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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Abstract Steel

Art Review

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  Every now and then an artist sparks controversy through no design of his own. It’s a scenario especially endemic to public art, and one with which Milwaukee is uncomfortably familiar. The city is rife with examples of public art that have provoked impassioned outcries from one party or another, whether they’re proposed projects that never got off the ground or ones single-mindedly propelled forward by a will unmatched by that of their most ardent foes. Each occasion yields the potential for an enriching discussion on the significance of public art. Whether or not it has been sufficiently taken up is another matter.

  In a bid to address this dearth of discourse, and fastening itself to the recent hullabaloo over the life-size Bronze Fonz and the Lady Elgin memorial, is an exhibition at Inova-Kenilworth (through July 27) titled “Free the Galazan Five.” It consists of five COR-TEN steel sculptures created in 1980 by then-Milwaukee artist Gene Galazan.

  The pieces were commissioned by the city as part of the now defunct, federally funded Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program. According to the artist, no specifications were given, nor any detailed information on the site that the work would occupy. Instead Galazan was left to do as he pleased, and used the freedom to create five welded steel abstract assemblages that evoke the work of British sculptor Anthony Caro.When his work was presented to the city, complaints arose over its abstract and jagged form—deemed threatening to young children who would undoubtedly snag themselves on its sharp edges and alienating to those who found abstraction entirely unfathomable.

  To me, one of the greatest ironies is the fact that a city whose most prominent sculpture is an orange, asterisk-shaped ode to abstraction should deem Galazan’s sculptures too intangible for public consumption. Does the fact that Mark di Suvero’s Calling resembles a sunburst make it more acceptable? Another is that children would probably be most likely to get joy out of these sculptures.

  The five pieces in “Free the Galazan Five” perch on the ground in a tentative manner that belies their weight and substance. They evoke paper airplanes, elaborate tents or the discarded casing of some desert-roving machine. Were they larger they’d be rather powerful, inviting us to peer through their voids and find shelter in their sharp folds. As such, they form a rusted regiment scuttling across the gallery floor, perfectly harmless and no more deserving of their inopportune fate than many other works of public art in town.

  When seen in the light of the recent Bronze Fonz and Lady Elgin proposals, they show the depressingly meager set of alternatives with which Milwaukeeans are consistently faced: public art that’s usually either overtly abstract or explicitly figurative. They also illustrate how little progress has been made in our collective understanding of what we can and should expect of public art.