The most striking thing about Public Art: Toward a New Definition at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design Gallery is that it hardly seems like art at all. In fact, while this exhibit purports to be public art--its four creators currently work as instructors at MCAD's Summer Institute of Public Art and Design--the collection comes across rather like a show about a show of public art. On display here, for instance, are such non-art items as a three-ring binder of memos and budget plans; a map to a building at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, where a work will soon be installed; a board game; and a variety of paper scraps, scribble sheets, and detritus pinned to the wall.
To backtrack just a bit, the old paradigm for public art was, according to MCAD Gallery director and show curator Brian Szott, "to put a sculpture out in a plaza." In any small town square, for instance, you can still find stoic city fathers or valiant soldiers on horseback, both primarily intended to provoke our admiration. Nowadays, in our more pluralistic society, artists seek to involve the community in their public art projects, and design spaces that are interactive and democratic and that force people to think, react, or act. Public art today is difficult to define on paper, and as this show suggests, difficult even to identify in the field.
Two examples highlight this ambiguity. To create his "Gameplan Dialogue Project" (1998) for the visitor center at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Faribault, artist Keith Christensen involved prison inmates in conceiving a design. The intent of the publicly funded project was to make a game that would instruct and empower the inmates, as well as visitors, to think in a positive way. The final work is a game board of boldly colored squares that carry such labels as "Low Self-Esteem" and "Hustling for Immediate Payoff." The words in the game, according to Christensen, all came from the inmates themselves. "It is very important to me to see how much I can bring the audience into the work," he explains. "I was elated that the prisoners responded as they did. They played the game and thought about the issues while having fun and creating a sense of camaraderie."
To give us a clear idea of the artist's process, not only is Christensen's actual game board displayed here, but there is a video about the making of the game. Christensen has succeeded in finding one of our society's new public squares, and he has certainly been democratic in deciding what political message should be posted there. Ultimately, though, it is difficult for a viewer at the MCAD gallery to find a way to enter into the work, since few of us have the same perspective as the original audience.
Another end of the public-art continuum involves exploring the artistic nature of the environment. Artist Jean Humke tries to create her studio outdoors by working there often and making temporal sculptural objects out of bark or other natural materials. "People often confuse me with a worker of some sort, taking water samples and whatnot," Humke says. "But being out gives me a good chance to talk to people who may not have spoken to an artist before." In her work, "Birch Forest" (1999), dozens of small squares of birch bark are strung across a grid and cover an entire gallery wall--a sort of dry record of some of her forest trips. The displayed pieces seem like an afterthought to the work done outdoors. And in fact, the artist doesn't often show work in galleries now, because, as she says, "galleries are sort of boring these days."
The efforts of two other artists round out the show. "Cinquefoil" by Kinji Akagawa, is an in-progress sculptural work of granite petal-forms and bronze cutouts that will grace the Medical Health Sciences Building at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse; displayed here are the aforementioned plans, memos, and sketches alongside studies and preliminary rough-cuts of the actual piece. Finally, Mark Knierim has assembled written and photographic records of a work completed last summer called "The Loring Park AIDS Memorial Project" alongside bits and pieces from this outdoor, interactive work.
In the end, though we should probably feel enlightened by this MCAD show, the majority of us may walk away scratching our heads. The cold and conceptual nature of the new public art will leave many viewers wistful for just a small touch of expressiveness or beauty in the midst of all these profound ideas.
Public Art: Toward a New Definition runs at the MCAD Gallery through July 25; for hours, call (612) 874-3700.