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Tucson Weekly Public Pleasures

In The Visual Morass That Is Tucson, Public Art Is A Necessity.

By Margaret Regan

July 14, 1997:  AS TUCSON FLINGS itself relentlessly across the desert, cluttering the land with identical apartment complexes, fast-food architecture and black seas of white-hot parking lots, its main thoroughfares become ever more anonymous.

One loses one's bearings almost instantly on a monstrosity like Oracle Road, particularly on the hellish commercial strip between Glenn Street and River Road. Is the office supply store north or south of the crafts store? Is the discount sports shoe place up ahead or already left behind in the smoking stampede of rushing cars? Who knows? Without distinctive visual clues to give either the stores or the road a sense of place, there's no way to tell. As a matter of fact, there's no there there at all.

Hope does spring eternal, though, and right now artist Simon Donovan is hard at work crafting art that's intended to give a punchy identity to one lone public outpost on neighboring North First Avenue.

Woods Memorial Branch Library is a hard-to-find beige architectural nonentity on First, tucked in between faux-elegant apartment complexes: One just keeps driving north in hopes it will come into view. (It doesn't always.) But right now the building is being renovated, and some of the construction money is paying Donovan to spice up its barren exterior with a flurry of 100 flying metal books in a rainbow of colors.

Bolted all over the outside walls, the playful book art will once and for all signal to frantic drivers just where the library is.

A new exhibition at Tucson/Pima Arts Council gives a thumbnail history of the one-percent-for-art-program that allowed Woods to pay Donovan for something so frivolous as aesthetics and identity. Both the city and county enacted the programs, the city in 1986, the county in 1990, guaranteeing that a small portion of the construction budget in most major public building projects would go toward art.

The catch, though, is the word "public," which both defines and limits the whole idea. Only taxpayer-funded projects need comply. For example, the typically horrendous Walgreen's going up at Oracle and Grant right now is under no obligation to spend even a penny to modify its ugly building with art. And then there are certain taxpayers who rage against any portion whatsoever of the public purse going toward a visually more attractive community, or those who complain, sometimes with cause, that they've had no voice in the selection of the designs.

Nevertheless, Parks, Plazas & Parkways: Public Art in Tucson is an interesting tour through the evolution of public taste, all the way up to Donovan's flying books, which will doubtless raise some high-brow eyebrows when they go up later this year.

The first percent-for-art project was far more earnest. "Celebrate the Arts," a cast-concrete 1986 sculpture by Carole Hansen and Guillermo Esparza, is embedded in the DeMeester performance bandshell at Reid Park. Its six classical relief sculpture figures, holding a violin, a mask, and so on, represent the assorted art forms; they suggest a lofty link to ancient Greece, when public buildings were routinely adorned with sculptural friezes. Though the percent-for-art programs continue to award contracts to muralists, serious political artists following in the grand Mexican tradition of Rivera and Orozco, somewhere in between "Celebrate the Arts" and "Flying Books," public art loosened up and got a lot more playful.

Take "Inverted Pecans," the upside-down painted pecan trunks along the lake in Reid Park. This 1988 work is a good example of a shocking idea whose time finally came. Rebecca Davis and Roger Asay startled the community with this life-size piece, which uses bright red to draw attention to the beauty of the trees' shape. Nowadays, they seem just about perfect for this wholly urban park, which, like the tree sculpture, is halfway between nature and artifice.

"Inverted Pecans" holds up a lot better than Jim O'Hara's "Portal with Door and Waves" nearby, also a 1988 work, located at the park's 22nd Street entrance. A giant doorway of manmade material and neon, it looks like the remnants of a failed invasion launched on community spaces by the forces of development.

The show also traces changing ideas about how to put art into the community. At last, we're mostly getting away from the idea that art is a last-minute Band-Aid to be applied after the fact to an ugly building. David Black's "Sonora," the red abstraction in front of the Main Library downtown, has always suffered for its lack of context: The whole sterile plaza should have been designed when the building was, making landscape and sculpture all of a piece. Some of the best projects of the past decade have done just that: Barbara Grygutis just about pioneered the concept with her Alene Dunlap Smith Garden, a "sculptural oasis" of rocks, tile and plants on Granada, which the artist donated to the city. And Grygutis's earthy tiles make a far more inviting connection between urbanscape and nature than Black's metal ever will.

Continuing successfully in the tile vein are Susan Gamble's fabulous Santa Cruz River Park mosaics and Melody Peters' equally fine Ronstadt Transit Center tile work.

Like the Smith Garden, the wonderful Sunset Park on the north side of City Hall, completed last year, combines landscaping, tile art and a sense of history. A collaboration of landscape architects Liba Wheat and Marvin Feld and artist Peters, Sunset Park is a re-creation of a former gathering place demolished in 1972 during the heyday of urban renewal. It's exactly the kind of public art that a city like Tucson sorely needs: It creates a usable space that's shady and humanly scaled, and it creates a sense of place by making a connection with the past.

It's cheering to see that some future public art projects continue the theme, including the planned "Art Park" by a Rancho Linda Vista team. This space full of greenery and sculpture will occupy the empty lot between I-10 and the Santa Cruz just north of Congress Street, near the new Regional Visitor's Center.

Yet the public art programs can make only a small difference in the visual mess that Tucson is fast becoming. They're like the public television stations that labor David-like in the face of the mighty media Goliaths. How can Donovan's optimistic books, or even a whole refuge like Sunset Park, hope to counterbalance the disastrous commercial roadways and appalling, sprawling suburbs that are beginning to define the Old Pueblo?

In the absence of sensible, enforceable zoning codes, more outright purchases of open lands, better public transportation and some kind of coherent city planning, they can't. They simply can't.

Parks, Plazas & Parkways: Public Art in Tucson continues through August 1 at the Tucson/Pima Art Council, 240 N. Stone Ave. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information call 624-0595.

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