The one thread of continuity among the winning designs is a trite conception of public art as some sort of rudimentary, three-dimensional history book, complete with dull texts and labored illustrations. Gateway Plaza's art is "Dick, Jane and Sally Discover Themselves Through Mass Transit."
In the bus shelter design, by the team of Yasuda, Johnson, Noel Korten and architect Matthew C. Vanderborgh, historical texts about L.A. and its citizens will be imbedded in paving and railings, while chrome drinking fountains will be etched with multiethnic faces, in which yours will be reflected.
The shelter shapes are essentially a merger of inverted parasols and aerodynamic wings, mounted on vine-covered columns. Over-intellectualized, with such dubious rationalizations as the drinking fountains recalling L.A.'s historic water-wars, the scheme mostly evokes the showy, festival look of standard World's Fair architecture.
For the entrance landmark, Sun, Wyatt and architect Paul Diez chart a similar path. A tiled patio will show painted faces representing several ethnicities, while another text articulating the demographics of the city's original pueblo will spiral out and up a flight of stairs, leading to a long, narrow, walk-in aquarium, stocked with fish indigenous to the Los Angeles River.
Architecturally, it's boring. The idea of looking out at the city through fish-laden water is also unoriginal: In the late-1970s, artist Terry Schoonhoven conceived a well-known apocalyptic mural of downtown under water, \o7 apres le deluge\f7 , while in the late-1980s the notorious (but inventive) commission for the ill-fated West Coast Gateway, meant to be L.A.'s equivalent to the Statue of Liberty, included an aquarium suspended over almost exactly the same stretch of downtown freeway that will be seen from the entrance landmark.
Finally, extensive text is absent from the geometric sculptures scattered along the terraced stairs at the East L.A. gateway site--gateways apparently having become a favored civic metaphor in recent years--but they are covered with yet more painted tiles, these representing random images and patterns said to be of importance to the artists.
Shire, Elsa Flores, Roberto Gil de Montes and Donna Okeya made watercolors, all working on the same sheet of paper at once, and these random jumbles will decorate the concrete pillars, pyramids, posts-and-lintels and spheres. The ensemble is an achingly elementary articulation of Cultural Building Blocks.
The project also gives us a clear example of today's charged and polarized outlook on multiculturalism and art. Multiculturalism is nowhere explicitly mentioned in the art project's brochure, but it's everywhere implicit. The most obvious is in its urgent plea for artists who reside in East L.A. to apply for commissions--an entreaty that stops just short of declaring a residency requirement--specifically with ideas for the designated gateway site.
Formally, Michael Amescua's chosen design is quite beautiful. The patterns he created for a fence and gated entry to the plaza derive from \o7 papel picado\f7 , a Mexican folk tradition of cut tissue paper used to decorate Day of the Dead altars and other festival sites. Imagine an elaborate, wrought-iron fence in flat, black designs, some abstract and some depicting lizards, goats, cactuses, stars, moons and other natural and mythic objects, and you'll have some idea of how it looks.
You'll also have an idea of an underlying assumption of the gateway concept, for beauty is not its only feature. It's safe to assert that had Amescua based his design on, say, beautiful Islamic tiles or Russian avant-garde graphics, rather than modern Mexican folk art, he would never have been selected for the Union Station project, even though he does in fact live and work in East L.A.
What the RTD/Catellus concept for the gateway to East L.A. says, and what the jury enthusiastically supported, is this: Latino artists should make art based on Latino themes, largely for consumption by people of Latino heritage, who cannot be expected to respond to anything else. In a conservative and unwittingly condescending way, for both artists and audiences, anything else is deemed unworthy of patronage.
Diversity is not promoted by such narrowly restrictive thinking. Indeed, homogeneity is what ends up being championed. It's ironic that the artist proposed to build a fence at the gateway to East L.A., since--culturally speaking--that is precisely what will be constructed.
Printing texts and scattering recognizable faces and historic symbols around buildings do not, in themselves, create "a sense of place," as many of these artists blithely claim in their proposals. Instead, the program for Union Station Gateway Plaza represents a thoroughly bureaucratic transformation: Public art is here just publicity art--an unchallenging, circumspect, cheerfully bland species of promotion, meant to help sell a civic project to an indifferent constituency.
Well, fine, if that's what you really want. But, if you do, why not just hire the proven pros at Disney and be done with it?