Touring the artworks at the three terminals at Sky Harbor International Airport provides a lesson in Phoenix's progressive sophistication in relation to public art. The big bird mosaic at Terminal Two looks as dated as a Depression-era mural. The big metal turds and huge woven wall hangings at Terminal Three show what happens when you let corporations, not art commissions, select artworks. Still, you can see that some people thought it was important to have art in the airport.
With Terminal Four we may not have arrived, but at least we're coming in for a landing. I went out to the newly opened Terminal Four armed only with a typewritten list of the artworks--I take my research seriously--and no idea what the pieces looked like. Some of the descriptions did not seem encouraging: "abstract aluminum wall relief," "ceramic," "glass mosaic." Sounds all-too-familiar, I thought. What can you expect when you have to please everybody, offend nobody, and run a gauntlet of heterogeneous sensibilities? Then I found myself in the center of the Passenger Level, surrounded by Ron Gasowski's six big black ceramic columns. They rise from the floor to the relatively low (ten-foot) ceiling in two ranks of three on either side of the escalators, and they have undulating profiles, like a stack of tires. Each one is faced with matte black grout and thousands of shiny black ceramic tiles.
The tiles come in every shape you can imagine, depicting palm trees, baby faces, cacti, airplanes, or just featureless shards, sometimes with names incised in them. For twenty minutes, I watched as one person after another approached these stout ebony monoliths, circling them, touching them, and pointing out features to their companions.
From a distance, the columns appear to be smooth, glittering natural formations. As you get closer, the smooth surface breaks up into its flat components, reflecting light from the nearby retail shops. Finally you begin to recognize things, and by then you're hooked. I actually saw adults get down on their knees to find treasures close to the floor.
As public art, Gasowski's columns are a complete success. Though massive, they do not dominate their space, partly because of the low ceiling. And making them black was an inspired move. Multicolored tiles would be tacky and overstimulating. These invite approach. Finally, because they're made of durable ceramic, you can touch them. And let's admit it, everyone wants to touch art.
That's the key to the best of the artworks at Terminal Four: they are viewer-friendly. Locals go to the airport to pick up friends and relatives. They don't want to tiptoe around the implicit haughtiness of museum or gallery pieces. Being able to touch the art collapses the cultural distance we usually feel when encountering aesthetic objects.
But first you have to find them. There were two other ceramic pieces on my list, one by Martha Heavenston and the other by Eddie Dominguez. They were supposed to be installed at someplace called the Infant Care Center. I consulted two of those "You Are Here" map-directories, which were otherwise very helpful and informative. No luck.
So I made my way to the Information Desk downstairs at the Baggage Claim Level. Two very kind women shared my mystification. "I've never heard of an Infant Care Center," said one. We speculated whether the airport may be planning something like that in the future. We consulted maps. Finally I gave up, but as I was leaving one of the women said, "There's a real pretty picture in the women's rest room right around the corner here."
"Can I see it?" I asked.
"I better go with you," she said. I agreed that was a good idea. When the coast was clear, she beckoned me. And there, at the end of an alcove, just before you jogged into the rest room proper, was Heavenston's piece, "The Woman of Nature," placed in the wall above a curving shelf, which I realized was a changing table for an infant. This was the Infant Care Center: a shelf.
It's a shame that (half of) the public can't see this piece, because it's beautiful. It shows a woman looking up into the sky, dreaming about various forms of travel. Created in collaboration with students at Wilson Elementary School, which was demolished for Terminal Four, it is childlike but not childish. Cartoon buses, airplanes, and cars float in a shiny, colorful surface with the rounded, smooth texture of cake frosting. It has the look of a jigsaw puzzle with very large pieces. You simply have to run your hands over it.
But where was the Dominguez piece? I had an idea: men change baby diapers, too. I said to the Information Lady, "You showed me yours, so I'll show you mine," and we went across the hall to the men's rest room.
Sure enough, in a corresponding alcove, there was Eddie Dominguez's "Collaboration." As the title indicates, it was also created with the help of students, these from Herrera Elementary School, another victim of the bulldozer.
I liked this one even better than Heavenston's. It is more mosaiclike, and incorporates metallic as well as ceramic pieces, with some very high relief. Once again, I couldn't keep my hands off it.
Later I asked Lenee Eller, Sky Harbor's curator of art, why these pieces were semihidden. She said, "Every square foot of space here was negotiated over. The airport is here to make money, after all, and those who want art have to compete with advertisers and retail shops." So I guess we're lucky we don't have ads for Pampers in the bathrooms.
"You should know," she added, "that we weren't going to have a changing table in the men's rest room, but one of the women on the planning committee brought it up. I can tell you that some of the men there were surprised at the concept."
Eller considers herself lucky. She presides over the second-largest airport art program in the country--San Francisco's is the first. Sky Harbor is the tenth-busiest airport nationally, with more than a million people a month walking through its spaces (a lot of them repeat visitors, of course). Terminal Four accounts for 60 percent of that volume.
"So I help run one of the biggest `art galleries' in the nation," she said. There's art all over the place here." A changing exhibition, "Contemporary Nature," occupies a half-dozen spots. These are mostly predictable Arizona landscapes by state artists. The Aviation History Room has an interesting photography show documenting the construction of the Terminal, which is formally titled the Barry M. Goldwater Terminal. (I doubt if anyone will call it that. Barry has been honored so much, pretty soon we'll have to name manholes after him.) Craig Smith took photos of the buildings, and Marilyn Szabo took photos of some of the people who built them. Smith's best shots are close-ups of gloves, believe it or not. Worn, patched, torn, they succinctly and graphically depict the incredible labor it takes to lay all that rebar and pour all that concrete.
There's even art in the stairwells. Richard Gubernick's painted aluminum reliefs look like they were made from the pile of pieces left over from a child's construction-paper project. Gubernick takes these pieces, layers them, then rivets them together, finally bolting them to the wall.
Though technically called reliefs, these "Shards," as he calls them, are about as thin as three dimensions can get and not be flimsy. Naturally you want to go up and see if you can peel them off the wall. (They won't budge.)
Several more projects are pending out there, including Mark Klett's huge, hilarious photos of saguaros (there's a small version on one of the walls hyping the art at Terminal Four); a Venetian glass mosaic by Howardena Pindell; a set of squat ceramic totems by Jun Kaneko; and a mixed-media work by Celia Munoz. Sadly, you won't ever see the piece that would have put Sky Harbor on the map in terms of art sophistication. Luiz Jimenez Jr., a nationally known sculptor from New Mexico, proposed a piece called "The Plumed Serpent," a depiction of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. Cast in fiber glass in Jimenez's signature hallucinatory colors, it would have wound for three stories up and around the main escalators.
But the selection panel rejected it last year, on the ridiculous grounds that it would have frightened young children and the elderly. This is why I say Phoenix has not yet quite arrived. The piece would have been dynamite.
Instead we seesaw between great stuff like Gasowski's columns, and the safer, more traditional work like Michael Chiago's painting "Rain Dance and Saguaro Harvest," located at the southeast entry niche on the Ticketing Level. It shows a processional of Tohono O'odham (formerly Papago) people in the sky over a desert landscape, where other Native Americans pick saguaro fruit.
It's the kind of thing that will wow Aunt Harriet and Uncle Fred when they come to visit you for the holidays, but for us locals it's something we've already seen too much of.
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Still, when you go out to pick up your relatives this year, allot some extra time to study some of the better work at Terminal Four. And don't forget to check out the rest room on the east end of the Baggage Claim Level.
Except for "Contemporary Nature," which closes in January, all pieces are on permanent display at Terminal Four, Sky Harbor International Airport.
With Terminal Four we may not have arrived, but at least we're coming in for a landing. That's the key to the best of the artworks at Terminal Four: They are viewer-