Red Line Blues

Photo by Ted Soqui
MY INITIAL REACTION TO GEORGE STONE'S ENORMOUS fake rocks jutting out over the entranceway of the newly opened Beverly/Vermont MTA Red Line Station was, "Hey, cool -- this is just like that earthquake simulation on the Universal Studios tour!" Later, I learned that Stone's proposal had almost been vetoed on the basis of just such a vague seismological inference, and that he had been obliged to solicit testimonials from mental health professionals to attest to the public's ability to withstand this sort of terrifying associative power. My second reaction was to note that there were about 2,000 times as many people lined up to get their Red Line plastic souvenir sunglasses as those paying any attention at all to the art.

The official criteria for judging the success of public art is different than that for museum or particularly gallery exhibitions. Critical scrutiny is generally replaced with boosterish journalism. Juries loaded with petty bureaucrats and career grant-writers routinely reward the bullshit surrounding the work rather than trying to hammer out a consensus about the merits of the work itself. Which makes for snappy and convincing press releases. And the bottom line artistically is that to come up with anything resembling Art under such constraints is a remarkable high-wire act in itself. Kudos are most certainly due to all for seeing it through to completion over the tumultuous political ride that was the MTA's last decade.

Another reason for less scrutiny is that it might hurt the always tenuous access the percent-for-art movement has to the tax collectors' coffers: Negative publicity is used to justify budget cuts. And recently, for artists, public art is where the money is. If you're the kind of artist who can endure endless pointless meetings with suits, condescension from architects and fabricators, and pathological niggling about minute variables in engineering specs and zoning codes, then you can make enough to get health insurance. Sometimes even more. For thousands of confused artists lured into the profession by the '80s art boom and the popular media's emphasis on high-ticket anomalies, it's one of the few economically viable alternatives to academia.

Nevertheless, to refrain from expressing one's opinions implies that one is not part of public life or that the public's experience and opinion are somehow invalid in relation to one's own. That you have to have a master's degree (and ride the subway) to appreciate public art. Finally, it implies that the art in question never rises to the highest levels of contemporary cultural achievement, which just isn't so. It's a profound disservice to the art and artist to suggest that whatever intrinsic aesthetic merit they possess is inevitably overpowered by the deadening woolliness of institutional authorization. Quite the opposite. No amount of fluffing can make an academic pseudo-intellectual cluster of pushpins into a worthwhile art experience, and no amount of crispy retroactive official piety can take the piss out of Duchamp's urinal.

The five new stations run from the aforementioned corner of Beverly and Vermont to the landmark intersection of Hollywood and Vine, extending the Red Line's previous stretch from Union Station to Wilshire. Each station teamed a different artist and architectural design firm and allocated anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000 of the .5 percent of the original MTA budget to realize the artists' visions. As the art program has caught up with the rate of station construction over the course of the entire Metro project, the art has played a more integral role in the station-design process. Stone's giant boulder installation is the most harmonious collaboration, due perhaps to its simplicity and cinematic visual impact.

The most impressive station, though, is artist Robert Millar and architect Mehrdad Yazdani's fruitful clash of visions at the Vermont/Santa Monica Station. I have passed this station for what seems like years on the way to Marouch and always cleverly japed at what appears to be a giant, elliptical, chrome escalator-tread that looms above the entrance: Look! It's Public Art! Nevertheless, it grew on me; perched in the midst of the cantilevered crimson stalks of the plaza lights, it takes on the undeniable inexplicability of very good art. While Millar's involvement with the architectural planning was deep (he co-designed the red streetlights and insisted on the inclusion of a performance area) there is a hint of animosity in their vying for visual impact, one that energizes the dialogue.

But while Yazdani's soaring monumentalism is undeniably idealistic, Millar's modifications both strengthen the aesthetic impact of the stainless steel "wing" and betray an attention to the real human bodies and behavior that are too often overlooked at the drawing board. The steep descent to the underground platform, through cavernous mausoleum-gray walls embossed with faded, runny Holzeresque questions (most of them addressing thorny â philosophical and political issues relating to public art, is at once an awe-inspiring kinesthetic experience and an elegant satirical jab at the hoops of rationalization the artist was presumably obliged to navigate before seeing his work executed.

Unfortunately, the other three stations suffer to a greater or lesser degree from the seemingly arbitrary mashing together of incongruous elements, so that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Michael Davis' low-impact Vermont/Sunset station with its astronomical/medical motif comes off like a watered-down version of the new Tomorrowland. Most of the station's best moments come from small architectural details, and the centerpiece 3-D molecule/constellation mural, while sharing the too-common museum-art trait of looking better in reproduction, has so little presence as to be nonexistent. May Sun's desperate grab bag of vaguely museological panels is lost in a sea of candy-colored tiles. While her metalicized drawings of fossil bones uncovered during the subway's excavation would have gained some depth from a more brownishly old-world context, the all-inclusive gathering of blown-up historical photos (of the neighborhood), fiberglass replicas of Red Cars, squid mosaics and hobo ideograms results in a visual and conceptual dissipation that merely exhausts.

Occasionally, an element will stand out on its own; the audacity of a post­City of Quartz "bus shelter" shaped like a white stretch limo is, for instance, mind-expanding. The Hollywood station as a whole space, with its vaulted ceilings lined with blue 35mm film reels and Byzantine concrete palm-tree columns, has a surprising baroque radiance that may even survive a couple of decades of L.A. air and vandalism. But sandwiched between the classic car/Car-toonish benches and scrambled, nauseating yellow brick tiles of the platform and the embarrassment of lighthearted doodles-on-ceramic directly attributable to artistic collaborator Magu, the station takes on the flavor of pickles and ice cream. Which is to say, it's a matter of taste. (Maybe single expectant mothers schlepping to a minimum-wage job will get a lift out of Magu's dog-faced trippers.)

THERE ARE TWO SETS OF CRITERIA BY which we judge public art. One is public, consisting of the press releases, political speeches, commendations, rants on talk radio and occasional reviews. The other is interior, incremental and made up from an accumulation of small attentions -- subtle epiphanies that add up to a positive change in the quality of life of one or a million individual commuters. The former is cut and dried and has just about run its course; the latter immeasurable and only just gearing up. The former, in spite of being a good dietary source of lip service, seems barely aware of how the latter plays itself out, but the crowds at the opening had their priorities straight. The art will be there, to be assessed and accepted or rejected, out of the corner of the eye and away from important opinions, at least until the Big One. You could only get the official sunglasses on opening weekend.

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