Artist Peter Wegner's installations for the Stanford Graduate School… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Palo Alto — — The crowd standing in front of the wall-sized artwork looked mesmerized. For a split second, the 32-foot-long piece resembled an abstract painting by Ellsworth Kelly or another artist who works with grids of color. But it didn't stay that way for long. Changing constantly, it plays more like a movie that's about movement itself, generating suspense by developing and disrupting patterns of color instead of building up to car crashes.
At one moment, the whole "screen" floods with orange or blue; at another it disintegrates into a field of competing hues. For each small rectangle making up this large grid can change color with a quick flipping motion, the same way letters change on an old-fashioned train station departure and arrival board.
"Some people have told me it looks like fire," says the Berkeley-based artist Peter Wegner, who called the flip-digit work "Monument to Change as It Changes" with his usual flair for paradox. "Others think it looks like liquid. Some have asked if it's activated by wind."
One young woman gathered before the artwork that day had another point of reference. "Is this made out of thousands of Post-it Notes?" she asked a friend.
"No, look, it's plastic," the friend answered.
"Well, that must say something about where my mind is," she replied.
Her comment also says something about where the work is located — not at a major museum but at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. As part of its new $345-million campus, called the Knight Management Center after a grant by Nike co-founder Phil Knight, the business school commissioned Wegner to produce a series of artworks that were completed last month.
Filling out with forms
It's an unusual project in many ways. Most public art is inserted into a landscape after the fact, but Wegner's artworks were integrated into the campus — with "Monument to Change" built into the façade of an auditorium that had to be redesigned and re-permitted to accommodate its weight and behind-the-scenes apparatus. And though most university art tends to be committee-sanctioned or boring, Wegner's suite of works for Stanford are thought-provoking in ways that his supporters have come to expect.
"Peter is driven by an interest in paradox and enigma," says Henry Urbach, who acquired several works by him for SFMOMA when he was its architecture-design curator. "Artists can give us beautiful things to look at, maybe amazingly intricate things to wonder over, but they can also raise questions that allow us to think differently about thought and perception itself."
Urbach mentioned Wegner's 2004 series of upside-down Manhattan photographs, where the sky between the buildings takes the shape of a skyscraper, as typical of his blend of formal and philosophical interests. "It's a simple gesture that turns the familiar into something unfamiliar," Urbach says. "It also expresses his interest in the void, a metaphor for inquiry and doubt, the place where things have not yet settled into form, where all is contingent and in flux."
The curator describes Wegner as a "protean artist," perhaps most at home in painting but also comfortable making books, photographs, sculptures and architectural installations.
His new works, scattered across a town-hall-style campus designed by Boora Architects, take a range of forms. Near the campus center, Wegner took over an exterior wall with a giant LED display: some 300 alphabetized adverbs that light up in different arrangements to make you think about the different ways a single action could be performed. One sequence focusing on the word "wildly" cues up a slew of rough opposites, including "logically," "soberly" and "precisely."
The LED work could be seen to question the business school's — or business world's — emphasis on productivity. "It raises the question not of what you are doing, but how you are doing it," says the artist.
Deeper in the campus, in a courtyard in view of the faculty building, Wegner has built a pair of wooden benches in the shape of a large "y" and "x," the mathematical variables, flanked by benches in the shapes of brackets. They could be read as a very short concrete poem about uncertainty. They are also for sitting on.
And at the campus entrance, he has designed a cornerstone that reads: "Dedicated to the things that haven't happened yet and the people who are about to dream them up."
"I started thinking about what cornerstones signify — usually the moment of completion for a project," says Wegner, a rail-thin, plainly dressed 47-year-old who could pass for the relaxed sort of philosophy professor. "But what if instead of looking back over your shoulder, you were looking ahead?"