THERE IS A tornado going up where K Street meets the Whitehurst Freeway. Made out of a few thousand broken toasters, fans, blenders and other small appliances, the tornado is public art of the latest kind.
Nancy Rubin's tornado, which she is building herself, is an accumulative junk sculpture, and an aggressive recognition of the excesses of consumer culture. It is a visually startling work with intense detail and a shockingly humorous and poignant statement.
Last month Allen Carter, one of Washington's most promising young artists, painted a street-level mural on a Seventh Street NW building. The mural, a 10-by-25 foot sketch, took this gifted artist a mere two days to complete. Painted on the boarded-up wall of an abandoned storefront, this giant painting entitled "Man Feeding Poor Man" is a humanitarian call for care and compassion. The artist himself, in an uncharacteristic brief but celebrated stay on the street, discussed the meaning and production of his work with the many passers-by. In his original proposal for the mural, Carter wrote that "one will sense a feeling of loneliness; people will pause at the painting and see it." This work of public art unabashedly provides a colorful respite from the streets frenetic activity.
New public art communicates a variety of information. It relates both its essence and content in a recognizable way to a wide range of people; it addresses a vast and broad audience, from the pedestrian to the connoisseur; it socializes, evokes recognition, and many times enhances the environment in a purely aesthetic sense.
The most notable aspect of new site-oriented public art, however, is the physical presence of the artist. Because the artist is actually producing the work on location, the piece evolves in response to its immediate surroundings, accentuating its specific social and political impact, providing the public with a greater understanding of the art-making process and offering a more genuine relationship to the artwork.
In the past 10 years, many organizations devoted to contemporary art have reached a mass audience by working with artists to produce art outdoors and in public spaces. Unbounded by the administrative restrictions of larger institutions, and unafraid to take risks, such contemporary art organizations and the artists working with them have served to redefine the meaning of public art through these projects, while greatly expanding the potential audience for the visual arts.
The Washington Art Site Program, instituted by the Washington Project for the Arts in the summer of 1979, has brought the district more than 39 public works produced by living artists. Originally limited to one vacant lot in the center of downtown, the program has expanded to many locations, literally rendering the city at large, with its endless possibilities, as the site. The growth of this program has been important, for it has provided a great variety of work in many settings.
In Washington, contemporary public art advanced urban development by helping to revitalize and rehumanize the previously decaying downtown area, and thus has come to symbolize the contribution of Washington's booming art community. Many of these innovative projects have been exemplary in soliciting wide and varied public participation. Such public art has affected an audience as diverse as the city's vagrant population--many of whom slept in Jon Peterson's nylon "Bumshelter," inflated by air from sidewalk heating grates--and the noonday downtown crowds who marveled at Bob Wade's "World's Largest Cowboy Boots," were mystified by Alice Aycock's "Game of Flyers," or were emotionally moved by Judy Simonian's mysteriously beautiful black pyramid that outlines the desolate ruins of a burnt-out Safeway store at the foot of the city's most notorious drug district.
"Neon Fronts," the outdoor exhibition that we mounted last summer, was one of the most glowing examples of the interest and excitement that public art can evoke from the community. Ever since the Earle C. Anthony Dealership unveiled its twin orange and blue "Packard" signs in Los Angeles in 1923, Americans have been fascinated with written light. Over the years, neon has become an emblem of American ingenuity and excitement in the American advertising landscape. As this exhibition so vividly illustrated, neon also has been refined into a sophisticated communications tool and a sublime art form. Thirteen works of art commissioned by artists from Washington and from around the country offered Washingtonians a wonderful sampling of this art form.
Such projects as the ones we have produced here in Washington have provided innumerable challenges to artists and to communities around the country making an aesthetic contibution to what has often been a bleak urban situation. With the Washington Art Site Program, we have attempted to engage our many neighbors with a cross section of new art which they can identify in their own environment.