Plensa and the spillover effect of public art

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Spillover II by Jaume Plensa

Jaume Plensa’s “Spillover II” in Atwater Park. – Photo: John O’Hara

Jaume Plensa is obviously a Catalan, both emotionally and geographically. Born in 1955 in Spain, he was in town recently for the dedication of his sculpture, “Spillover II,” in Atwater Park. Dressed stylishly in a black shirt and jacket, wearing a trimmed, graying beard, he endured the rain with bravado, standing in front of the unveiled sculpture sans umbrella, smiling as cameras flashed. His words were brief, no doubt because of the downpour. In part he said, “Thank you for giving one of my children this beautiful home.” He felt privileged to place another of his works above a body of water, where the site and the mood of the piece settled into dialog.

The story of how Shorewood brought this sculpture to the small park at the end of Capitol Drive is not unusual. An anonymous donor offered $350,000 to purchase a significant work of art for Shorewood. The donor offered to pay for consulting services from Russell Bowman, a former Milwaukee Art Museum director, who now has a business in Chicago.

The newly formed Public Art Committee, (composed of several architects, several artists, a sculpture historian and others) decided to take advantage of Bowman’s expertise. A booklet of possible art works, all by internationally known artists, was prepared. From those 30 or so, which included works by Kiki Smith, Jim Dine and Debra Butterfield, the Plensa was chosen because it felt right for the location. Its modest scale of eight feet as well as its open framework (you can see through the steel skin of letters that form the body) seemed appropriate for a park with limited space.

Even with a careful selection process, significant funding and the best of intents, there is no guarantee that the work of art will translate from a plan or a photograph to the place of installation. This is tricky business. Unfortunately, one cannot move an 800-pound sculpture to different areas to experience how it might look in various positions. The site is chosen, a pedestal is usually constructed and the work of art arrives.

Think of how lost the Alexander Calder mobile was for so many years when it hung from the Mitchell airport ceiling. In its current locale at the Milwaukee Art Museum, in the other Spaniard Santiago Calatrava’s addition, it looks spectacular. Location is everything.

Plensa’s career climaxed when his proposal was selected for Millennium Park in Chicago, against the odds. He was the least–known artist of the finalists who included Maya Lin (Viet Nam memorial, Washington, D.C.) and Robert Veturi, who had proposed a 150-foot tall fountain.

The invitational competition, calling for a work involving water, was initiated, orchestrated and primarily paid for by Lester Crown, a Forbes 400 industrialist. The cost was $17 million. Once Plensa’s plan was approved, there was immediate opposition from a number of sources, most notably the president of The Art Institute of Chicago, James Wood. The complaints stated that the size of the 50-foot glass block towers, with their Led generated images of local faces, were too tall and overwhelmed the small park.

Once the project was completed in 2004, however, it took some surprising turns. Rather than dominating the park, it actually defined the park and helped add a focal point to the mishmash of other works. Almost magically, the fountain drew an economic, religious, racially and age-diverse cross section of humanity to romp within its 232-foot black granite channel of shallow water, inspiring a sense of abandon in the middle of the city. It brought out the best of our shared condition. The sculpture columns also effectively echoed the city’s surrounding architectural monoliths, tying the park into its broader framework.

One can see the influences of northern Spain on Plensa’s aesthetic. Like his fellow countrymen, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Antoni Gaudi and Joan Miro, there is a playful humanism and a commitment to biomorphic, inventive form infused with an unabashed romanticism.

For Plensa, growing up in Malaga and Barcelona made the idea of the public square anchored by a fountain anthemic to his notion of community. We dispensed with the notion of the plaza in America as our car culture and expansive spaces did not need old-world notions of city centers for gathering and lounging. We were a country on the move, all about industry and gain.

Even in its modest form, Shorewood’s Plensa sculpture acts like a beacon in the park to give the space a center and a pause. It has already altered the pedestrian patterns of the park. Walkers, joggers and bicyclists passing by in a linear stream often stop to take in the form. What was previously a glancing view of the lake from the car window is now a place where we meet and talk. Benches along the pedestal or near it would have added to this sense of place and, hopefully, additional paths or landscaping might carve out more of a communal area.

Like the Crown Fountain, “Spillover II” seems to transcend its own idea. On paper, a seated figure composed of interlocking letters of the alphabet sounds corny. Public art in the 21st century can and should be more than ornamental. Ideally it should provide an interactive experience with viewer and site.

Despite its conventional presentation, “Spillover II” is surprisingly interactive. Being a human form, we immediately have a connection to it. One cannot take it in from a distance, as you can the di Suvero at the end of Wisconsin Avenue. You must draw near and circumnavigate. Each side offers a different backdrop and experience. The form changes with the backdrop – sunrise, dusk or vivid blue sky. The letters turn from silver to white to black in varying lights. At night, the piece is lit from within and the letters dissolve into a sparkling surface. Fall brings a hoard of gnats into its center light beam, their frantic, dense energy suggesting some kind of generator.

The first snow will offer yet a different experience.

The sculpture turns its back to the noise of the street and directs us to the repose of the lake. As with all of Plensa’s work, there are dualities in the piece that invigorate it. Formally, the gentle curves of the body remain soft and organic, despite the fact they’re composed of angular steel letters. The figure’s sense of materiality and weight contrasts with the fact that it is actually light and airy. The solitary pensive form speaks of aloneness, but the intricate knit of letters suggests connection, socialization and community.

Because public art projects are always controversial, “Spillover II” will not rest benignly over the bluff but will attract dispute, discussion and analysis. The key to its lasting impact, however, will be whether it continues to stimulate interaction and is somehow “claimed” by the community. If people continue to mingle near it after the newness has worn off, we will know that “Spillover II” was a meaningful addition.


0 4 debra brehmer 2010-10-21 08:25
We could start a movement to bring the di Suvero to Shorewood.
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0 3 kirk juffer 2010-10-13 18:45
It is a joy to have the Plensa in Shorewood and the article was insightful.
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0 2 Guest 2010-10-13 14:04
Mark di Suvero has a pretty impressive resumé of public sculpture. By the way, he's the guy who's responsible for "The Calling" at the end of Wisconsin Avenue.

I implore you to find a new appreciation for works of art in our city. It's great to have all of them.

A better suggestion... tear down O'Donnell parking garage. Even better... let's talk about adding things... perhaps a train!
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0 1 pauli taylorboyd 2010-10-13 13:38
I find the Spillover II fascinating. A beautiful piece of art which adds peace, focus and tranquility to its environment. Gorgeous! Now, can you please work with Milwaukee to remove that orange steel non piece of art blocking our lovely Calatrava! LOL
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