Election Section

Commentary: Critiquing Visual Arts on Public Display By ALEX NICOLOFF

Friday June 24, 2005

Thanks to Bonnie Hughes for an excellent, historic review of Berkeley’s duplicit culture. It was a rare opinion piece with which I am in total sympathy. Such an uncommonly, insightful perspective as she brings to bear, needs to be supplemented by a critical examination of such visual arts as are on prominent public display.  

Rather than deal with the usual art exhibits presented at the Berkeley Art Museum, on this occasion, I would draw attention to a more unconventional venue, that of the display windows in the downtown, Berkeley-owned parking garage. It is space now devoted to the visual arts for the pleasure of the unsuspecting passersby. Compliments need to be extended to the anonymous individuals that not only conceived the plan but also the installers that have been managing the inviting variety of walk-along exhibits, visible from the Berkeley Repertory Theater across the street.  

There needs to be a greater focus on the civic arts in Berkeley, in particular, public sculpture. I must say it is not an inspiring picture. In a town so heavily preoccupied with practical politics, Berkeley is an artistically “blighted” city with hardly any public art that can be recognized as such, neither “HERE” nor “THERE,” or anywhere else for that matter. Such examples of public art as do exist, are of questionable aesthetic merit.  

There is, firstly of course, that racist abomination in the Berkeley Marina, clearly depicting a virulent hostility against San Francisco (or is it intended for the Far East?). The ceramic sculpture is a direct swipe in the manner of a 12th century Haniwa warrior horseman aiming his arrow high into the sky, hardly a fitting icon to have at the foot of Berkeley. What can its defiant posture be saying and to whom? To add insult to injury, few people may know that it was actually “plopped” into place in the dark of night without anyone’s knowledge.  

Furthermore, when public officials issued a complaint, the sculptor gathered enough petition signatures to legitimatize it through an initiative on the next ballot. To the shocked surprise of many citizens, he succeeded. This is not a personal opinion of mine but a historic fact. There it remains to this day, as a centerpiece at the head of the pier. It is a commanding and aggressive display of arrogant conceit and native-born fascism! What did the voters of this town really have in mind when they approved of it? What did they say in opposing it? I’d say, the name for that sort of offensive behavior is nothing less than cultural rape. (If there is anyone out there interested in signing a petition to have it removed, please let me know and I shall pass it along.)  

In contrast, Dorothy Bryant’s adjoining article on “Mud Flat Sculpture” is a sad commentary on a photographic documentation, long since disappeared. It was a collection of photos recording the “Mud Flat Sculpture” at the waterfront. Here were grassroots, an art expression of a rapidly changing world as seen by both artists and the audience of motorists daily driving by. It could be seen by everyone for free, without a red carpet, come-on.  

The art movement of Dada (in World War I) had once again been revived by unknown students as sculptural “graffiti.” “Found objects” could once again have a new, albeit short, life span. It was a fleeting world of novel and entertaining imagery changing every day. The originality of “Mud Flat Sculpture” however, lay in the fact that students would stroll by and pick up drift wood to build sculptures that would last a few days, before being disassembled by someone to build a new image. It was a free-for-all reminding one of a hippy, happy-land where everything belonged to everyone, all the time. (Many years ago Burma Shave did a similar thing. It lined up several posters containing a message in a poetry format, spaced out for a half mile down the highway. It would at least relieve boredom.)  

One more example of unofficial public art must be mentioned. It was generated in the time of massive student unrest in Berkeley and so, should be recognized as a historic site. Several anonymous individuals, acting independently, constructed a large, welded pipe sculpture and ensconced it in Ohlone Park (Grant and Hearst streets). It marked the occasion of an earlier march in 1969. This particular demonstration began in People’s Park on Telegraph Avenue and ended up in “People’s Park Annex” on Hearst Street. It was an evening of primitive drumming and free dancing around a huge bonfire, built over the incomplete BART tunnel. It was a revival of virtually primitive, Paleolithic sensibilities. (The sculpture has been repaired and repainted several times since its installation.) 

To my knowledge, there are several examples of civic-sponsored public art that need to be given special attention. What can one say in public about the amorphous pile of whatever it is supposed to be that appears in the very heart of downtown Berkeley (on the corner of Shattuck and Addison Street). One wonders what viewpoints were expressed in favor of it by a majority of the appointed members of the Art Commission? What did the minority say about it that is printable? Mention must be made in passing of the large number of sidewalk plaques of poetry to be seen while waiting in line at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. So much for officially sanctioned public visual art that includes the literary arts. Does anyone know of anything else that can be added to this list? 

Three final examples. One must not leave out the model of a World War I, fighter airplane, mounted on a solitary position the tidelands of San Francisco Bay for many years (south of University Avenue). It would bring a smile of delight to children and relieve the boredom of drivers passing by.  

Secondly, though few may see it, there is a very competent, splendidly large, spray-can painting authorized by school officials in the yard of Whittier Arts Magnet School (Virginia and Shattuck). 

To my knowledge, there is only one last, civic-sponsored installation that needs to be mentioned. It is a typographically pathetic example of simple signage in gross size rather than being a sculpture in the more familiar sense. It is located on the border of Berkeley and Oakland, Ashby and MLK Streets, and is named “HERE” and “THERE,” reminiscent of Hollywood’s gigantic, hillside sign. Will its class snobbery needlessly raise the ire of Oaklanders for many years to come?  


Alex Nicoloff is a Berkeley artist.›