Archive for the 'Environmental Art' Category


Tipped off by my friend Heidi, I’d been reminding myself to keep an eye out for Mick Wiggins’ work any time I’ve hopped on BART to get somewhere. Never graced with a sighting, after a while I just figured I was unlucky and promptly forgot about them. Weeks turned into months, until one weekend returning from Balboa Park I spotted Steller’s Jay, feeling like any bird watcher who has spotted an elusive lifer after a long search.

Since I generally take MUNI rather than BART, the story pretty much could have ended there. But on the way back from the 49 Geary building on a subsequent weekend, on impulse I walked down to the Montgomery station rather than catching the 27 Bryant home. Inside, literally every available advertisement display was devoted to a Canadian tourism campaign (which informed the prospective visitor that through some recent shift in Plate Tectonics, the Great White North had been conveniently relocated just a stop away from Lake Merritt). Were Wiggins’ pictures gone for good? Or were downtown BART stations just too valuable to make space for a few pieces of public art? I decided to head back to Balboa Park the next day and see if the artist’s work was still up.

BART’s poster program is an interesting experiment. By reclaiming some of the ad space, the agency demonstrates a willingness to acknowledge the public nature of its enterprise. The hills of Black-Tailed Deer, dotted with lights, are a familiar sight to any Bay Area resident which never fail to fill me with a sense of euphoria, especially when viewed after returning from a trip elsewhere. “I’m home again,” I can tell myself when I see them.

Yet there is the danger that Wiggins’ work, with its smooth graphic richness, will simply vanish into the background noise of the other ad posters. The choice of displaying the name of the flora or fauna in capital letters in the center of each in some ways serves as urban camouflage. It is exactly the approach taken by many an advertiser hustling for your acknowledgment.

One wonders if the visual landscape can make room for such works, just as wildlife in the corridors along BART’s route are often crowded out by our presence. Unlike Shephard Fairey’s work which puts itself in confrontation with its surroundings, Wiggins’ pictures are attempting to coexist and co-mingle. Fairey’s work can easily be torn off a wall, but if you’re that angry it’s already shown its teeth. By contrast, Wiggins’ works have no natural defenses.

I enter at 24th and Mission a little dozy and fixated on the trip to Balboa Park so it takes me a second to realize that Eschscholzia Californica is staring me squarely in the face.
I take out my camera and everyone on the platform begins to shoot me puzzled glances as I enthusiastically snap a few pictures.
No one seems to pay any particular attention though to the picture, which could just be general indifference or evidence of its relative crypsis amongst the plugs for Altoids and Pepsi.

Zipping past Glen Park I catch sight of another Steller’s Jay. I’ll stop by on the way back I tell myself if the next station is now full of blurbs singing the praises of Canada’s bounty.

I shouldn’t have worried. Before I even have time to turn around, the train leaves Balboa Park station on its way to SFO and once again I find one of the works facing me from across the tracks.
I wait for the station to clear out and then take a few pictures of Steller’s Jay on the other side of the platform.
I admire the frames around each work (a nice touch I think) before realizing even the Blackberry ad has one.
I’m still left wondering why I’ve never encountered any of the works downtown, whereas the further along the line I traveled the more I discovered. I have to admit though that my limited use of BART makes a conclusion hard to draw: my travel habits hardly constitute a representative sample.
Attempting to exit the station upon my return I’m baffled that my card is reading insufficient funds. I suddenly realize that I never exited the station at Balboa Park, and now I’m forced to add another fare since I’m certainly not traveling to another station just to reenter again and return. Art: that’s how they get you.

Luckily, Ivy McClelland’s woodcut prints are waiting for me when I emerge at 16th and Mission and so any muttered recriminations are swallowed as I dig into my bag for the camera.

Boundary Testing

Entering from the fat end of tunnel, I stare down its length to view the projected image: branching straw-colored fibers revolving in the unhurried fashion of a carousel. They’re not quite recognizable, but neither are they unfamiliar. They remind me of dendrites splitting off from a neuron, partly because the resolution has about it that cloudy/sharp dichotomy and uniform coloring (or lack thereof) I associate with electron microscope images.
It is in fact the digital model of a plant, although you’d be excused for not identifying it as such straight away. Pae White, with the help of an animator and visual effects artist, scanned the original and then proceeded to tweak the image and set it in motion. As it pirhouettes, the limbs fold in upon one another, collapsing and expanding in kaleidoscope fashion. Inside the trapezoidal structure installed within New Langton Arts’ second floor gallery space the glass walls reflect the forking growths tumbling and morphing. Recognition plays a part in In Between the Outside-In, but perhaps only in so far as to intimate that what we thought we knew isn’t as matter-of-fact as we’d like to believe, or that there are ways of knowing that have yet to be exhausted.

As you can imagine, White’s mixed-media work is really an experience more than it is a work. You need to get inside the Willy Wonka-esque edifice yourself to fully appreciate the artist’s ability to make the mundane appear so alien. Elsewhere in the gallery, projected against a wall, is another example of the fruits of White’s experimentation, this one appearing like languid tendrils of smoke. Patience is required for the works to achieve their full effect, but that probably won’t be a problem: only the most phlegmatic of individuals, coming up the stairs and turning their head wouldn’t be drawn into the weird organic psychedelic constructions.

High Places

If you came across the work in progress in front of City Hall throughout the month of February your first thought was probably “those poor folks.”
Right in the midst of the rainy season, an undaunted team comprised of artist Patrick Dougherty and his assistants worked away at an environmental artwork stitched together atop the sycamore trees in the plaza.
When I passed through on my way to the painfully shy or absent sound installation in City Hall’s rotunda, my early impressions proved different than when I stopped by to take pictures a week or two later after completion.
The sculptures, surrounded as they still were by chain link fences and construction materials, seemed almost confectionary: great mounds whipped up by an enormous spatula into frothy peaks.
Perhaps it was the time of day. Dusk was rapidly approaching and the dark bundles and minarets rose black against the sheen of the street lights.
Now with the construction finished, and viewed on an uncharacteristically bright and warm Sunday afternoon, the woven willow branches seem more like habitable structures of some unheard of avian species, come to reclaim the carefully ordered classical arrangement of sycamores from our obsessive rearrangements of nature.
They cluster in the southwest corner of the row of sycamore trees. Some throw out cytoplasmic strands that arch overhead to connect with a neighboring trunk. One might be a mere tangle of fibers atop the sycamore while others are full blown huts that bowl outward or build to a conical tip.
In all the press releases I read leading up to its unveiling, the piece was anonymous. It was referred to simply as an installation by Patrick Dougherty.
Eventually, it was revealed that the official project description was The Upper Crust.

“Don’t be gawking upward,” Fred Savage said, amused. “Good way to get your pocket picked. Besides” – his grin was wide, either his teeth were extraordinarily perfect or these were dentures of the cheapest kind- “they’re not for lookin’ up at anyway by the likes of you, y’know, no, they’re for lookin’ out of by the type of folks inside, yunnastan.”

    Little, Big, John Crowley

With the price of rent in the city, and times being what they are, you could probably find a few takers.
The reactions I’ve heard either from people who have seen it or from whom I showed pictures to has been mixed. I’m going to come out in favor of it. Yes, even the provocative title. I view the Arts Commission’s recent efforts as overall pretty good, and it’s heartening that their progress is one of continual momentum.
Stop by, give it a chance and see what you think. If the weather is none too great, you can console yourself with the fact that the artist and his team labored under the same less than ideal conditions. The works may lie just out of reach, but they’re free and available for all to see. A nice little paradox for our times.

More on the piece at the Arts Commision’s site and over at Civic Center blog.

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