New York

Empty Pedestals Project

Storefront for Art and Architecture

Some years ago, artist Marc Blane began documenting “predesignated art sites” in New York City, sites formerly occupied by heroic sculptures and ceremonial fountains commissioned during the turn-of-the-century City Beautiful Movement. Due to the vagaries of time and the wages of vandalism, these sites now stand empty. For this exhibition, Blane invited young artists and architects to design new works for several such spots, with the idea that their projects might replace the former Eurocentric, Beaux-Arts monuments with imagery capable of speaking to each area’s current, predominantly non-European ethnic population.

As the models and drawings here poignantly illustrate, the plight that befell the previous works—that of increasing cultural irrelevance may likewise affect works created in today’s artistic idioms. Indeed, an abstracted rendition of the discus thrower, which replaced one work that previously topped a pedestal on Randall’s Island, draws on the already bankrupt legacy of High Modernism. Contemporary social and political issues prove equally ephemeral: Steven Greene’s allusion to the gulf war (he replaced a Crotona Park fountain with an oil tower) already seems dated a mere few weeks after its creation, and Michael Lalicki’s homeless structure constitutes a nod to a social plight trivialized by media overexposure.

Other artists wallow in the sites’ rich histories, creating works so steeped in the past that they barely comment on present conditions at all. Craig Newick and Linda Lindroth provide a fascinating account of the successive incarnations of Randall’s Island (as, among other things, a facility for the incarceration of juvenile delinquents and a sports complex), but the sheer density of historical allusions in their proposed children’s video theater will perplex the uninformed. On the other hand, Sheila Klein’s replacement of a bust of Edward Grieg with a boom-box playing a “switched-on” version of the Norwegian composer’s music (updated with rap rhythm’s) succinctly fuses past and present. Equally bold and to the point is Curtis Cravens’ enormous rusted, phallic rivet, exhumed from the East River and set on a pedestal once occupied by a discus thrower. Here a decaying industrial element with unmistakable connotations of sexuality and mortality in the AIDS era replaces an idealized male form purloined from ancient Greece and awkwardly set down in modern America. Karen Bermann and Jeanine Centuori’s grid of saplings bound by metal armatures that stunt and warp their growth speaks of the impact of contemporary urban society on young bodies and spirits (the mangled trees in the model resemble deformed and fractured skulls).

Environmental issues abound. Caleb Crawford provides a detailed scheme to restore the soil system upset by the layer of asphalt surrounding the Jacob Schiff Fountain; Dan Peterman fills in one site with compactor-crushed aluminum cans; and Greene uses materials from demolished local buildings to erect a rickety tower. Recycling provides the best metaphor for what is going on in the most effective of these projects: the physical and historical baggage of the site is reworked in ways that speak to the present and, with some luck, to the future as well.

Lois E. Nesbitt