Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, July 18

Gapers Block

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Chicago teems with public artworks. Though perhaps unaware of the art-historical specifics, there isn't a resident of the city who isn't familiar with the work of Picasso, Calder, Chagall, Oldenburg, and Miro.

Given a history constituted almost exclusively by political corruption and the wholesale slaughter of farm animals, Chicago has long felt a need to powder its nose; a public plaza to hide the broken capillaries of over indulgence, beautifully tended sidewalk gardens to take the shine off oily skin, and a greenhouse or two to shrink the pores.


Fig 1. What happens to your car when you double park in downtown Chicago.

Maintaining this civic beauty is difficult, but it's a wonderful benefit for those fortunate enough to spend time in the city. A brief stroll through the loop amounts to a tour of modern art, and an unrivaled experience in monumental sculpture. By virtue of a certain cultural osmosis, Chicagoans are naturally attuned to the arts.

But an overeagerness to expand this growing collection of public artworks has resulted in mistakes. Lipstick misapplied whilst driving over a speed bump, some works have gone horrifically wrong.

The worst offender: Frank Stella's Melville inspired The Town-Ho's Story: With Postscript & The Gam, located in Chicago's Metcalf Federal Building.

A 22 foot monstrosity of crumpled aluminum and steel, Stella's contribution to the urban sculpture garden is wholly abysmal. Grossly out of place in the clean Van Der Rohe inspired lines of the Metcalf lobby, it looks as though hauled directly from some west side landfill.

Public art is a tricky business. Indeed, Chicago weathered brutal mockery upon the unveiling of Picasso's untitled masterpiece, only to receive praise on a massive scale once the world had time to absorb its true brilliance. Much loved, it now serves as an unofficial icon for the city itself.


Fig 2. Oh, what's a photo of my trashcan doing here?

We can only assume that Stella, and the misguided souls who commissioned his miscarriage of a sculpture, felt that given time, The Town-Ho's Story would somehow become palatable. As people sometimes develop the maturity necessary to stomach brussels sprouts, so too would they come to appreciate this misshapen lump of metal.

After ten years on public display, it still tastes bad.

One could argue that it's simply misunderstood, that the working class residents of Chicago lack the higher breeding necessary to appreciate abstract art in its truest form. Uneducated plebeians, the common city dweller can't possibly be expected to appreciate art that operates on a higher intellectual plane.

Such elitist arguments aren't entirely without merit. A lack of popularity doesn't necessarily connote poor quality. Stravinski isn't often played on top 40 radio; only the most simple minded would consider this a judgment of any real value.

But Stella's sculpture is simply and inherently bad. It is, to put it mildly, a turd that can't possibly be polished.

As such, it's perfectly suited for Chicago.

This is a city of extremes. The summers are unbearably hot and the winters cold beyond reckoning. The politics are brazenly corrupt and the mayor is reelected with an 80% majority. With an abundance of beautiful public artworks, it follows that there should be something spectacularly bad to balance things out and keep the city on course.

And when Chicago engages in the production of poor artwork, it does so with such gusto, with such a fathomless lack of taste, that the end result is inexplicably beautiful.


About the Author(s)

David Elfving really does own a Greasy Skillet.

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