On the ground floor of downtown's First Interstate World Center, Komar and Melamid's painted 1993 relief-mural "Unity" is a beautifully executed, wildly funny satire on that rhetoric's hardy American cousin. Its subject is the predicament of multiculturalism in a capitalist economy, as packaged for consumption by the public. If Americans of every moralistic stripe seem convinced that the only good art is art that is good for you, then it follows that corporate interests will champion only art that seems good for business.
"Unity" is a big, undulating triptych whose form is extrapolated from 13th-Century paintings of angels found in the Porciuncula Chapel near Assisi, Italy--the church from which Los Angeles takes its name. The triptych centers on an exuberant relief of a skyward-gazing angel, who is rendered with a vaguely bathetic demeanor. The androgyne has the moony look of saintliness typical of Baroque paintings by Guido Reni.
The chromatic lushness of the symbol-laden figure is reminiscent of a Russian icon. It's cloaked in exquisitely articulated symbols: a red-and-yellow Buddhist banner, a golden halo borrowed from pre-Columbian images of an Aztec deity and a mahogany headpiece derived from Nigerian masks.
The angel's spreading silver wings are poised to whisk the celestial creature heavenward, much as the bank of elevators in the lobby below stands ready to send you up, up, up--to the ethereal realms of the skyscraper's 73rd floor. These grand wings claim a rather different source than the angel's other assorted parts, one that is considerably closer to home: They're copied exactly from the wings of an American eagle, as depicted on the back of an ordinary quarter directly beneath the motto \o7 E pluribus unum\f7 .
In "Unity," Komar and Melamid have managed a double-edged achievement, at once celebratory and sobering. While the beauty of the relief-mural pays aesthetic tribute to a multicultural mingling of Euro-, African-, Latino- and Asian-American cultures, the idealized image of social harmony is finally being driven by, and subject to, the commercial prerogatives of business. At the base of the tallest bank building in town, "Unity" nimbly clarifies the context within which so much social dialogue today takes place.
* \o7 Komar and Melamid, "Unity," First Interstate World Center, 633 W. 5th St.\f7
'The Poetry Garden'
Neither a painting nor a sculp ture, "The Poetry Garden" (1992) is instead a functional environment designed as an inviting outdoor room in which visitors can sit and talk and read.
The garden, privately commissioned for an existing 50-foot-by-70-foot courtyard adjacent to the offices and galleries of the Lannan Foundation, was intended as a kind of vest-pocket park open to the public in an otherwise bleak light-industrial neighborhood near Marina del Rey.
Iran-born, Minnesota-based American artist Siah Armajani created a place that aspires to be a living metaphor of nothing less than the democratic ideal.
Among its dazzling array of simple yet elegant elements, "The Poetry Garden" deftly merges a host of conflicting forms: Shaker-style benches of golden-hued wood slatted like the clapboards of an old New England house; a garden-within-a-garden reminiscent of Persian miniatures; a dramatic, monumental gateway whose style recalls early-20th-Century Russian Constructivist plans for public information kiosks; a double row of anthropomorphic ceramic jars stacked suggestively one atop another, lip to lip; the hand-hewn enclosure of a Spanish Mission-style courtyard; ecologically sound plants, capped by a magnificent California live oak, appropriate to its semi-arid desert setting, and more.
Two inspirations seem pivotal to the design. One is "The Anecdote of the Jar," a poem by American poet Wallace Stevens, which the artist prominently printed on ceramic tiles above the backs of the benches. The other is the general layout of a classical Islamic paradise-garden, which Armajani knew from childhood.
The Stevens poem addresses the relationship between nature and culture. Through the magical metaphor of a jar placed in the wilderness of Tennessee, the civilizing function of art is deftly asserted.
An Islamic paradise-garden, enclosed by high walls and carefully planted according to custom, is meant as a refreshing sanctuary from the brutal desert environment beyond its fortifications. The connection between this ancient Middle Eastern form and Stevens' ode to a ceramic jar taking dominion over the American wilderness links two disparate cultures.
They are, of course, the two cultures shared by an Iranian immigrant to America. Armajani explores and memorializes his own history in "The Poetry Garden," but he does so in ways that subsume the merely personal into a larger celebration of democratic principle, in which all can share.
* \o7 Siah Armajani, "The Poetry Garden," Lannan Foundation, 5401 MacConnell Ave.\f7