Underground art

By MIKE MILIARD  |  April 30, 2008

The station at PORTER SQUARE is filled with art. The long escalator — one of three necessary to ascend to the towering kinetic-wind sculpture outside — is strewn with lost gloves, socks, bronzed in petrified permanence, shiny in spots where they’ve been grazed by millions upon millions of passing fingers. (Look upward as you ride, toward a pendant installation showing a blue empyrean across which birds take wing.) In ALEWIFE, one of my favorite pieces is a sea of simple metal rods, suspended from the ceiling and glowing an otherworldly red.

WHERE SOME T stations’ art leans more toward the contemporary, some, such as the upper level of Park Street, embrace the classics.

But, again, these sculptural pieces have been in place for years, if not decades. How about something fresh? At the recently renovated CHARLES/MGH stop, a light and airy breezeway makes fine use of the sun’s luminosity, shining through the “Local Art — Global Heart” installation, a series of 20 translucent Plexiglas paintings, woven through with recycled materials, created by students at the Advent School this past spring.

That all stands in stark contrast with the Orange Line, many terminals of which have little or no art. The depths of the BACK BAY terminal are oppressively dark and spartan. The MASSACHUSETTS AVENUE stop at least has some natural light, but the walls are spread over with ugly, industrial grating. In RUGGLES and ROXBURY CROSSING, more of the same. JACKSON SQUARE, too. Upstairs, outside of nine Orange Line stations, granite monoliths stand inscribed with text, erected in 1987 as part of the “Boston Contemporary Writers” project. But inside, the terminals are all but barren.

Why? One hopes, of course, that this dearth has nothing to do with the poorer socioeconomic status of the neighborhoods in which these Orange Line stops are situated. But one also wonders whether the T could allocate a few thousand bucks from the many millions it’s spending on station renovations to outfit the Orange Line with the sort of art that’s found in Cambridge and at the foot of Beacon Hill.

At least, a little further on, at GREEN STREET, there are Virginia Gunter’s sculptures: sharp, tight-wire mesh folded into jagged geometric forms. And, housed in an extension of the station, there’s AXIOM Gallery. For years prior, that space was occupied by Green Street Gallery, founded by James Hull, who had the just-crazy-enough-to-work idea of establishing a nonprofit art showcase in a subway station. Now, with Heidi Kayser and Phaedra Shanbaum’s AXIOM Gallery, the space has found a worthy successor, a spot “dedicated exclusively to showcasing emerging and established artists working in new media.”

Not every MBTA station has to be as art-rich as Green Street, of course. But it would be nice to have some visual element in every station to counteract the industrial drabness of the subterranean murk.

In her 1958 novel The Bell, Iris Murdoch writes of a character visiting a museum she’d visited countless times before, gazing upon “pictures [that] were almost as familiar to her as her own face.” To the quotidian commuter, much of the T’s stabs at visual bliss can feel a bit like that.

Murdoch describes her protagonist, “passing between them [feeling] a calm descending on her.” Trundling through underground tunnels, no one expects to be lulled into pleasant reveries. But it might not be a bad idea to replace some of the older works — say, the ones that pre-date the most recent Celtics championship — with some new ideas.

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