I admit to being one of those who have used the term decorative in talking about my frustration at public art works which are either so underfunded, or so value-engineered, or so constrained by a political or community process, that the spirit and vision of the artist has been eroded. What's left of these grand ideas?—just a little decoration of urban space, just a little more visual noise in an already cacaphonous environment. But Mary Lynn managed to push through the little mantra I had grown comfortable with, and pointed me in another direction.
I was also, unbeknownst to me, being prepared to shift thinking after seeing an exhibition curated by friends and artists Debby and Larry Kline. The re-examination of Jewish feminist artists at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center featured the work of early feminist artist Miriam Shapiro, a name I remember from my undergraduate art history classes. I hadn't seen this work in thirty years, but it struck a chord with me that prepared me for the challenge to the panelists a week later. Shapiro was much criticized for her working with "women's themes" (read, decorative). On display were works that showed beautifully crafted paper and feather art. They seemed extremely fresh in their revelation of feminist issues, women's work, our ideas of beauty, and the notion of romance. They were unabashedly decorative and skillfully crafted, and their core went beyond, deeply so, the superficial. For more on Miriam Shapiro, click here.
I'm grateful for the challenge of the artist, Mary Lynn Dominguez, and the curatorial skill of Debby and Larry Kline. They have started me down the path of rethinking what we mean when we say "public art." Rather than determining in advance what art isn't, why not allow all forms to exist and see what the contemporary artist can do with them.
Human beings respond to that which is beautiful and well done, not just in the arts but in all that humans touch with their hands, heart and intellect. I think that's why there is a fascination with Martha Stewart and the raging Teutels of "American Chopper." Being an unabashed TV addict I freely admit to spending time watching Martha make an omlette with a great French chef, or Paul and Paulie creating the ultimate theme-machine chopper. You might say that neither is more than its very mundane ingredients—just a few eggs or some bent metal on two tires. But oh the results! Say what you will about the personalities; the great attention to detail, beauty, craft, linked to Ritual / Meaning / Metaphor (the hallmark of good art) keep me watching in admiration.
Maybe it's time to bring back the heroic man on horseback as yet another form worthy of rethinking and reworking by today's public artist's. Who knows what the results might be?
* Miriam Shapiro's "Mother Russia" is a stenciled fan that illustrates this post. Click on the Stencil Revolution link for examples of this populist craft.