Friday, November 9, 2007

Zeno's Paradox: Do Classically Trained Public Muralists Exist?

posted by Elizabeth Fama

A recent headline in the Hyde Park Herald caught my eye. It's a second appeal for information leading to the whereabouts of Albert Zeno, the muralist who created "Alewives and Mercury Fish," an amateurish piece of public art that graces the southern wall of the 55th Street Metra underpass.

I don't want to sound mean about this -- I genuinely hope that Albert Zeno is alive and well. And if the Chicago Public Art Group does find him, I hope Mr. Zeno has spent the intervening years studying at the Chicago School of Representational Art,* for the sake of us all.

* SORA's motto: "Life without art is unimaginable. Art without study is unattainable."


chicago pop said...

Hey, this is HPP's 100th post! Hooray!

Famac said...

Bethy, you should be writing for 30 Rock.

Peter Rossi said...

shameless plug for SORA.

I hope this does not bring on a debate about the merits of representational art. PLEASE, not that!

Beth brings up an important point. When "art" no matter how bad becomes "public", it inherits a permanency. You can't just paint it over or tear it down when public opinion goes against the art.

This means you have to be very careful in chosing public art and artists. Clearly, Hyde Park has some dreadful public art.

We need to ask the question -- who stuck us with this stuff?

Elizabeth Fama said...

Hey, readers, did you all call and write to Leslie Hairston and Toni Preckwinkle about the hideous sculpture on 55th Street?

When my friend called Leslie Hairston about the sculpture, the response was that it was "public art" and there was no way of removing it without public approval. "But it has deteriorated to the point where it's no longer art, and not salvageable" seems not to be a compelling enough argument against keeping it.

To my mind, this sculpture is the litmus test. This is the most clear-cut case possible: it's completely unreasonable to keep the sculpture, because -- leaving ugliness aside -- it can't be rehabbed. The materials are not weather-resistant!

Frankly, the sculpture makes me shy of ANY public art, if we'll be locked into it for all eternity.

Otto said...

Frankly, the sculpture makes me shy of ANY public art, if we'll be locked into it for all eternity.

You have noticed the monstrosity immediately to its west, right? That sculpture used to drive me bats, but at this point I'm satisfied to think of it as a "Guernican" retort to Pei.

It at least seems to be fleeing in the correct direction, and the similarities to the "volk" images that long have surrounded El Mus are there to be found, further evoking País Vasco.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Otto, I think we're talking about the same sculpture: the one on the median at 55th and Harper. We've tried to get the alderman to take it down during the repaving project, and she refused. It's in complete disrepair. It's not salvageable because the materials were not weather-resitant to begin with. (Search the HPP label "eyesore.")

It's not as off-topic as it seems to mention it in the context of the mural discussion, because it sums up the problem with public art in our NUMCY (nothing-must-change) neighborhood. If THAT thing -- which no one loves and is actually BROKEN -- can't be removed, is all of our public art going to be permanent, even when no one likes it any more? If so, we have to think very carefully before we allow it to be installed.

Public art that's exposed to the elements should be considered temporary. Leastways I think so.

Otto said...

Yes, yes, the same sculpture. I understood your original sentiment.

Perhaps I was too terse. In the case of this particular sculpture, I've long since come to the belief that it is fitting in its appearance, a cherry on the psychic cake that Monoxide Towers serves up, if one will.

Let me quote Pei:

We are increasingly building for a transient society. The majority of buildings in our communities are impersonal in nature and should in my opinion be so expressed.

Clearly, on 55th Street the man overwhelmingly succeeded in actualizing this sentiment.

But "fissures in the surface of the earth are fissures in the surface of the mind," in a sense. The psychic tension engendered by a warehouse for "transient" souls is bound to break somehow, even if shored up with pillboxes on the perimeter outside a dry moat.

And this is what I now think that odd sculpture is: Monoxide turned inside-out, its contents and content neatly summarized. To object solely to the sculpture, I would say, is an attempt to convert karma into neurosis--to ignore or repress the plot.

I hope that's clearer. Sometimes I'm better off terse.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Holy mackerel! I'm out of my philosophical league AND I don't do drugs.

I still want that thing outta here, even if you're resigned to it being a manifestation of the architectural horrors surrounding it (um, was that the gist of what you said?).

chicago pop said...

I'm still waiting for an explanation of the link between the bathroom tile sculpture and Basque nationalism that was implied in an earlier comment... (surely no offense meant to el pais vasco?)

Otto said...

OK, I'll try to wrap this one up.

The link is merely that I consider this sculpture to be Hyde Park's instantiation of Guernica, a conclusion reinforced by the similarities in execution to those of the "folksy" images that inevitably seem to surround depictions of the Basque card game Mus.

(The latter would have been clearer if I had room for a scanner and the heart to tear up my copy of a little booklet by Antonio Mingote.)

Beau monde de masures....

This doesn't mean that I'm resigned to it, just that my version of the question is not "what" (the object), or "who" (It's just a box of rain, I don't know who put it there / Believe it if you need it, or leave it if you dare; this also takes care of "why" for the Evelyn Wood camp), but "how"?

Tat tvam asi, in short. It's a job more suited to Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys than to Leslie Hairston, well-known enthusiast of flux and sworn enemy of drainage.

Peter Rossi said...

yeah, man this is like a really existential thing.

Hey, gimme another shot of Johnnie Black before you continue this.

fubar is the only word for this here sh*t

Peter Rossi said...

by "sh*t" i mean the sculpture NOT the comments

Dana said...

Everyday when I walk to the bus, I pass by both the atrocious "sculpture" and the 55th St. Metra mural. With both the 55th/Lake Park repavement and the Metra station construction, I figured the eyesores would finally be abolished. Alas, not such!

Public art? How about public eye damage? And I caught the date on the north wall Metra mural: 1977, I believe. It's been 30 years, and the elements have most definitely taken their toll. Graffiti and white paint squares make the original close to indistinguishable. The mural's depressing state, in fact, reflects poorly on Hyde Park, making the nieghborhood appear as if it does not care enough to maintain its attempt at culture (though I beg to differ that these pieces of "art" are any indication of such).

We may be repaving our streets, but this "art" counteracts the attempt to make the intersection look nice. Ald. Hairston, make the atrocity go away!

P.S. Great blog! I agree with everything you stand for and hope to see progression take place in HP.

Peter Rossi said...


please contact Leslie Hairston (an email is all you need to do). We need to tell her loud and clear that this stuff has to go.

Dana said...

Peter, I have just added "compose an e-mail to Ald. Hairston" to my to-do list.