Visual Arts

Light-Rail Stations Ride the Line Between Public Art and Construction Detail

Editor's note/correction: The original version of this review incorrectly attributed statements made in a letter to the editor ("Feedback," February 14, 2008) to Bob Adams, a Phoenix artist who designed one of the light rail installations. The Bob Adams who wrote the letter is not, in fact, Bob Adams the artist. The review has been edited to reflect that.

Along with several hundred other people, I was recently invited to ride the rails of the Valley's shiny new Valley Metro light rail before its grand opening to the public on December 27, an opportunity I jumped at like some giddy, latter-day hobo. And though I thought it would be smooth railing all the way from Phoenix to Mesa, with an abundance of great public art adorning each metro station, the art part was more than a bit bumpy in places.

After riding them rails, then driving the Metro route several days later and making quite a few stops for a closer look, I'm not entirely convinced that the resultant public art, chosen by community committees and groups of designers, artists and techno-wonks, is truly "[a] beautiful collaboration of art, design and engineering," as Metro's glorious, glossy, color brochure proclaims. The 59-page handout documents the public art commissioned for each stop on the line, which begins at 19th Avenue and Montebello in Phoenix and ends at Sycamore and Main Street in Mesa.

According to a British public-art think tank named ixia, public art can encompass art commissioned as a response to the concept of place (here, the entire Valley of the Sun), as well as art commissioned as part of a site-specific designed environment (for us, the Metro stations of the light-rail system as a whole), taking into consideration the placement and functions of a specific site. Ideally, ixia believes artists making public art need to engage creatively with communities "to explore and articulate issues of local significance," though such interaction is by no means mandatory.

Truth be told, public art is most often a flat-out compromise, a negotiated distillation of artist vision, committee approval, and public acceptance, an obvious balancing act between what the public can handle and what an artist deems artistically significant. It's the exceptional artist who can span the gaping chasm between the two.

Some of the work commissioned for Metro's light rail really does reflect specific artists' creative engagement with the particular community in which their art has been placed. A perfect example of this is the historically based installation of Tucson artist Mary Lucking at the Indian School/Central Avenue stop, which is located near the old Phoenix Indian School, now a public park (Steele Indian School Park). After working with residents in the area and Native American groups whose members actually attended the school in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, Lucking memorialized their stories in red, black, and silver walkway panels, framed photo tiles mounted on station columns that relate specific, often poignant stories of children who, back in the day, attended the Indian School, and two giant terrazzo ground murals, placed at either end of the station, depicting how Central Avenue looked going north and south before the station was built.

Lucking's treatment not only gives riders something with which to pass the time while waiting on the platform, but surreptitiously teaches them about this country's notorious attempts at Anglo-fication of Native Americans, even into the mid-20th century, of which, unfortunately, Phoenix was a part.

Equally engaging for both passengers and passersby is the ceramic tile art by Victor Mario Zaballa of San Francisco, incorporated into stops at 12th Street/Washington and the 12th Street/Jefferson (right in front of the New Times building, which was the old Booker T. Washington School, the first all-black elementary school in Phoenix). Zaballo captures the complex historic flavor of the neighborhood, an eclectic mix of African-Americans and Hispanics, by creating quilt-like tile murals throughout the station. They're decorated with not just traditional story quilt designs, long an important part of African-American culture, but also with classic North African Moorish motifs, like Islamic chevron designs and Berber step-frets — designs carried by conquering Spaniards to the New World after 400 years of Moorish occupation.

Zaballo's murals also incorporate photographic images on tile of neighborhood landmarks and longtime residents. All these references are tied together with exuberant Mexican colors, as well as railings that suggest Mexican papel picada, cut-paper designs popular at Mexican fiestas.

Probably my favorite public-art oasis is at the stop smack in front of the Heard Museum on Central Avenue, created by Einar and Jamex de la Torre, citizens of both the U.S. and Mexico. Their bi-national background informs their highly irreverent work, which stirs together references to Native American, Mexican, Southwestern and American history, art and pop culture — a blend that is perfectly Phoenician and endemic to most U.S. states on the border.

The de la Torres have created an entire environment at the stop, including carved pink cantera stone sculptures that ooze along either side of the station walkways, into which they've embedded glass medallions with all sorts of crazy decorations, like amputated doll arms, mini-Frankenstein's monster faces, and the Aztec calendar, to mention just a few. For the terminally bored, they've created intricately decorated, movable bronze boxes mounted on rails, which remind me of those rotating toys affixed to a toddler's playpen, geared to entertaining even the crankiest kid.

The pièce de résistance, however, is a large bronze sculpture patterned after pre-Columbian Mayan effigies at Copán, on the Honduras-Guatemala border. There are so many art historical references — ancient, Spanish colonial and contemporary — included in just this one piece, each reference in and of itself such a complete narrative, that I'll be getting off at this stop on a regular basis.

And be sure to see the artists' Southern Exposure sculptures just inside the Third Street entrance to the new Phoenix Convention Center. They're two bizarre, flamboyantly decorated "Toltec Transformers," as Jamex de la Torre jokingly refers to them, standing guard at glass doors. They've been crafted from lampwork and mold-made glass, as well as colorful resin that almost looks like Mom's edible Jell-O molds.

Also of note are the to-scale bronze re-creations of iconic Phoenix and Tempe structures, including Gammage Hall, Tovrea Castle and Tempe's old Hayden Flour Mill, set on pedestals at the Veterans Way/College Avenue station in Tempe, almost directly across from ASU's Sun Devil Stadium. They're by Ted Savinar, an artist from Portland who was also the lead artist for the entire Valley Metro public-art project. This stop is also where you'll see iron-caged walls of icy glass chunks lit with changing colored lights that, hopefully, will be operating both day and night.

Freestanding sculptures are major players at a number of stations and, for the most part, are integrated seamlessly into each site. At Camelback and Central, New York artist Ilan Avaerbuch's massive Landmark, a monumental, hewn-stone ring through which stylized figures of stone and rusty iron pass, conveys appropriate solidity and strength. It's an impressive, fitting, and aesthetically safe portal to Central Avenue, the very core of Phoenix and home to the city's business and cultural worlds. Chicago's Josh Garber scores a hit with his snaky, sentinel-like sculpture, covered with reflective, coin-shaped metal slices, at the corner of 19th Avenue and Camelback's Park-and-Ride. Lit at night by ever-changing hues of light, the sculpture can't be missed by tired riders in search of cars they've misplaced. And San Francisco's Peter Richards' gigantic, perforated-mushroom sculpture in the triangular plaza at Roosevelt and Central Avenue not only beckons the weary, it offers eternally changing shadows created by a free-moving upper canopy interacting with a stationary lower canopy. Whether Richards' mushroom will afford bearable shade in the dead of summer is another matter entirely.

For me, the least successful Metro public-art projects are those inextricably worked into the station structure itself. Slapping the label of public art on mere decorative architectural detail does not magically make it art. Take, for example Phoenix artist Bob Adams' metal "modernist" panels, a seeming repeat of Peter Richards' mushroom. Adams' perforated metal shade panels, mounted atop the length of the station and intended to create shade as the sun moves, are so minimalist as to be non-existent.

Additionally, I am underwhelmed by Washington artist Reis Neimi's nondescript scrolly metal railings at the Van Buren/Central and First Avenues stops, allegedly based on designs taken from historic buildings in the area; as far as I'm concerned, Metro spent money on construction detail, not public art, at these stops. Same goes for Tapping Time, the project of North Carolina artist Thomas Sayre at the Osborn/Central Avenue platform. Ostensibly bronze footprints of different shoes embedded in the station's concrete platform, as well as wheelchair marks and stroller marks, Sayre's effort says nothing about Phoenix — it's a generic piece that could have been installed anywhere in the world.

Mona Higuchi's Cloud Canopy is another example of money spent on construction versus art. Higuchi's undulating shade structure is too intimately bound with the stop's physical structure to be considered a work of art, even though it casts pretty, swirly shadows at high noon. And there's something downright sacrilegious about treading on Sandra Day O'Connor's beaming face, rendered in terrazzo by Stephen Farley at the downtown, justice-themed stops at Washington/Central Avenue and Jefferson/First Avenue.

If we really want to spend public art money on obvious construction detail, why not put misters in the shape of rattlesnakes at each light-rail stop? I'll vote for that.

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Kathleen Vanesian