Sunday, February 28, 2010

Viewing art and the city

This is my last posting for Carolina Culture by Jeffrey Day. (Unless 40 people want to donate $1,000 each a year - or some variation of that- for the next three years or so.) I have taken a job at the Arts Institute at the University of South Carolina spreading the good news about the institute and all the arts at USC.
As things shake out with that I hope to be able to continuing writing for various publications. I have also partnered with writer Cindi Boiter and designer Mark Pointer to re-launch Undefined magazine. It will have the same great look, but more in-depth writing about a wider variety of the arts.
This month, the shortest in the year, has had the highest number of visits since I started the site last April so I'm going out on a high note.

Carolina Culture has been a lot of work and fun and I think important as well.
 - Jeffrey

Teri Tynes left Columbia in 2006 for New York where she lives in a mid-1950s apartment building of glazed brick just south of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

During her nine years in Columbia, Tynes did several things. She was City Art Gallery director, art editor and then editor of the alternative weekly newspaper Free Times and taught at USC.
Not long after re-locating, Tynes launched the blog “Walking Off The Big Apple” that she calls “a literary, arts-minded, and sometimes totally fanciful strolling guide to New York.”

A recent posting went through a lineup of art exhibitions opening around the city. Another took a gander at the things that punctuate Columbia Circle - the monument to those killed when the ship The Maine blew up and started the Spanish American War, Trump International Hotel and Tower and the Museum of Arts and Design located in a racially re-designed 1964 building by Edward Durell Stone (who gave Columbia the Thomas Cooper Library and the now-gone “honeycomb” dorms at USC.) She’s written about where to eat in various neighborhoods, subway stations in which to seek refuge during bad weather and the places mentioned in Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.” She tracked Milledgeville, Ga., writer Flannery O’Connor’s six months in New York.

Tynes will be back in Columbia this coming weekend to explore the urban landscape and public art for the Columbia Design League. She’ll give a talk Friday night at 6 and lead a walking tour Saturday at noon. The cost is $5. The talk will be at the Fox Theatre at Main and Taylor streets and that’s where the walk starts too.

“I will be talking a lot about public art, but mainly in relationship to pubic space,” Tynes said in an email interview. “I’m interested in what makes a successful public place - where people want to gather together. In New York, there are now a set of guidelines in designing or renovating small and large spaces - things like movable chairs, water features, giving people a variety of things to do. “

She’ll show examples of public spaces in New York such as the recent remaking of Broadway into a pedestrian space, an old railroad line transformed into a linear park and waterfront parks. 
"I want people to think about the fundamentals of designing a space for art, and I'll be advocating the creation of more pedestrian spaces that link neighborhoods and places - like the riverfront – together,” she said. “It's not just a ‘green" solution.’ It's about good design. You just can't commission a work of public art without thinking about how the work will function in a social space.”

A couple of public artworks in Columbia have lodged in Tynes’ memory: Mariah Kirby-Smith's sculpture of Mayor Kirkman Finlay and Blue Sky's mural of parking spaces at Crayton Middle School.

The public art we have, or don’t have, has been on my mind for several years. What we do have is a mixed bag – some good well-known works, several solid, but largely hidden, pieces and a lot that could be called “plop art,” a term the architect James Wines coined 40 years ago.  That’s art that has been “plopped” somewhere without much consideration of what’s around it or how people will relate to it. So much public art is like wallpaper – it’s just there and you don’t really notice it. Often times it’s too there for the public and they feel it insults them or is imposed upon them. But often such artworks initially reviled become beloved such as the “Chicago Picasso,” a 1967 piece by Pablo Picasso.

Certainly the best-known and admired public artwork in Columbia is Blue Sky’s 1975 “Tunnel Vision,” a giant mural on the back of the AgFirst Farm Credit Bank. When he was trying to convince the bank and the S.C. Arts Commission to do it, he kept running into walls – and not just the one at the back of the bank. Eventually Blue Sky got a $3,000 grant for the piece which took about a year to do. The bank, the Arts Commission and the people of Columbia, and elsewhere, came to love the work.

Close to “Tunnel Vision” is another later less successful by Blue Sky as well as a giant water-spurting fountain that looks like a fire hydrant, but actually doesn’t look much like a fire hydrant. No one seems to love them much – partially because they detract from “Tunnel Vision.” Another of the artist’s pieces that almost everyone digs is a giant chain that links two buildings on Main Street.
It’s even better knowing that he installed it in the middle of the night without any official approval.
Across from the chain on the Columbia Museum of Art plaza are a couple of good sculptures from the museum collection which get lost on the barren plaza and a fountain/sculpture that somehow ended up costing $500,000 and looks like it was picked out of a catalog.
You can find a beautiful and striking mural by Eric Lake on the rear of a building at the corner of Park and Gervais streets recording the the history of the area with a Thomas Hart Benton style.

One of my favorite public artworks is on one of my favorite buildings. The Byrnes Building at Sumter and College streets is a modern masterpiece, although it’s a bit run down.  At the entrance is a large abstract mosaic mural by the late Gil Petroff that’s losing bits and obscured by a line of newspaper boxes. (Top and bottom photos)

Just across the street is the gargantuan and impressive, but not only because it is gargantuan, equestrian stature by Anna Hyatt Huntington. (I first saw it after slogging my way through a grim Jasper Johns exhibition at USC’s McKissick Museum when I was interviewing for an arts reporting job at The State. I wrote a test review of the Johns’ show that mentioned the Huntington sculpture. I got the job, but I had a lot to learn. Also it's not usually covered with the white stuff.)

Another mosaic mural, this one by Catherine Rembert, and in much better shape that the Petroff piece, wraps around the SCE and G building on Lady Street.

Not all the public art in Columbia is on walls or made of paint or chips of glass or steel or bronze. In front of the S.C. State Museum you’ll find public art that requires watering – Pearl Fryar’s topiary sculptures. Unlike the rest of the public art in town, they keep getting bigger.

A rather stiff metal woman shows up in a couple of spots. She’s standing in the shrubbery outside the Koger Center with a quilt (it’s an AIDS memorial) and in an oddly prominent spot in front of the USC art department where she is accompanied by a dog. (What she’s doing there – rather than a piece by professors Robert Lyon or Virginia Scotchie or USC alumnus and super-famous artist and theorist Ron Jones is beyond me.)

About a decade ago the Cultural Council of Richland and Lexington Counties embarked on a public art program that scattered some good and not so good works around. The program was badly managed and works didn't get final approval from those on the selection committee who had art knowledge.

The council’s public art foray culminated in one really tragic work – the little bronze people jumping through the plastic square in Maxcy Gregg Park.
Although people talk about how the city needs more public art, I think most people would rather do without than have something half-baked which is mostly what we’ve gotten. But of course what looks like a terrible idea for a public artwork in 2011 might in 2022 appear to be a work of genius. (Although I don't see a lot of people coming to the defense of the Cultural Council project a decade on.)

To get good public art, one needs a significant budget, consideration of the site, a strong selection committee that understands the function of public art, a good artist and a vision that is bold – so bold people might hate it for a while.
My dream public artwork for Columbia is a 30-foot-tall plastic, full-color sculpture (like those created by the late Luis Jimenez) of Strom Thurmond standing on his head at the entrance to the Roman bathhouse that is the Strom Thurmond fitness center at USC.
I’m completely serious. 



  1. Your blog posts will be missed. Congratulations on the new job.
    We'll look forward to your continued impact on the arts community with this new position.
    Susan and Steve

  2. It is a great blog--the most serious and in depth arts coverage in Columbia by far. We'll miss it but look forward to your work in other publications.

  3. Good luck. Thanks so much. (I forgot, too, how much I like that Catherine Rembert mosaic.)

  4. Say it ain't so, Jeffrey! I'm happy for you and your new projects, but I'm really going to miss your blog. Personally, I'd be happy to come up with that $1k a year, but I don't know that I could find 39 friends to do the same. I'll look forward to reading your work in the other media. Pat Gilmartin

  5. I´m so glad you called attention to the paper boxes at the Byrnes buiding. We have often thought of a late night action to move the paperboxes to the sidewalk so you can appreciate on the the nicest mosaic murals in Columbia.

  6. Do you remember the bronze sculpture which was part of a handrail near the USC library in a small greenspace? We called it the "secret sculpture" It was similar to the one one below the door of Group Therapy. It was removed without fanfare at some point in the mid nineties. I always wondered what happened to it.

  7. Sounds like interesting and promising developments... Your blog has been totally worthwhile, and I'm certain many people have appreciated this. Back your stuff up so you don't ever lose it! I'm looking forward to seeing Undefined 2.0

  8. I only recently started following your blog,on board a bit late. Bon chance with the Art Institute. Would like to see "Undefined" up and running with a new emphasis.
    Bruce Nellsmith

  9. Hi Jeffrey,
    I, too, will miss your blog! But congrats on the new gig. I'll see you on campus!

  10. Congratulations on the new gig! Thanks, Jeffrey for such thorough arts coverage on Carolina Culture. It has been a pleasure reading your blog and I look forward to seeing what you have coming up.

  11. Congratulations on your new adventure, but you will be missed in the blogosphere. Rachel

  12. Congrats, Jeffrey! Sad to see this fabulous blog go, but always appreciate your support of the arts here. Looking forward to seeing your new work!

  13. jeffrey..i will miss your blog but i am so happy for you that you got this new know i only and always wish good things for you. bonnie

  14. jeffrey, what the heck? you are going to write for Undefined magazine anyways. Can't you post some abstracts from you new articles here? It will save your time and the blog will still survive. (I mean, I am VERY glad that you got the job!)

  15. Yeah. I was just gonna say what maryann just said. Come on at least
    once a week and nude tuesday ( although I preferred nude Wednesday.)
    Anyway I have a nude for it but alas, I am too late.

  16. Right now, I need some distance from reporting and commentary because I'm promoting the arts of the university. I think every time I wrote about something positive at the U, readers would say "Of course he said that, he works for them." And I could not write anything negative about the U arts which wouldn't make this blog very reliable.
    I will put in a little dig here: too darn many people are writing about things they have an interest in. I don't want to do that.
    A couple of other things:
    Doing this site the way I have been doing it is a full time job and last year I made a couple thousand dollars on it (thank Obama for unemployment payments). I can't do that any more.
    undefined is working toward an online product, but I can't do on that what i've done on this for a variety of reasons.

  17. Hey, sorry to see that the blog is ending. Good luck with the new adventures...
    Maybe someday we'll get that Strom statue!

  18. Hey, ya done good. Best of luck with the job at USC, and I hope to see you around.

  19. Great work on the blog Jeffrey. Enjoyed it a lot. Good luck on the new USC job. Hope to see you at AF.

    Franklin Miller

  20. Congratulations! I will miss your blog, though.
    Guess I can remove it from my "bookmarks" doggone it.

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