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SUMMER OF PLOP
by Pedro Vélez
 
In Chicago, after months of incessant hype comparable to the Bulls’ campaign to land Lebron James, Eye and Cardinal, a new public sculpture by Chicago art star Tony Tasset, is finally here. Too bad hype didn’t live up to the expectations. LeBron chose the Miami Heat and Tasset gave us an expensive piece of Plop Art.

For a sculpture, Eye is a dud. It lacks physical 3D authority, relegating its technical wizardly to painting -- that is, it’s a three-story tall fiberglass sphere painted with a realistic rendering of an eyeball, modeled on Tasset’s own blue iris, with protruding red varicose veins. Plus, Eye has other problems: Its companion piece, 100-plus banners that run along State Street in downtown Chicago, depict a red cardinal flying over blue skies that is so stiff and flat you might think it were dead. 

Eye’s production cost is in the six-figures, all of it funded by the Chicago Loop Alliance by means of a special tax paid by State Street property owners. The goal is to bait tourists and further buff the commercial luster of the business corridor. Foot traffic should not be a hard to get, since the masses love roadside clunkers. But will it be a thoroughgoing success like Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Millennium Park? I doubt it.

The monumental, bean-shaped Cloud Gate has become an icon; you can sense a collective sigh of wonderment when people come up to it. Its mirror surface reflects the lakefront and lets viewers see themselves as an integral part of the city. On the other hand, Eye is a glorified one-liner, superficial and condescending towards the public. Is Tasset trying to warn us that "Big Brother" is watching?

As always with public art, complaints have compared the cost of the project to other worthy purposes, like schools and public transportation. Don’t get me wrong, Tasset is a good artist -- some even say he is the Jeff Koons of Chicago. And considering popular taste, chances are that Eye will become a regular stop on the city tour.

But as long as we’re talking public monuments, the Loop Alliance could commission Gabriel Villa to throw up some culturally diverse and politically challenging graffs around the business district. After all, he has a proven record of accomplishment at drawing official attention [see "Chicago Build Up," Jan. 29, 2010].

Or what about hometown sculptor Ben Stone? We need a remake of his The Ghost of Harry Caray, his inflatable memorial to the legendary Chicago baseball announcer who never saw the Cubs (the loveable losers) win a World Series. The balloon was 18 feet tall, and hovered over Wrigley Field during the Cubs play-off game against San Francisco Giants for the wild card game in 1998.

After all, Chicago worships sports -- we have two teams for each professional sport! Last month two million Chicago Blackhawk hockey fans paraded through town to celebrate another champion season, so just imagine the economic stimulus of a three-story-tall chocolate Stanley Cup, designed by Paul McCarthy and sited in the downtown area.

But if you thought one piece of Plop Art was enough for a one-mile radius, the Art Institute of Chicago has placed two jet engines (once part of Boeing EC135 Looking Glass long-range surveillance planes) on its fancy Bluhm Sculpture Terrace. Though it looks like industrial junk, the work is not by Swiss provocateur Christoph Büchel but by 2009 Turner Prize nominee Roger Hiorns, an artist from London.

Once again, the sculpture doesn’t do much, although the press release tries to convince us otherwise: "the artist has incorporated into the engines. . . three pharmaceuticals used to treat trauma and depression, that will be invisible and inaccessible to the viewer, making the connection between global security and individual well being." It’s like "I’ve Got a Secret."

Shane Selzer’s Grey Lady
Before my summer of plop came to an end, I would encounter more eyes in Riding the Grey Lady, a fascinating and crafty installation New York artist Shane Selzer. The work was made during a residency at the School of the Art Institute’s "Summer Studio," which is nicely located on the seventh floor of the historic Louis Sullivan masterpiece Carson Pirie Scott & Co. Building.

Ride the Grey Lady consists of two large and laboriously constructed indexical tablecloths placed over makeshift dinner tables. Their layered black-and-white surfaces have accumulations of dozens of blown-up photocopies of sketches and tiny drawings the artist has made over the years -- while talking on the phone or reading the New York Times.

Selzer tells me the piece is somewhat based on the sculptural works of Burgoyne Diller (1906-1965), one of the first North American artists to indulge in non–objective art and director of the mural division of the New York City Federal Arts Project during the Depression. This explains why she has drawn additions, monuments and proposals over photographs of his work.

Also in the mix are conglomerates of strange and teary Surrealist-looking eyes. On top of these elaborate sculptural tablecloths, the artist has placed ceramic slabs on thin pedestals made of iron. These look like melted horse saddles -- a recurring motif in her work. In addition, on the wall, a photograph shows a pair of hands holding an invisible substance.

With Riding the Grey Lady, Selzer is trying to give plasticity to years of unconscious thoughts; genre, information, intellectual power and public space are other themes. At the same time, Selzer is inviting us to analyze her complicated process. It’s like being to a dinner party where the main course is a metaphorical soup of urgency. A good ending for an afternoon packed with failed, cold, macho conceptualism.


PEDRO VÉLEZ is an artist and critic living in Chicago