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Art Review

Animal power is on the march

Monumental yet animated statues go parading toward the city center.

October 24, 2009|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | ART CRITIC

In the annals of art criticism, the phrase "some kind of cow splat" is probably not bound for glory.

That was the colorful comparison that outgoing LAPD Chief William J. Bratton used to deride "sixbeaststwomonkeys," Peter Shelton's ensemble of eight sculptures commissioned for the department's new headquarters at First and Spring streets downtown.

The insult makes for an eye-catching headline. But for reasons I'll get to in a moment, it doesn't come close to the furor inspired by another benign sculpture commissioned half a century ago for Parker Center, the LAPD's old headquarters.

Neither does Bratton's crack demonstrate that he knows zilch about contemporary sculpture, as one might suspect; it demonstrates instead that he doesn't know much about cow splat. Born and raised in Boston, the chief has lived and worked on police forces there and in New York City and Los Angeles, where encounters with cows are rare. Perhaps he can be forgiven for not knowing what bovine poo actually looks like.

What the sculptural ensemble does look like is a procession of monumental, smartly abstracted animal forms -- such brawny beasts as hippos, elephants and bison. Shelton, whose well-known work usually abstracts human body parts, distending them in space in ways that make us supremely self-conscious of our own imperfect, slightly ridiculous assemblages of flesh and bone, has here turned his talents toward powerful animals associated with the wilds of Asia, Africa and the Americas.

Cast in bronze and coated with a rich black patina, they create a formal promenade along the Spring Street side of the new edifice. The corpulent forms are sheltered beneath a freshly planted alley of London plane trees. As it matures, the bower will further cushion the pedestrian space between the busy traffic artery and the swank architecture.

In stark contrast, the procession is flanked at either end by headless creatures atop tall, spindly legs. Their elevated bodies, presumably derived from the monkeys mentioned in the title, twist in space as if scanning their surroundings with bodily sensors rather than eyes. These animated forms begin and end the procession with an image of movement into the central city.

Between them, six limestone plinths hold the large, dark, smoothly elephantine forms. Half face north, half face south -- which is saying something about the artist's gift for abstraction, given that none of these beasts has a face.

One parades. Another huddles. A third seems to amble. One even appears to have rolled onto its side to wallow playfully for a moment in the sunshine. Each has a distinct personality.

Why animals? Animal sculptures in front of noteworthy civic buildings are common global fare, whether the modern imperial lions in front of the New York Public Library or the mythical dragons at entrances to the 9th century Buddhist temple of Borobudur in central Java. In almost every culture in almost every age, powerful animals have functioned as guardian figures. Finding them now at the site of a police headquarters is hardly a stretch.

Shelton was also smart not to make his procession too literal in its civic symbolism. That error occurred in 1955, when a ludicrous uproar arose over a bronze sculpture commissioned for the then-new police administration building now called Parker Center.

UCLA sculptor Bernard Rosenthal crafted a 14-foot bronze figural grouping for the facade of the sleek, modern building on North Los Angeles Street, designed by Welton Becket Associates and J.E. Stanton.

Titled "The Family Protected by the Police," it abstracts its subjects into angular, elongated Cubist forms.

A monumental figure at the rear -- the policeman -- puts his left arm around a woman holding a child in her arms at his side; his right hand rests on the shoulder of an identically shaped young man standing slightly in front of him. The continuity of a paternal police force composed of citizens is visually conveyed -- albeit in the limited terms of gender standards common to 1950s American society.

City Councilman Harold Harby was furious about the sculpture. A notorious Red-baiter and hater of Modern art, Harby was certain that the faceless geometric abstractions were meant to symbolize a "one world" philosophy of uniform, communist-inspired government.

"It is probably the most scandalous satire and caricature of American people I have ever seen," Harby fumed to the press. The brouhaha raged for months.

Harby's efforts to get the sculpture removed from the off-white ceramic facade failed. Together with the original building, the bronze is now part of a near-perfect midcentury Modern ensemble.

And what became of Rosenthal, whose 1950s sculptures also graced local department stores and a fountain at UCLA? He decamped to New York in 1960, where he died in July at 94. "Alamo," his revolving 1967 steel sculpture in the traffic island at downtown Manhattan's Astor Place -- balanced on point and commonly referred to as simply "the cube" -- is among that city's most familiar public sculptures.

Bratton, who was New York City police commissioner in the 1990s, probably saw "the cube" countless times. But I confess I don't much wonder what he thought of it.

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christopher.knight @latimes.com

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