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Clusters of Public Art Might Again Stand Out

July 28, 1994|LEONARD REED | Leonard Reed is a Times staff writer

OXNARD — The southward ride from Oxnard to the Pacific Coast Highway at Point Mugu is one of urban deliverance: from clanking muffler shops, used auto yards and seedy strip joints to vast verdant vegetable fields to muscular mountains that vault from the ocean.

The liberating gray-to-blue progression is broken only by the poles.

The poles: Nine of them, clustered together, each a foot wide and deep but a towering 80 feet tall. You've seen them, possibly.

They stand at the junction of Rose Avenue at Oxnard Boulevard, on the northwest corner just down a piece from Marie Callender's. They're painted black. Each has a series of silver bands, spaced tightly at the top and loosely in the middle and then far apart at the bottom.

For the literal-minded among us, the poles might appear as radar or some stealth navigation device--Point Mugu Naval Air Station is nearby, after all. For others whose viewpoint slides more easily into the surreal, the poles might stand as a mutant shock of horsetail from some space giant's garden. However these steel columns appear, though, they do not look like what they are: art.

But they started out as art, and more plainly so.

In 1988 the Told Corp., a builder of industrial parks, agreed to the city of Oxnard's request that its proposed development include public art--that is, art that Told would pay for and place on its private property, but that would be designed on such a monumental scale as to transcend property lines and become art in the public domain. The poles do that, at least the get-noticed part.

Told hired Sonoma artist Robert Behrens to do the job. Behrens is a national player in the public art world. Massive sculptures by Behrens connect the New Orleans Super Dome to the Mississippi River, form a civic gateway across the main highway leading into Fairbanks, Alaska, and lend energy and changing light to the railroad station in Davis. Indeed, Behrens' Davis piece is so prominent and familiar there that it must now be taken into account as a governing design consideration in development that goes up around the railroad station.

Behrens was struck by Told's decision to develop an industrial campus without traditional copper phone wiring and instead install fiber optics--a telecommunications medium of the future. He also was struck by Oxnard's desire to transcend the look of rusting South Oxnard Boulevard by giving northward travelers a gateway into a high-tech, forward-looking city. "It needed to be a powerful enough statement amid all the mundane, amid the muffler shops, to say something about the future," says Behrens.

So Behrens conceived of the poles. The towering cluster is joined by three other pole groupings, though you might not have noticed them: 11 in one long line, and nine more in a cluster, at the junction of Statham and Oxnard boulevards, at the west end of the property, and a cluster of nine, perhaps 30 feet tall, at the corner of Rose and Wooley avenues, at the far northeast end of the property.

The silver bands on the poles are a special formulation of Mylar, which refracts daylight every which way. Behrens positioned the Mylar on the poles so that at sunrise or sunset, especially, passersby would suddenly see changing bright colors, as if green-blue-golden rainbows within each group magically connected all the poles. Placement of the poles became critical: They needed enough light and enough space around them to be seen.

Behrens named his serial installation "Connections," and "Connections" would, fired up by Nature, become a bright post-Industrial metaphor "linking light, time, space and people," to quote a mud-caked plaque at the base of the poles at Wooley and Rose.

For a while it worked. The Mylar seemed electrified. The poles stood out on their own.

But Told's once-singular industrial park got sold off in pieces, and its open spaces filled up. All manner of buildings went up near and around the poles, occluding some from view and stuffing visual clutter behind others. Marie Callender's was boldest of all. The entire front of its building at Statham and South Oxnard Boulevard noses within five feet of the 11-pole array--a true astonishment of modern-day non-planning.

Then, by 1992, the Mylar gave out. Behrens had underestimated the rapacity of ocean air: once-refractive material turned dull, lightless, hopeless: a conductor of nothing.

"Connections" started coming apart, started its descent into disconnection. It became poles, not art. A $250,000 set of very odd poles.

"I don't think it carries the original desires of the artist," says a diplomatic Andrew Voth, director of the Carnegie Museum and member of the city's Art in Public Places Committee. "It's totally lost. I don't blame the artist. It just did not quite come off."

We'll see. "Connections" now fights for an improbable comeback.

Mylar replacement is under way, and the poles near Callender's are firing off colors that change with the slightest movement by the viewer--that is, for the viewer who manages to block out the view of the restaurant. Other pole clusters, such as the 80-foot mega-tower at Rose and South Oxnard Boulevard, await new Mylar--though that cluster at times gets lost in a row of telephone poles behind it.

As for Behrens, Oxnard provides a sobering civic jolt.

"We had no idea that Marie Callender's or any other buildings would be up that close," he says. "Now the piece is distracted from by simple disregard. No one ever called me--not once--to discuss what appropriate designs on surrounding property would be. Public art, you know, is no different than anything else: It is modified by what is placed next to it."

That's a statement that lends "Connections," at least as far as land-use planning goes, a whole new meaning.

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