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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

My two cents on the local public art conversation;

      Published in the current edition of Seacoast Scene with photos:

Pondering Public Art in Portsmouth
By Tammi J Truax

      Anything that sets a town to talking like the current debate about public art in Portsmouth has done can only be a constructive. First let’s clarify what we are talking about. Public art is defined as art that we encounter as part of the everyday landscape, making it accessible to far more than art displayed in galleries or museums will ever be, and it benefits communities in a variety of ways. Sometimes the art is commissioned by the city, maybe with the input of the people. Sometimes it is guerilla art, like graffiti, though when done without permission, it is usually illegal. Art is always meant to communicate, and sometimes to provoke.
     Public art is not new to Portsmouth. Remember the giant ant in Market Square? Overnight Art sponsors installations every other year by a variety of area artists. The Poet Laureate Program has added several works to the city. The mural behind Gilley’s, painted by John Perry of Wells, was paid for by the city. The Wyland Whaling Wall, one of the most important and site relevant gifts this city has ever received, continues to deteriorate in a shameful state of neglect.
     The Portsmouth Museum of Fine Art recently brought six international street artists who were specifically chosen for the variety and popularity of their work which has been displayed in cities around the world. The MFA says “Street art has its roots in rebellion. Once considered underground … it has over the last thirty years gained acceptance … in the art community.” The current exhibit showcases that work on and off the street. The artists are world renown. Chrzanowski, of Germany, whose outdoor work can be seen at 75 Pleasant and 653 Islington Streets (now vandalized) is widely recognized as possibly the best photorealistic spray paint artist in the world and has developed groundbreaking techniques.
      Much of the criticism of this exhibit is that local artists weren’t included and that the chosen artists didn’t respond to our community. Local artist Bill Paarlberg, whose work many are calling for, responded, “If the Museum wanted a show of graffiti artists, then they were correct to go out and get some known graffiti artists to be in their show.” It isn’t hard to see that some of the artists did respond to their surroundings, especially in Bumblebee’s plain “Bee is for broke” statement painted across a defunct gas station on Islington, and that each responded to their assigned canvas. Participation in one of the several types of tours that the museum offers, including a self guided cell phone tour, is likely to hasten understanding of the artists objectives.
     My teenage son called the exhibit “commissioned graffiti” and claims “it takes all the essence out of the art form”, the guerilla factor being important to him. Yet attendance at the opening reception of this exhibit was remarkable for the wide range of ages in the capacity crowd.
     There is a growing trend we have yet to see here called yarn bombing or grandma graffiti. A global phenomenon, according to Face Book June 11 is International Yarn Bombing Day, when “Fiber artists of the world unite to bring color and beauty to our urban landscape.” (Google it for a delightful gallery tour.) Like commissioned graffiti these knitted works are harmless and/ or temporary. Many are meant to beautify something ugly, like the visiting artist, Chrzanowski, who got started by using abandoned telephone booths and newspaper dispensers and turning them into something else, often with an underlying social commentary. Sometimes they are celebrating something already beautiful, like a doily wrapped tree. Video projection, street installation, and even flash mobs are considered other forms of street art.
     One question that doesn’t seem to be part of the discussion is if Portsmouth is doing enough about public art. Several objectives in the Master Plan make it sound like a priority. We do have an ordinance requiring one percent of the cost of new public construction be spent for public art. Private developers don’t have to bother. Our next exciting installation, a memorial for the African American burying ground downtown by sculptor Jerome Meadows of Georgia (which will incorporate the art of local schoolchildren) is receiving some public funding. It will enhance the city in a multitude of ways for decades to come. His work in cities like Albuquerque and Anchorage attests to that. The outcry about this exhibit calls our commitment to public art into question. Paarlberg asks, “How can a town that requires all its buildings to look like The Greatest Hits of 1820 Red Brick be at the same time one where creativity flourishes? “

     Portsmouth resident and Button Factory based artist Tim Gaudreau commented, “ I think The Portsmouth Museum of Art's recent street exhibition is really provocative in putting new stuff out in our city, but most of the already existing work is quite traditional -- that work seems to function as memorial or commemoration rather than creating statements of exquisite beauty or provocation.”
      Portsmouth could look to Newburyport as an example of what public art can do for a city. Gaudreau is one of several artists who are making a sustainable garden and pedestrian path along their Rail Trail. It was designed to heal a hurt piece of land and to strengthen the public’s relationship with nature. Among its many features are two grass couches that will function as living park furniture created by Gaudreau. A real green and interactive park, nothing at all like the costly and gray “green space” recently appearing on Ceres Street. Newburyport’s vast array of permanent public art can be inspirational to us all.

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