The tyranny of nice

Assessing public art in Rhode Island
By GREG COOK  |  November 2, 2010

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‘URBAN OASIS’ Kim’s Horizon Garden.

Over the past several weeks, Mikyoung Kim's new $480,000 public art installation Horizon Garden has taken shape at southwest corner of Providence's Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence. A pair of curved, corrugated, perforated steel walls that look like cheese graters are set in gravel. Each one is backed by colored lights embedded in the ground and earth berms planted with grasses and birches. This abstraction arrives just as South Dakota sculptor Benjamin Victor's $176,000 bronze of a stoic state trooper is being cast at a California foundry to be installed before the end of the month at the new state police complex in Scituate.

Together they represent the variety of public art commissioned by the state since its 1 Percent for Public Art law was passed in 1987, requiring that a smidgen (roughly 1 percent) of the budget of all public building projects be devoted to public art. The Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, which oversees the program, surveys the results in the exhibit "Public Art in Public Buildings" at the American Institute of Architects/Rhode Island Gallery (158 Washington Street, Providence, through November 11). A couple of dozen okay photos from Newport to Kingston to Providence, plus a few models and sketches, show mostly nice stuff. And that's the problem. Most of the works — even the best ones — feel bland and inconsequential. Which is not what you'd generally call Rhode Island art.

Victor's model is notable because few traditional realist sculptors seem capable of achieving such verisimilitude these days, but the planned eight-foot standing trooper is static. Compare it with the great Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Kennedy Plaza, which also has standing military figures, but the little twisting and stepping they do makes that sculpture considerably more alive.

Kim's art is fully installed but won't be done until the lights, which shine on the cheese graters, are activated sometime before Thanksgiving. Kim, who chairs RISD's landscape architecture department and runs an architectural firm in suburban Boston, calls it an "urban oasis," but it looks threatening and uninviting. Earth berms plus metal or tile is the latest fad in public art, a sort of combo of '60s earthworks and Minimalism without their soul. Okay, it's unfair to judge art before it's finished, but let's just say that a lot rests on those pretty lights transforming this ugly duckling.

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PRETTY LIGHT Houseberg’s installation at the Kent County Courthouse.

Pretty lights are one of the major themes of the show. Paul Houseberg of Jamestown recently installed bubbly screens of corrugated, vividly colored, translucent glass at the Kent County Courthouse in Warwick. At the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence, New Yorker Stephen Antonakos's 1996 boring neon lights hang underneath the roofs over two entrances and, high up in the rotunda, New Yorker James Carpenter's 1996 giant ring of glass wings turns gold, red, or green as it catches the light.

At T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, New York sculptor Ursula Von Rydingsvard's 1997 rugged bronze cast monolith resembles an eroded chunk of a cliff. At Rhode Island College, Providence artist Jonathan Bonner's 2000 Metamorphosis, a series of five granite egg shapes, runs across a lawn. Each one has the same volume, but they morph from squashed flat to stretched tall. The sculptures are elegant and thoughtful and well-made and kind of dull.

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