Two newish public-art sculptures have appeared in Portland in recent months. One is on the west side, the other on the east. And one is an aesthetic atrocity, the other an epiphany.
First, the atrocity: Dan Corson's four-sculpture series, Nepenthes, installed along Northwest Davis Street in Old Town between 5th and 8th Avenues. Nearly 17 feet high, these bulbous eyesores are based on the nepenthe, a carnivorous tropical plant that eats insects, lizards and small rodents. Garish and cheap-looking, the sculptures could be props in a high-school staging of The Little Mermaid. In an outlet mall in Kissimmee, Fla., they'd fit right in. In the Northwest, they come across as dumbed-down knockoffs of Chihuly glass. At nighttime, when you wish they would disappear, the damned things glow in the dark thanks to photovoltaic panels.
One of Corson's sculptures is only paces away from the entrance to Butters Gallery, a longtime Old Town fixture. Immediately after the piece was installed, creative director Jeffrey Butters took pains to distance the gallery from Nepenthes in a Facebook post that read: "UGH! Please know we were neither consulted nor involved in this debacle." In person, Butters expresses his disdain even more colorfully. "I wish someone would run over them with a truck," he says. "Everyone I know who's seen them is basically throwing up. I want to put a sign on them that says, 'Hey, the 1970s called, and they want their lava lamps back!'"
The project began as a joint effort by TriMet, the Old Town/Chinatown Visions Committee and ZGF Architects, with the aim of enhancing visual interest and pedestrian traffic on Northwest Davis. The Regional Arts & Culture Council got involved when the project grew in scope from a creative lighting project into a full-blown sculptural proposal by Corson. According to Kristin Calhoun, RACC's public art manager, Nepenthes had a budget of $300,000 and required frequent design modifications. Among the compromises was the placement of each piece; many of them wound up in awkward positions because of infrastructure issues beneath sidewalks and the need for direct sunlight to activate solar panels. Calhoun says everyone directly involved in the project is pleased with how it turned out, but she concedes getting "mixed feedback" from "folks who felt that [the sculptures] sort of appeared out of nowhere and were a little random in their placement."
If you want to see a RACC-funded public-art project that doesn't make you blow chunks, head across the Willamette for Inversion: +/- by Seattle-based design duo Lead Pencil Studio. Designers Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo have positioned soaring, COR-TEN steel structures by the east ramps of the Morrison and Hawthorne bridges. With its open composition and oxidized materiality, the work evokes the gritty past of the Industrial Southeast waterfront. It also suggests an abstracted banyan tree or the ghostly outline of a barn, its perpendicular planes dancing midair in a complex visual fugue. As you walk or drive around the sculptures, their forms seem to change shape in a rapturous, ever-evolving dialogue with negative space. Although architectural in scale, the work's conspicuous lack of any roof opens it up, leading the eye skyward. It is a cathedral with only clouds or stars for a ceiling. Sublimely elegant, the work looks every penny of its $700,000 budget. A final phase of construction is set to begin over the summer, which will complete the project by turning one component into a mirror image of the other, hence the title Inversion: +/-.
Unlike Nepenthes, this work has both material and thematic roots in its site. It has instantly become the city's most ethereal and haunting work of public art.