May 7, 2010

City a rock of sculptural integrity

Phillip Isaacson

(This story was originally published November 22nd, 2009)

 

When it comes to making graven images, New Englanders were once a notably skittish lot. With the exception of shallowly carved tombstones in which a Puritan Divine might give himself a pat on his virtuous back, we produced no public sculpture of any note during our first 150 years.

To understand why Puritans cut images for their graves but wouldn't allow them in their meetinghouses is a voyage through theologic efflorescence that eludes me. And I've read the book.

In any event, around 1800 the skies brightened and carvers emerged from the cabinet shops of Salem and Boston with commissions to embellish some of the most elegant structures that grace this country. This was followed by a pause, and then came the Civil War and with it came civic sculpture in volume.

The granite Civil War soldier, reflective and weary of the fight, is our most familiar form of public sculpture. He and perhaps a sentimental cemetery figure are the most that the usual community has garnered by way of public sculpture.

Portland has acquired more – a great deal more – and much of it is recent. How has it fared? Very well, I think, for a city that has generously embraced the concept.

Its most ambitious efforts – Longfellow and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument – were commissioned at a time when people took their time. There is time to appraise, to reflect when you're walking or driving a team of horses. These monuments anticipate this. They don't offer themselves to casual glancing. Their role was more than as targets in a system of urban vistas. They were articles of municipal pride, and through them, the city extended its persona.

Over the years, Longfellow has retained his dignity; he rises above the vehicular possession of his namesake square. The Soldiers and Sailors is more conceited, and has not fared as well. Traffic has diminished its presence.

Both raise the issue of the role of public sculpture in Portland. Their commemoration of a cultural figure or of bravery was pretty standard stuff then, and that is still so, but new purposes have been assumed by sculpture and new pressures on the exposition of it exist.

As to new purposes, think of "Michael," the modernist group of abstract forms near One City Center. A rare purpose for mourning sculpture, it mourns the circumstances of the death of a young man. Or think of "American Baseball Family Group" at Hadlock Field, a caricature in bronze of our passion for a sport for which we will forgive anything. Or consider the "Jewel Box" bus shelter on Congress Street. An exotic, dreamy touch of whimsy.

Too, there is the Sandy MacLeod group of constructions at Fish Point. This is raw abstraction out of brutal materials that challenge the sea and the sky. Of these examples, two are social commentary, one is functional whimsy and one is art for the glory of art.

Of the four, in exposition, MacLeod is the most traditional. You have to walk to it to find it; your effort accrues power to that of the sculptor. This is not drive-by art. Neither is "Baseball." It too requires you to stop if you're going to get anything out of the experience.

The bus shelter is likely to be drive-by, and you'll miss the wit and skill of the designer/artist unless you actually sit in it. I'm afraid that "Michael" in its current setting is also a drive-by, and that costs it a lot.

I visited 12 pieces of sculpture in connection with this project. In today's world, seven of them are drive-by. While the mission of public sculpture gets ever wider, its challenge will be to make its point concisely enough for people in a hurry to get it.

Perhaps one among the drive-bys did.

Philip Isaacson of Lewiston has been writing about the arts for the Maine Sunday Telegram for 44 years. He can be contacted at:

pmisaacson@isaacsonraymond.com

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