Sunday, August 10, 2014

Irksome Photo Murals, A Jaunty Homage, and Some Thoughts on Urban Art

The Civic Square Fence in downtown Seattle surrounding the construction zone by the transit station has been a site for public art for a few years now. I walk past this fence every day on my mile-long walk up the hill into the Central District, so I’ve become very familiar with its art displays. And one set of photos in particular always stuck in my craw—a set of eight panels depicting every liberal Seattleite’s fantasy: slim, white, good looking people working on an organic farm. Maybe it’s because every time I walked past it, I was sucking in gas fumes belching out from rush hour traffic, my knee ached, and I knew I was going to eat a decidedly un-organic bacon sandwich instead of starting the morning with a locally-sourced vegetable protein shake, but to me, the photos always felt unbearably smug: Oh look at us, able-bodied, virtuous, clean-living people breathing fresh air and doing something pure and authentic, while the rest of you pathetic hoi polloi slowly deaden your souls at your fattening day jobs. Ohhhh, look at me, I’m sustainable! Ohhhhh, look at me, I have a chicken!  Ohhh, look at me, tilling the earth by hand and being better than you.  It was just another one of those micro-annoyances that are a part of any city commuter’s life. I learned to live with it. But to my glee, a few weeks ago I walked past the wall and the photos were gone! Yay! No more sanctimonious organic farmers rubbing their superiority in my face as I trudge up the hill inhaling the twin odors of diesel and collective depression.

The other photos were okay; not great. There was a set from a fashion shoot where the models wore dresses made from recycled plastic bags (meh), some dull cliché photos of buoys and boats, and some folk-art inspired paintings that I found garish and off-putting. But after they took the photos down, they re-painted the wall, and they’re in the process of getting some new murals up. One is still in progress, but I can tell I’ll probably like it. The other one is pretty much complete, and in my estimation, it’s fantastic. According to the website, the artist is Hebru Brantley, and the mural is his character Fly Boy in a variety of poses:

“Chicago graffiti artist Hebru Brantley's mural consists of multiple representations of Brantley's original character, Fly Boy. The characters are yellow-goggled boys who pay homage to World War II's Tuskegee Airmen. Brantley intends for the work to transform James Street into an outdoor gallery. Each whimsical variation of the Fly Boy or Girl will be used as guardians of the city. The piece is titled "Traveling With Out Movement" and features spray paint, acrylic and house paint.

The mural is vibrant and interesting. It has a lot of movement, it’s fun to look at, and it’s oddly uplifting. I haven’t thought much about what art in urban spaces “should” be, but I think this mural nails it. It makes me feel just a little better when I walk past it.  I know, I know, the role of art is not to lull us into complacency and anesthetize us to the state of the world, but for God’s sake, I need a little relief from the relentless grimness of city commuting, and this mural gives me a boost. Why shouldn’t more public art do that? I have all day to contemplate the problems of the world. I think public art should be a light-hearted celebration, not lecture-y or laden with political messages. I refuse to use the word “whimsy”, but that’s close to what I’m getting at when I think of my ideal for public art--something different and interesting that pulls you out of yourself and surprises you, even if just for a few seconds.

There’s another “found art” project happening a bit further up the hill. If it’s still there tomorrow, I’m going to start photographing it. About a week ago, I noticed a beer bottle with a white flower stuck in it nestled under a streetlight. I didn’t think much of it, but the next day, there was a Mason jar, filled with more flowers. The next day there were three jars of flowers and a note pleading with a unknown someone. Clearly there was a breakup or some terrible misunderstanding, and the person leaving the flowers knows that the breaker-upper walks past this light every day. I didn’t read the note because that felt invasive, but I’ve decided I will if it’s still there tomorrow. It was left out publicly so I feel that I’m within bounds to snoop in the name of art.

--Kristen McHenry


John Socrates said...

Another stimulating and enjoyable read, my dear. Love it!

Kristen McHenry said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, John! Thanks so much for reading it. I will post some better photos of the completed mural soon.