Yesterday, I panned the sculpture planned for the plaza at Richardson's rebuilt Heights Recreation Center and Aquatic Center. In turn, some panned my review. Now that I've had 24 hours to think it over, do I have anything to add?
After the jump, more highbrow art review from someone with no training whatsoever.
I admit that I was not involved in the process of selecting the sculpture design, so I don't know how it all went down. I'm reviewing the result and doing a lot of speculating on how it all came about. Speculation is dangerous.
I admit that I didn't research what the goal of commissioning this artwork was. I assumed that honoring the old playground equipment (especially, but not exclusively, that rocket ship) was the primary objective. But I'll concede that the final design is much more expansive than that, including more of Richardson's history as inspiration. Because it was "art" that was being commissioned, not a museum piece, just putting that old rocket ship on a pedestal was not going to cut it.
I may have implied that artist Jeff Laramore was given instructions that constrained his artistic license. I don't know that for a fact. But even if he was given wide latitude, I suspect he understood what the customer would approve. It was a contest, after all. He had to win the commission. Maybe he managed to create a design he, too, was in love with, or maybe he felt it was the best he could do with the constraints he probably did have -- money, materials, and customer. I really have no idea. In the end, it really doesn't matter what the artist understood. What matters is what he produced.
So, let's grade the design he delivered on different possible scales. As a museum piece, it fails. The rocket ship is ripped apart and converted into a gateway. Museums don't use their historical treasures as raw materials for creating something new.
As sculpture that is a cultural reflection of Richardson, it probably gets a high grade. Screw up your face just so and you can imagine that old playground rocket ship. The radio tower evokes Collins Radio. The hanging piece with colored and lighted panes evokes a computer chip and Texas Instruments. All of this makes this sculpture particularly suited to Richardson.
At the same time, it means this sculpture probably can't stand on its own anywhere else. Place it in some other state or city, where people won't recognize all the cultural references to Richardson in its parts, and people will probably see it less as a rocket gateway to Richardson's past and future and more as a metallic, ornamented, Christmas tree. (It could be worse. See murals of Pawnee, Indiana.)
Let's consider all this in relation to other examples of civic art close to home -- for example, downtown Dallas. In front of Dallas City Hall stands one of Henry Moore's largest bronze sculptures. If it has a name, it's "Dallas Piece," indicating just how abstract it is. Many people dismiss it as a big blob. Just down the street, in Pioneer Plaza, is a newer public sculpture, a bronze cattle drive. No doubt about what this one is. It's as literal as the Moore is abstract. We could argue all day which piece is the greater art (the Moore), but I bet more tourist snapshots, by far, are taken in front of those longhorn cattle than are taken in front of the Moore bronze. Popularity is important. But having great art is also important. Richardson is getting bronze cattle, not a Henry Moore bronze abstract. Popular as that bronze cattle drive might be, it's just not great art. (No disrespect intended to the cattle drive's artist, Robert Summers, but it's why he is not as famous as Henry Moore.)
I ended my earlier review with reference to Steve Jobs. Obviously, Apple Computer has thousands of employees, dozens of committees, teams of engineers, artists, accountants, etc., all of whom contributed to the design of the iPad and iPhone. But no one doubts that Steve Jobs himself had final approval of every product Apple shipped. He had a vision and famously drove Apple employees to "make it great." Apple was lucky to have a genius fill that role. Not every company (or city) is as fortunate. Just as long as we're not Pawnee, I'm content.