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Art Review

Public Projects Fall Short of Inspiring


The subway and light-rail stations in Los Angeles seem as if they'd be ideal settings for art. Every day, thousands of people from all walks of life mill around on the system's well-lighted platforms waiting for trains. No advertisements or scaled-down billboards clutter these spaces.

Likewise, no newsstands, kiosks, vending machines or mini-convenience stores compete for your attention. Eating and drinking are forbidden, as is music (unless it's played on headphones). Odd as it may seem, the tunnels and walkways of L.A.'s skeletal transit system share many of the physical features of art museums from 20 years ago--before they transformed themselves into multipurpose entertainment centers by adding fine restaurants, boutique gift shops, designer architecture and loads of supposedly educational programming.

Unfortunately, the five most recent installations commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority appear to have been designed for such trendy institutions. Today, too many museums behave as if art is elitist, incomprehensible and inaccessible--and that the public is best served by being treated to an amusing variety of undemanding diversions and vaguely cultural experiences.

At the 7th Street/Metro Center station in downtown L.A., where the Red and Blue lines meet, a dozen or so TV monitors have been affixed to pillars and walls high overhead. Each presents George Legrady's "Chance Encounters," a literally endless video made up of 20-second segments.

Each segment consists of the first names of two people, randomly paired by a computer program and set against a sequence of 26 animated backdrops. For example, Karl and Hannah are followed by Kathy and Gloria, Keisha and Christine and so on.

The idea is that the subway brings a potentially infinite variety of folks into close proximity for the lengths of their trips, and that they go their separate ways without getting to know one another. That's true, but it's also trite. Like a screen-saver for the imagination, Legrady's tedious piece adds nothing beyond the obvious to a trip across town. He is scheduled to revise what's on the screen monthly; maybe his next contribution will be better.

At the same station is a permanently installed series of squat concrete benches decorated with abstract patterns. Theatrical spotlights shine from the ceiling, casting shadows of stylized leaves on the uncomfortable seats and the ground around them. The shadows are faint, and there's a good chance you could use the benches without even noticing the patterns. They're most visible when you open a newspaper or paperback, whose pages catch the spectrum of faded colors at the edges of the shadowy pattern.

Titled "Plantings," this installation pays homage to Ernest A. Batchelder's Arts and Crafts tile work in the building located directly above ground. The underground piece of static theater is the result of a collaboration among Noel Korten, director of exhibitions of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery; Kipp Kobayashi, a corporate designer; and architect Marta Perlas. The number of collaborators--and the paltriness of their product--reflects the top-heavy, over-administrated nature of publicly funded art projects: More time, effort and money appear to have gone into committee meetings and approval processes than the work itself.

Somewhat more successful are the five concrete benches decorated with ceramic-tile fragments at the Imperial/Wilmington/Rosa Parks station, halfway between Long Beach and downtown, where the Blue and Green lines meet. Designed by artists Michael Massenburg and Robin Strayhorn, each of the indestructible, S-shaped benches commemorates an important year in the life of Rosa Parks. Permanently installed beneath a vast concrete overpass, they combine photographic transfers depicting historic events with a quilt-like patchwork of bright colors.

The artists, as a symbolic token of their public commitment, invited members of the South-Central Senior Citizens Center to participate in design decisions. The results are bland and banal, but that's part of the point. Massenburg and Strayhorn are less interested in making art that forges communities than tapping into existing communities to make art. That sort of backward thinking is yet another hallmark of current public art. It betrays a deeply cynical view of what art can actually do. The best thing about the benches is that they provide some sorely needed seating.

The most visually satisfying and intellectually stimulating installation is Robbert Flick's series of seven illuminated photo panels, installed until July 2003 at the Wilshire/Normandie station. Each 4-by-3-foot light box contains a grid of 121 snapshots the photographer made on July 10, 1997, when he drove along Wilshire Boulevard following the route of the subway from downtown toward the station. He aimed his camera at the north side of the street.

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