In Praise of Metro Public Art, Vol. 1

The Metro’s major force in area public art funding and support, the Iowa West Foundation, has commissioned the estimable American artist Mark di Suvero to create a sculpture for Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park to add to Council Bluffs' impressive collection of such.

Di Suvero’s international reputation is based upon his massive steel sculptures that challenge viewer expectations in a style of abstract expressionism. This untitled piece will complement many other non-traditional works on both sides of the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. To augment the artist’s installation, the Joslyn Art Museum will exhibit drawings related to the commission as well as additional prints and sculpture of his from June 7-Sept. 7.

According to Joslyn’s show statement, di Suvero is “unique in his compelling investigation of geometric forms and lines…that strike a careful balance between monumentality and delicacy....” And often in bright orange with high-spirited abandon both poetic and industrial.

But if your notion of “good” public art is a general on horseback or Westward Ho’ the Wagons, what follows may not be of interest either. Not that there is anything wrong with figurative and narrative sculpture in bronze, concrete and ceramic, but surely a community in the 21st century that considers itself relevant and contemporary lives in the present as well as the past, with at least one eye on the future.

So, while spring once again begins to shine on our more obvious public art, certain other, more modern renditions should share the sunlight with an equal amount of civic pride. And they will, that is, to those of us who take the time and our eyes off the smart phones and personal navi devices that prevent us from seeing the “sites” and put us in harms way on Metro streets and bi-ways.

Public art in the Metro falls easily into two viewer categories: those on nearly everyday high traffic sites, and those more out of sight, out of mind, discovered by the more adventurous suffering from less myopic or tunnel vision. Following is a list of personal favorites of significant public art in the former category, Vol. 1 in no particular order, with site and artist. Vol. 2 of the latter in the near future. 

1.     By the Bucket Full by one of Omaha’s most creative artists, Jamie Burmeister. It’s a delightfully kinetic piece of welded steel in the Gene Leahy Mall that never fails to draw an audience.

2.     Mangonel II, one of several imposing steel sculptures from iconic area sculptor Sidney Buchanan, this dark, twisted, impossibly balanced windmill of sorts also sits on the Mall.

3.     Murals, one popular form of public art, dominate in the Metro, none the least of which is the expressive, yet understated Freedom Through Books by Gerard Pefung, Angel Gomez and Bernie Baxter at the Swanson Public Library. Another great example of positive street art from the Kent Bellows Studio.

4.     Perhaps the last word in mural art in the Metro is the Bemis Center’s ironically titled Fertile Ground that sprawls happily across the eastern wall of the Energy Systems building at 13th and Webster. It’s Omaha’s story, past, present and, yes, even future put to 3D effect sans any annoying glasses by artist Meg Saligman, proving that narrative, figurative public art can be contemporary as well.

5.     Totemic sculptures also have their place in public art. Omaha has several including the most visibly striking Totem by Catherine Ferguson, a tall, winsome tribute to prehistoric people of Central North America that graces the west entrance of downtown’s W. Dale Clark Library. A joy from every angle and notable for its “empty” spaces as well as its figurative structure.

6.     No less significant for their sheer numbers and erudite simplicity are the nine totems that make up A Panoramic Rendering of the Journey of Discovery, which give an artistic interpretation of the historic Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition, 1804-1806. Seldom has enlightenment, read history, looked this imaginative, imbedded as it were, in this many obelisks, particularly work by Littleton Alston and Susan Knight.

7.     Fire in the Hole by Jon Barlow-Hudson commands attention in the Omaha Douglas Civic Center Plaza more for its aesthetic. This radiant, reflective diamond in six metal pieces bejewels otherwise rather dull surroundings even on a dull day.

8.     The last three pieces are best appreciated from a car as they beckon to travellers coming and going from the Metro. The title of the first, Abstract Fountain, by sculptor Rod Kagan, doesn’t do justice to the imaginative 40’ tall piece at 2200 Abbott Drive that signals flights of fancy for those on the way to Eppley Airfield and greetings to those who enter Omaha at its most imposing doorstep.

9.     A remarkably different Metro gateway marker is the Stored Potential project of Emerging Terrain, which with the help of several local artists converted a set of eyesore silos at roughly Vinton St and I-80 near the 42th street exit. This colorful, graphic mix of mural and totem greets 76,000 commuters and others with its variation on, and veneration of, Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture and fertility.

10.  But nothing on Metro highway and bi-way has been more dramatic and controversial than Albert Paley’s magnificent gateway installation, Odyssey, which sits at the four corners of the S. 24th Street bridge on Iowa I-80. Travellers either get it or not as this spiraling, twisted filigree of steel and bronze eschews the figurative in favor of an elemental burst of energy on the go. It’s art appreciation at 70 mph.

                                                                        Michael J. Krainak

posted at 03:21 pm
on Sunday, April 27th, 2014

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