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Waves of Criticism Keep Rolling In, but Public Beach Art Endures

October 13, 1991|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The "Singing Beach Chairs" look like they have stayed too long at the ball.

Their pastel green and blue complexions are washed out and covered with graffiti. On a recent morning, a grungy blanket hung over one giant chair rung. More blankets were strewn around the chairs, making their own artistic statement of a rough night in the Santa Monica sand.

Welcome to public art.

Santa Monicans are mad about public art on the beach, but that doesn't mean they agree about it. Enthusiasts are mad about the idea, as in thrilled. Opponents are just plain mad.

In the latter category is KCRW radio personality and Times Sunday Magazine columnist Harry Shearer, who recently derided the beach art program as "Port Disney North."

"In our tiny remnant of a world not made by humans, this is vandalism," Shearer said at a City Council meeting.

But artist Bruria Finkel, who dreamed up the Natural Elements Sculpture Park in 1983, dismisses the naysayers as people with selfish motives who care only about the view out their window or along their jogging path. "I think they're full of it," Finkel said in an interview.

The often-fierce debate about whether the beach is a suitable spot for art comes up in this city periodically. The beach art program's recent inclusion in the city's Local Coastal Plan raised the subject once again.

On Tuesday, the City Council is due to vote on the plan. The beach sculpture program was placed in it at the request of the Coastal Commission, which has been considering the art piece-by-piece, but wanted an overall plan to see where the city was going.

Nicknamed NES Park, the program is not really a park at all, but a long-range proposal to place sculptures along the city's three miles of public beach. "Singing Beach Chairs," one of two completed works, sits on the sand north of the Pico-Kenter storm drain at the ocean end of Pico Boulevard. The wind harps in the shape of beach chairs, by artist Douglas Hollis, can be climbed for a lifeguard-like view of the water.

The other work is a giant cement roller called "Art Tool" by Carl Cheng. The roller, which makes a cityscape design in the sand, is enclosed by a fence near the pier.

A third piece, "Solar Web," described as an astronomical jungle gym, by artist Nancy Holt, has been approved by the City Council for the south end of the beach in front of the Sea Colony condominiums.

It is some of the other ideas presented to the city in 1984, but never acted upon, that send opponents up the apocryphal wall. One proposal they rant and rave about is "The Wall," an undulating wooden wall envisioned as 16 feet high at some points.

Another is a 30-foot-high water wall in the ocean near the pier. Finally, there's 'The Crater' that is basically a big hole in the sand.

"You can touch and view art anywhere, you don't need it on the sand," said Sharon Jaquith, a Sea Colony resident, at a public hearing last week.

"For heaven's sake. Don't come up with some surfboard toting Gandhi," urged John Bowdin, who called the beach sculptures a "degradation of the coastal zone."

The Ghandi reference is to another controversial part of the city's public art program, which has its own contentious history, most recently evidenced by a battle over whether to put a 14-foot-high statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Palisades Park overlooking the ocean. The fate of the Gandhi statue rests with the Coastal Commission, whose staff has recommended against approval.

Proponents of the beach sculptures noted the city's recently gained pre-eminence as a thriving art center and the need to make art available to members of the public who might not visit the local art museum. The public art is "recognition that the city's identity has become indelibly aligned with art," said Sandra Star, president of a Santa Monica-Venice art dealers' association.

At the recent public hearing, City Council members, bombarded by criticism, explained that they are being rebuked for beach art pieces they neither approved of nor favor. "I'm not excited about any other (proposed) pieces," Councilman Kelly Olsen said.

Finkel said the "Singing Beach Chairs" are doing what they were meant to do, attracting kids and adults to climb on them, and serving as a landmark, as in, "I'll meet you by the chairs."

"It's a very famous image for Santa Monica," Finkel said. "When the wind blows, it's wonderful. It sounds like a Gregorian Chant. . . . It was designed primarily to interact with the wind."

To those who contend that the sunset should be left as is, Finkel has this to say: "The sunset is gorgeous. We want to enhance the sunset. . . . To say this is something we can't embellish on is nonsense."

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