Someone shrewdly suggested to me that Billie Lawless's Green Lightning may have more validity as a performance than as a piece of sculpture. In its brief public life, Lawless's "carnival of life" has acted as a staging area for the public enactment of social and political forces that operate unseen by most of us.
In the following interviews with artist Lawless questions kept reappearing that reflected these forces: how does a piece of sculpture find a public site? What is the power structure behind public art? How far can an artist push expression before offending a public more than likely confused and antagonized by art?
I first got to know Billie Lawless in early 1982 when he asked me to write the introductory essay for a show at the Buscaglia-Castellani GaIlery at Niagara University: A departure from his early monumental steel sculpture, this new work explored neon wall relief. Preparing for the essay, I spent a few intense days talking with Lawless about his work and career. I was impressed. A loner who tends to avoid the local art scene, Lawless had managed to accomplish some impressive feats among other things, he had pulled together the financing and engineering expertise to constructs a piece like Cock-a-Doodle-Doo, a seven-ton steel sculpture on the Buffalo State College campus.
Here was a go-getter, a guy who wasn't stopped by size or pricetag But that verve had its own costs: Lawless was forced to spend a year "resting" because of back problems directly related to his work. During that time, he collected hundreds of images of neon signs and their oftentimes decaying steel support structures.
The Niagara University show was one direction that study led to. Here Lawless joined very formal considerations with playful, cartoonish images, fusing a whole with the help of the cool energy of neon. I think Lawless's openness to the metaphorical power of rocket ships, mice, and squizzle sticks really intrigued me.
Green Lightning was another direction. Many of the same elements in the wall reliefs - a cartoon figure, zesty neon, a multilayered support structure - were here as well, but with a difference: whereas the Buscaglia-Castellani show earned Lawless generally favorable reviews, Green Lightning has triggered a public controversy that upset the local art world, unsettled the mechanisms in city government for making art public, and outraged the general public. While Lawless himself is articulate and outspoken, the issues raised by his now partially dismantled installation on the Elm-Oak arterial are hazy and ambiguous; only a few of them will be settled by the upcoming court case. One thing that Green Lightning has clearly shown, however, is that the local art scene is seriously divided and in trouble.
The following interview was conducted at my Days Park apartment on November 7, one week before the public dedication of Green Lightning, Lawless was in a cheerful mood, eager to talk about the ideas behind the sculpture and the problems he faced in bringing the piece into the public forum. While he was uncertain about the likelihood of a controversy, he thought that the local art world would appreciate his project. The events of the following week caught him off guard.
George Howell: What's it called?
Billie Lawless: Green Lightning. Haven't you heard the title?
GH: No. The piece has been a well-kept secret. Tell me about the site.
BL: How I ended up on that spot is really odd because
I've always steered away from public lands. I know what goes on in politics
and I never wanted to get involved: it's so bureaucratic and nobody wants
to put his head on the line. When I decided to do the piece, I cruised
the lower East side because no one wants to put art there, which is really
a social problem.
I found a spot that was owned by a friend of a friend. He wanted a number of things from me first, including the permission of Jim Pitts. This guy owned land in Pitt’s district and he wanted to stay on good terms with him. When I got in touch with Pitts, he wanted to see the maquette. He looked at my materials and got excited. He said this is nice, this is the kind of thing we should have in the Elm-Oak arterial. So I invited him out to my studio where I have a six-foot version of the neon figures.
GH: He saw the penises?
BL: Right, though he didn't talk a lot about them. At one point
he said those really look like penises, and I said well, they could be
looked at that way. That was that. He said, well, great, let's put it in
the Elm-Oak arterial. He put a proposal together for the Common Council
and it was passed, fourteen to nothing.
Oddly enough, as I got out of the elevator on my way to the council meeting, I ran into David More in the corridor. He came into the meeting and asked, what's going on? Pitts told him that the council had approved the piece and David said, nobody told me about this. I'm the director of the Arts Commission.
GH: Doesn't the Arts Commission monitor public sculpture?
BL: I believe it does.
GH: So he did have authority over it?
BL: Yes, so I had to convince him that Pitts suggested putting the piece on the arterial and that I wasn't aware of the city hall protocol. I had a meeting with him three weeks later and he said the piece had to be approved by the Buffalo Arts Commission. I said fine, no problem with me. At that point, it seemed kind of humorous to me because this was exactly what I didn't want to get caught in. He scheduled a meeting for late August. He told me to bring parts of it with me, so I brought a lightning bolt and some stars. They took me up and I did my spiel. I also had the maquette which they looked at. They didn't ask anything about, the imagery.
GH: They were willing to approve the project as long as they were covered for liability?
BL: Yes. They asked, are you getting an insurance policy? Could someone get impaled on a lightning bolt? That kind of thing.
GH: Let me ask about the maquette. You showed it to two different agencies?
BL: We're at two now, but we get to the third, the Urban Renewal Agency, which is the heavy hitter. That meeting was in October, 1983. Griffin was the chairman, George Arthur was there from the Common Council, and so on. They were going to decide on parts of the waterfront stuff, so there were a few developers there too. Big heavy action was going on. Finally, they got to Green Lightning. Griffin said, why do you call it that? I piped up,'tis the Irish in me, your honor.
GH: But he'd already signed the Common Council's proposal earlier.?
BL: Yes, I know, but I guess it didn't mean anything. The council
approved it and it became legislation, but the Urban Renewal Agency owned
the land, so the approval was meaningless without their OK.
At that point, Griffin asked if there were any questions. George Arthur brought up the Martin Luther King sculpture which had been dedicated about four weeks earlier. Griffin said, David, is there a small model? Let's bring it in so people can understand this thing. I don't want any more controversy. I don't know why Arthur was so uptight about this.
GH: There was confusion over the King statue. Apparently some people on the East Side didn't like it. They expected a traditional statue and not the expressionist head that John Wilson [Boston Sculpture] gave them. Arthur brought that up?.
BL: No, actually Griffin did, but that's what lead to my presenting
the maquette. It was a funny, roundabout way because, otherwise, I don't
think they would have asked to see it.
At that point, Griffin left the meeting. I put the maquette on a table and in a quick three or four minute spiel, I explained the whole thing. At that stage, the images on the back of the panels weren't defined yet, but the abstracted penises were drawn on the front of the panels, on acetate. I described them as abstracted dancing figures celebrating life. They were there. People could see them. People could have asked me what the figures were. The media was there and so was the News, but no one did anything on it. Again, people asked questions about insurance and so on. It was passed, unanimously.
GH: How was Hallwalls involved with this? Did they write you into one of their grants?
BL: No, I'm not getting any money from them. On the press release I used to raise funds, I said that Hallwalls was acting as my pass-through agency, that all donations should go to Hallwalls, Inc.
GH: Why did you go through Hallwalls?
BL: I had shown the maquette there once and I like the place. I thought it might be nice for them as well because they've never been affiliated with large outdoor installations. We seemed to fit each other.
GH: As a non-profit organization, Hallwalls could give your donors tax benefits...
BL: Right, because you can't get a tax write-off for giving to an individual.
GH: Did Hallwalls' name give your project credibility?
BL: You have to establish credibility for any project you are starting. From a businessman's point of view, your "track record" is important. Having Hallwalls behind Green Lightning helped.
GH: How much money did they handle for you?
BL: In actual cash, maybe four or five thousand dollars. I have a standard request for two hundred and fifty dollars. I think I got a couple large ones, maybe a thousand dollars from a couple of individuals. As for materials, I don't know. Out of seventy-five companies, maybe seven or eight actually submitted paperwork to Hallwalls. I think GE may be one of them because they gave about four thousand dollars in Lexan.
GH: The structure looks like a carnival.
BL: That's true. I used that because it draws people in. There's a play going on: it is and isn't whimsical; the color attracts people and ...kapowie.
GH: What are the paintings on the panels?
BL: The main structure has four panels. The imagery resulted from collaborating with Kathie Simonds. The first box has a space shuttle with its telescopic arm out, zapping a "save the seals" poster. The second has a girl jumping rope. The third combines two images: a man is diving into water, but he looks like he could be praying. That is superimposed on a TV picture screen. The last has a guy with a gun, running across a field of lightning bolts.
GH: And when the neon goes in?
BL: There are four figures, one for each box. They are sign technology, with Lexan panels on the front and back. These are things I had to work out in the design stage because I went to a sign place and they asked me, are those penises? I said yes and they wouldn't do it. The people who owned the business were interested in doing it because they needed the work, but the salesman said there was no way it could be done. They wanted to see a letter from Pitts giving me the OK. Finally I had the things done in Albany.
GH: Are the neon structures in yet?
BL: No, they're going in this week.
GH: Enough people have seen the maquette that no one could accuse you of deceiving them, but it sounds like the mayor is key to this happening and he didn't actually see it. Here are these guys at the neon shop and they say, wait a minute...
BL: But wait a minute. Let's talk about Philadelphia. The woman putting that show together called me and asked if the figures were penises. She said the official in charge of cultural events had asked her and so she wanted to clarify it. Then she said, OK, fine.
GH: Was the piece shown in Philadelphia?
BL: No, I couldn't complete it and I couldn't get the money to move it there.
GH: After you talked with the guys in the neon shop, did you design the neon yourself?
BL: They were the middlemen, so I went to the guy who actually does the neon work. I took the large drawings of the figures to him and left them there. He went bananas. He realized what the figures were and he called me up. He said I was doing Satan's work. It really upset me. I consulted one of my lawyers who thought the piece was great, humorous and lighthearted. I talked with Bill Currie and a lot of others after that. I gave it serious reflection.
GH: That makes me wonder about the site because there is a large church on the other side of the expressway. Will they think you are being insensitive to them?
BL: A Boy Scout leader from that church came over to talk to
me and he was really excited about the piece. He wanted to bring his Boy
Scouts out to my studio. So, l don't know; it beats me.
I had a great thing happen with the six-foot version at my studio. Two women from a nursery school brought the kids over one day. We went through the house, looking at the artwork and the kids loved it. I had the six-foot piece outside, so I figured, why not? and brought it in. The kids thought it was great. One kid said something that really summed up the piece in many ways, in innocent ways. The kid said, the stars are coming down from the sky and the men are dancing because they are happy. He said they were afraid it's going to rain and then they would melt. Really nice. The kids responded to it that way.
GH: How does that neon image relate with the panels which seem to be social commentary or criticism?.
BL: The whole piece is allegorical. The girl skipping rope is like the embodiment of innocence. Kathie added thinks. to make it look even more threatening, like the girl's dancing or skipping on top of spikes or jaws: I took the abstract penis figure and put it on top of the panels as a symbol of power, perhaps men and power and what that has brought us to. I was also burlesquing the idea. When I first saw that image on the side of a deli on Bailey Avenue, I thought, wow, that is a powerful image. I think the response people have to it is always powerful.
GH: When you did the Buscaglia-Castellani show, you seemed to respond to cartoon images on a lot of different levels. Out of all the people who passed that image on Bailey, you are the only one who saw monumental possibilities in it
BL: That's my job; that's what I'm here for [laughs]. I remember years ago when they made that woman remove her male nudes from the County Hall show. Have you ever seen female nudes removed from a show? People have this silly reaction to genitalia. When one of the guys a the Ashford Hollow complex found out what my images were, he asked me, what if I'm taking my kid home from the Aud and he sees this? And I said, what can I say? It's a penis. It's like adults have to protect their kids from their own genitals.
GH: But this isn't the real thing it's a symbolic treatment. You're really working with all the different things that image could represent. But in away, I have mixed feelings about it. It is important to take a significant image that isn't looked at and put it some place where people have to deal with it. But there's also the problem of what a community finds offensive-where does informing the public end and offending them begin? This is something you'll have to deal with, especially if people are really offended by it.
BL: I can see the thing being destroyed. But what is the role
of the artist? I'm not looking forward to this. To be honest, I hope there
isn't any controversy, that maybe the art world can appreciate it for what
But what is public sculpture supposed to be? Why is everyone so content with it now? I thought there were areas it had ignored - being narrative, perhaps, and confronting people with important issues which are even more important now, the day after the elections. I feel disenchanted with monumental sculpture and where it has gone. It has got to go some other way besides these huge abstractions. They are so cold and don't say anything about our existence. They are like jewelry hung on buildings.
GH: Do you have any scenarios in mind if there is a controversy? You've covered yourself legally, right?
BL: We have a signed contract that gives me the spot for a year. I had to post a $5,000 bond and I have to move the piece at the end of the year. Fortunately, when Les Foschio wrote the contract, he included an article saying that the only reason I would be forced to move it is if the site is part of an approved planned development. Of course, they could hastily approve something.
GH: Someone who was at the BAC meeting said there was a small turnout and that everyone said, “Billie Lawless, that's great" and that was that. She said nobody asked any questions about the piece because of the support you got from David More. She also said she couldn't remember seeing the penises and she was familiar with the piece. This is awkward, but did you substitute any of the elements on the maquette?
GH: It was the same all the way through?
GH: Did David More ever talk to you about the figures or what you were doing with the installation?
BL: No. When I was bringing the model into the Common Council and Iran into David More, he was excited about not being consulted first. At our first meeting, we were at loggerheads. He saw the piece briefly that day, but really, the only other times he saw the piece was at the Urban Renewal meeting and at the Buffalo Arts Commission meeting.
GH: He never went to your studio or saw the working model?
BL: No. He saw the piece for a total often minutes which is unfortunate because, in the long run, you can't say "misrepresentation" or "hoax," but then again, no one looked at it seriously.
GH: Nobody seems to take the work seriously or let it speak for itself. It's as though art isn't supposed to function that way. People look at public art and it either makes them feel good or reminds them of a historical event or cultural moment, but nobody goes to a piece of public art expecting to gain insight or have a question posed by it. No one assumes that that is art's role. You have a work that poses problems, but the only way those problems are going to be addressed is by going to the law. The last thing anyone would address is the artwork itself, yet it is the work that set this thing into motion.
BL: Yes, definitely. As far as misrepresentation goes, they're better off arguing over the backs of the panels because at the point when I made my presentations, I didn't know what I was going to play off of the neon figures. The images developed with Kathie Simonds.
GH: Whether the panels are the same as they appeared on the maquette isn't the issue...
BL: But isn't the way the neon works off the panels and the rest of the piece what matters?
GH: Kathie told me she has misgivings about the way the pieces were set up and I can see her point. When the piece was lit, I had trouble seeing the panels because the neon just jumped right off the structure. She feels the neon called too much attention to itself, that maybe it could have been down played or integrated more com- pletely with the overall structure.
BL: But you've got to put this into a time frame. We saw it at
night. It is supposed to go at 4:30 or 5:00. During the daytime, you can't
see the neon at all. The piece changes: a metamorphosis is going on. I
think the most exciting time for the piece is at about dusk when all of
sudden, you see the neon come on as the panels recede. And at night, it
obviously becomes something altogether different.
But when it was lit that night, that was the first time for me to see it too. I had no time to do anything after that. I have to spend time with a piece. Is it working? Is it not working? But this piece never had that time.
GH: The thing was on for fifteen minutes and that was that. I
walked by there yesterday to look at it; it's amazing, you can't really
see the figures at all. The whole thing looks sad, with a big section just
torn out of it.
BL: You know, from a critical pont of view, that's probably valid that the neon called so much attention to itself, but the only way you'd be able to test that is over a period of time. You saw this [holds up photo of original graffiti image]? I'm writing here [refers to artists' statement],
“I'm sure tens of thousands of people saw this on Bailey and while its
original intent might have been
obvious to some, I'm sure interpretations ran the gamut. Until recently, that is, the media, with its air
of self-righteousness and always knowing a good audience-generating story when it sees it, has cleared
one of the images included in 'Green Lightning' of any sense of ambiguity."
That's essentially what Magavern was saying in his letter and what you're saying, right?
GH: No. I think it's amazing that people keep saying image of "male genitalia" and "the male organ." When's the last time someone saw male genitalia with a top hat and cane?
GH: Nobody sees the joke. The figures are like a vaudeville team and that's not being seen. That goes back to what I said about nobody really being interested in the art. It isn't being dealt with as a statement.
BL: I'm also bringing that up in this article. (Reads from statement)
"It comes as no surprise that no one yet can deal with 'Green Lightning'
as an idea, an allegory,
if you will, made up of images which act as symbols, on many different levels. Nonetheless
we were hopeful, wishful, that there would be a dialogue within the community to discuss
what we personally intended to be a very complex sculpture. Of course, this reaction in itself
cannot be ignored. As Sam Magavern said, and we could not agree more, that 'art over the
years becomes a historical record of society because you have much to interpret in the times
that it was created'."
That's as far as I got.
GH: As for Magavern, did you ever talk with him about the piece?
BL: No, I don't even know him. I met him at the Arts Commission
meeting. When you look at the power structure that this lies in, I think
it's really sad that the Albright-Knox would not come out and say something:
Even Bill Currie is afraid to say something. That's heavy duty, boy; what's
Hallwalls all about? What are artists doing? So now Bill's saying, we were
supposed to have this street artist doing something downtown, but now it
looks like you've jeopardized it. I'm certain there's -going to-be all
kinds of fallout, but Jesus Christ, when is art going to get out there
and whip? Isn't that what it's supposed to dog' Create a dialogue- I wouldn't
say confrontation - but it's out there and people are reacting to it, instead
of, well, look at LIB where Beverly Pepper is putting up her sculpture
[part of the new subway art program] and it looks like warmed over Brancusi
to me. And Beverly Pepper is thought of as a successful sculptor in the
Why do our supposed bastions of culture, the museums and galleries, stay away from controversial things? And yet abstraction was supposed to be the most upsetting thing at the beginning of this century. I look at work like Beverly Pepper's and George Sugarman's [another subway artist[ and I think, yes, it's really interesting intellectually, but the immediate issues just seem to be put out there and people ignore them and they go away.. And you wonder - what's it doing? Even the art in the subway just seems like decoration. I could be wrong about that.
GH: I think that for the most part, no one looks to public art as a source for questions about culture. People look at it for consolation, as art that reassures you. There's the notion that questions are appropriate in one place, and a quiet respect is appropriate in public art. The George Segal Restaurant piece at the Federal Building on Huron and Delaware is interesting because it's not popular at all. I know people are put off by it. It's disturbing.
BL: He really toned it up for Buffalo, didn't he?
GH: I don't know anything about its history.
BL: Out of all his work, that's got to be the least effective because he put up that silly brick wall.
GH: The point is that there's never anyone around it. I know people who work in that building and they say, Boy, it gives me the creeps, and maybe it's a bad reflection on Buffalo. But that is the only public piece in this city, that doesn't have a conciliatory tone. It's abrasive. Maybe that's a failing of public art: people don't expect ,
BL: I think that's a failing. That's why I went ahead with what
I'm doing. 1 think as a culture, we should examine ourselves. There's no
doubt that we're schizophrenic about sex, and that's one issue I brought
up here. If nothing else, I forced that issue.
You brought it up before: why isn't anyone looking at the questions the piece poses? Milan Kundera [the Czech author] made a great comment; he writes,
" I invent stories, confront one with another, and by that means, I ask
questions. The stupidity
of people comes from having an answer for everything; the wisdom of the novel comes from
having a question for everything."
Perhaps in the long perspective, Green Lightning, asks these questions, no matter what else happens to it.
WHAT HAPPENED (continued)