ARTS & LIVING
The Cleveland Plain Dealer Friday, July 26, 1996
Won't Stop Traffic
As drive-by feature,
scope of project is
too much to grasp
Plain Dealer Art Critic
In dreams and fables, people and objects frequently become
minature or gigantic. The same is true for art.
_____ART REVIEW 'The Politician'_____
The outdoor sculpture at E. 66th St. and
Chester Ave. by Cleveland-based artist
Billie Lawless resembles nothing so much as an immense toy. Lawless means
for the piece--three yerars in the making and relocated from E. 57th St.
and Chester Ave.--to evoke one, too. It's title, "The Politician: A Toy,"
tells us as much.
But most viewers aren't likely to learn it's title,
printed on a placard few people will stop to read. Lawless' new entry in the
public art arena is situated for drive-by viewing along the heavily traveled
The blades of the sculpture's mouth open and shut, as if
beckoning motorists to stop and listen. But it isn't saying anything.
The notion of the politician as the producer of meaningless
rhetoric is a pretty obvious and timeworn theme. In general, though, satirists
don't traffic in novel themes so much as new representations of old ones.
Their self pro-scribed role, from the days of Juvenal and Horace,
has been to ridicule. This sculpture does just that, by reducing the politician
to a Picassoesque caricature in steel, fiberglass, wood and polypropolene
"I have seen it and I don't like it," Mayor Michael R. White
said two years ago during the City Planning Commission approval process
for "The Politician." And it's easy to understand his reaction. What's
to like about seeing you and your kind pilloried?
Beyond the motorized mouth, there's the generally laughable
appearance of this generic politician. He's akin to a pull toy, with sardonic
symbolism superimposed. He is spinning his colorful wheels and the axle
mimics a pair of Faber No. 2 pencils, presumably because the politician
is also to be seen as the purveyor of plenty of meaningless rhetoric on paper. Billie Lawless' caustic "The Politician: A Toy" is hard to miss, since it
stands 40 feet tall in a vacant lot at E. 66th St. and Chester Ave. in Cleveland.
Even his handle, mimicking that of a shovel, is a ridiculous
looking phallic symbol--and a laughable emblem of out-sized ego and the
lust for power. His gapping mouth and green bow-tie with polka dots aren't
terribly becoming. A yellow hobbyhorse tail isn't exactly a dignified touch.
Problem is, how much of the metaphor and symbolic charge
of the piece is the viewer behing the wheel (or in a passenger seat) going
to pick up as he whizzes by? Not enough. As big (about 40 feet high) and
brash as "The Politician" is, it's not enough of a "visual signpost" to
suit the site.
Lawless was likely tired of concocting aesthetic billboards.
He has been there, done that. His neon sendup of a billboard, "Do Wah Diddy,"
(sic) with its sneering anti-nuclear message, caused a stir in Columbus seven
For the past six years or so, it has has stood--more quietly--along
Interstate 480, where Pearl Road bisects the highway. (It dosen't light up during
evening hours at the present time.)
This earlier project is drive-by art, plain and simple. But
the newly installed piece, which the artist managed to fund through in-kind
donations of materials and services along with sales of his art, beckons
a viewer to stop and ponder.
It's hard to imagine that many motorists will do that. And
in that sense, the artist has set his expectations too high for "The Politician."
Art and site don't mesh.
Still, Lawless' subject, coupled with its placement in the
Midtown Corridor, begs a tough question: Do politicians merely give lip
service to low income neighborhoods like the one in which the sculpture
stands? The sculpture strongly suggests that Lawless believes this to be
It's not clear how long "The Politician" will be on site. The
land it occupies is owned by the valve manufacturing compnay Kinco-Balon. Roy
Kuhn, chief engineer for the firm, says "there's no firm agreement after this
year," even though he says the company has no immediate plans for the property.
Lawless says his project isn't complete. He plans to add more
words to a surrounding fence, whihc offers double entendres like "Affirmative
Friction" as grillwork. Text to come includes "A Thousand Points of Slight"
and "Contradiction with America." The big red "kill" button dosen't work. Once
it does, pushing it will activate sound bites by presidents, past and present,
to accompany the perennially moving mouth of the sculpture.
Yet a mouth that offers no words at all seems just as true
to the artist's jaded view of politicians and politics.