much as I love any piece of artwork.

I love its style, its darkness and the complexity of the characters represented. To truly appreciate the poem, you must recite it out loud while walking along the viaduct.

Murals have always made me feel safer, like civilization was with me. To me viaducts with only graffiti or nothing at all feel inherently unsafe.

Not only do I believe that "Under City Stone" should be restored, I would contribute to a restoration fund.

Mariooch said...

I always liked this mural when I lived in Hyde Park in the late 70's. I liked the poem. I liked that guy on the end that they painted in who was talking on the public phone, which was a real phone on the wall, and which is no longer there (truly, are there public phones anywhere?) I recently went back for a visit and was surprised to see the mural still there, crumbling though it is; it feels like an old friend.