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Art of the City

A New Guide Indexes L.A.'s Public Treasures

November 03, 2002|GINNY CHIEN

Think of it as a Zagat Survey for the mosaics, murals, sculptures and fountains that pepper the city landscape. "Urban Surprises: A Guide to Public Art in Los Angeles," recently issued with the backing of the Cultural Affairs Department, lists more than 300 artworks at such unexpected sites as police stations, a car dealership and a recycling center.

The slim compendium, published by Glendale-based Balcony Press, indexes pieces in all corners of the city, from the steel sculpture of dancing figures in the Sylmar/San Fernando Metrolink station to oil paintings honoring the fishing industry in a San Pedro bank. Each numbered entry, cross-referenced to handy maps, lists artist, address and description. About a dozen glossy color photographs by Dennis Keeley whet the appetites of potential treasure hunters. "I hope this is something that people will put in their cars and reference if they notice something at a stoplight," says editor Gloria Gerace. "Or, even better, look up where their houses are and explore what's in their neighborhoods."

Given that L.A. harbors enough public art to fill "10 volumes," as Gerace puts it, the guide lists only works budgeted into a construction or renovation project and commissioned by either the Cultural Affairs Department's Public Art Programs, the Community Redevelopment Agency's Downtown Art in Public Places or the Metropolitan Transit Authority's Metro Art Department.

Branch libraries proved to be unexpectedly rewarding public art repositories, says Gerace, deputy director of administration at the UCLA Hammer Museum. "We need to relish these gems in our city." At the Vermont Square location, a sleek glass table sandblasted with the titles of books banned by schools and libraries ("The Sun Also Rises" and "The Indian in the Cupboard," for example) gleams amid a sea of young readers. Across town, the facade of the Robertson outpost is embellished with quotations on learning from literary visionaries such as Malcolm X and Maxine Hong Kingston.

Gerace became interested in assembling a public art directory while on a project with Mark Johnstone, former administrator of public arts for the Cultural Affairs Department. He and colleague Roella Hsieh Louie, former director of grants, public arts and planning, introduced her to the genre's unique ideals. "They seduced me, not just with the beautiful art itself, but with the process involved with creating it," Gerace says.

Indeed, Johnstone's essay for the guide states, "Public art is not only about a work of art; it is also about the process." In his vision, a public artist ideally collaborates with community members, including developers or landscape architects, and gleans history from citizens to create a piece that helps build and define its site. "That interaction can help bring the whole community to a different level of understanding art," Johnstone says. "It allows an exchange of ideas, which might not be realized in galleries or schools. It's a really exciting laboratory to work in."

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