The sculpture the City of Buffalo labeled "obscene"
and not fit for public display, and that Mayor Griffin ordered removed
last November from its site in the Elm-Oak Arterial, has been installed
in downtown Chicago with no discernable public or official objection to
either the work or its contents.
Billie Lawless' "Green Lightning" was selected by a national jury of museum curators to be included in Sculpture Chicago '85 festival, a five week symposium and exhibition sponsored by the Burnham PArk Planning Board and the City of Chicago. The 30-by-180-by-160-foot sculpture was reconstructed on location in September by the embattled Buffalo artist, and the completed work was officially presented at a grand opening Oct. 6.
"It didn't stir up any dust one way or the other," said Nick Rabkin, Chicago's deputy Commissioner of Cultural Affairs. "I've heard nothing negative on Lawless, and the critics found the whole show stimulating and gave no indication that any work was inappropriate."
Director Bette Hill of the Burnham Park Planning Board, commenting on Chicago's reaction to the work, said "Green Lightning" had been around for several weeks and "caused no commotion."
"It's not as if people don't look at it," she said. "There are people on the site all the time. The majority of people I talked to think it's terrific."
The controversial sculpture, a kind of parody of a carnival midway with images derived from various sectors of American popular culture, consists of an open steel framework which supports four steel/LEXAN boxes illuminated with neon, a circus- like arch, and rows of decorated twirling stars. The whole ensemble is surrounded by thirteen earthbound lightning bolts pointing skyward, the 'green lightning' of the title.
The superimposed neon images--the part of the sculpture deemed offensive by Buffalo City officials and members of the Buffalo Arts Commission--are cartoonish renditions of male sex organs sporting top hats and canes. By virtue of a programmed lighting system, the comic figures do a brief dance and hat-doffing bow across the face of the panels. These images were adapted by Lawless from graffitti drawings found on a Bailey Avenue wall that were themselves adapted from the "Mr. Peanut" commercial logo.
LAWLESS, recently back from Chicago,
described his experience there as "uplifting." He said the people he contacted
on a day-to-day basis at the sculpture site had a very positive reaction
to the piece.
"While I was building the piece," Lawless said, "I must have talked to hundreds of people, a lot of them there because of the Buffalo controversy. They'd say 'where is it?' meaning the obscene part, and I'd say 'you're looking at it.' Usually they'd laugh. Many found it unfathomable that the piece caused all the controversy it did in Buffalo."
THE BUFFALO controversy was centered around the different aspect of the sculpture in daylight and when illuminated and kinetic. A lawsuit in which the artist charged his contractual rights had been violated was met with a countersuit by the Urban Renewal Agency claiming the artist had misrepresented his work with an ambiguous model.
Samuel D. Magavern, chairman of the Buffalo Arts Commission, claimed the content was not apparent in the model and only became evident after the work was constructed and lighted on Nov. 15.
According to Lawless, the model shown to city representatives and the Buffalo Arts Commission was the same one submitted to Artpark in the fall of 1983 for possible selection for the 1984 season. At the same time of the controversy, Artpark officials for the Lewiston out-door sculpture park were fully aware of the implications of the comic dancing figures, and gave the work serious consideration. It eventually was rejected for reasons other than its content.
On June 7, Acting State Supreme Court Justice Wayne A. Feeman Jr. ruled the city could not bar the artist from exhibiting on City land as agreed in the contract between the city and the artist, as long as the piece remain unlighted. The judge agreed with city officials that the sculpture constituted a "public menace" with the neon turned on, but chided the mayor's decision to remove it five days after it was dedicated under the contract.
Michael J. Brown, Lawless' attorney, said that as of last week a damage suit against the city is still pending.
In its Chicago installation, "Green Lightning" is situated in the downtown South Loop area and can be seen from the periphery of the park and from the Eisenhower Expressway, the major conduit into the Loop. Lawless said he has viewed the work from both the Sears Tower and Midwest Stock Exchange Building, and found the imagery of the neon from these vantage points "very clear." The neon components are turned on at 4:30 p.m. and switched off at 2 a.m.
THE SCULPTURE'S arrival in Chicago was
preceded by a letter from a Buffalo resident who was a concerned about
the effect of the piece on the people of Chicago and hoped that Mayor Harold
Washington would agree that it posed a public danger. It began:
"I'm writing in the hope that you, like Mayor James D. Griffin, are opposed to pornography, and want to protect the good citizens of Chicago from it."
The letter went on to outline the events surrounding the installation of the sculpture in Buffalo and ended with the hope that "this monstrosity will not be shown in your fair city."
In response to the letter, the mayor's office made inquiries with the Cultural Affairs Office and the Burnham Park Planning Board about the work, but it took no action to forestall its installation.
BECAUSE OF the Buffalo controversy, the Chicago media had a chance to prepare their responses in advance. "Green Lightning" was the subject of a number of reports on Chicago television. As early as Sept. 1 the CBS affiliate (WBBM) reported Mayor Griffin's reaction to the sculpture, which was then in the beginning stages of construction in Chicago. The commentator, Brian Rooney, said the that the work "begged to be described by the artist," and proceeded to let the artist do just that.
Channel 11, the Public Broadcasting System channel in Chicago, in early September did an in-depth look at public art and public controversy on John Callaway's "Chicago Tonight." It included an extensive interview with Lawless and Mary Jane Jacobs, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and a member of the selection panel for Sculpture Chicago '85.
"Green Lightning" was selected as one of 10 sculptures from more than 200 artists from around the country. On the selection panel in addition to Ms. Jacob were Howard Fox of the Los Angeles County Museum and John Chandler of SuperVision, an art consultancy in Boston. The sculpture will remain for at least a year as part of Sculpture Chicago '85.
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