Escape From Sterility | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Escape From Sterility

Do your eyes glaze over at the mention of the term "public art"? Do you stifle a yawn and think, not another heap of tortured metal? That's a justifiable response, considering that much of what passes for public art comes across as something that has been hijacked on its journey to destination landfill.

And so it comes as something of a pleasant surprise to see the abundance of good work in "Survey of 30 Years of Public Art in Broward County: Public Art & Design Exhibition," now at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood. Since 1976, when the county's Public Art and Design program was initiated under the name Art in Public Places, the allocation for public art has grown to 2 percent of county construction projects. This survey documents 35 of the more than 200 works that have been commissioned during those three decades.

I use the word documents rather than includes. That's because the vast majority of public art in Broward County is on a scale that makes inclusion of the actual works in a museum context impossible. Similarly, much of the art is incorporated into outdoor settings. Such blunt realities present obstacles for an exhibition like this one, which can only re-create the art in question from a distance and on a more modest scale.

The solution, in this case, has been to assemble an exhibit using miniature models, presentation panels, drawings, photographs, and the like to suggest the origins and aspirations of the artists' work. Although no individual curator is credited, artist Tin Ly, a consultant on public art and design for the county's cultural division, supervised the show's installation, for the most part with imagination and subtlety.

The Broward County Board of County Commissioners has long been committed to creating a "sense of place" for the county, and that goal clearly helped define and shape the exhibition. Many of the best works here strongly evoke the environments in which they have been installed. If, in the past 15 years, you've gone past the county's Waste and Wastewater Services Division headquarters off Copans Road, for instance, surely you've noticed the row of 15-foot-tall pillars that make up Patricia Leighton's Seven Runes. These massive chunks of fossilized oolitic limestone standing in a shallow man-made pond may inevitably recall Stonehenge, but they're even better read as a reminder of the yin-yang relationship between land and water that's so much a part of South Florida life. Here, they're represented by a lithograph and a graphite and color pencil drawing that only suggest their grandeur.

Nearly a third of the projects documented are in the Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport complex (including the parking garage and the Rental Car Center), which is perhaps fitting for a region so associated with a transient population. David Lee Brown's Fort Lauderdale Airport Sculpture (1989) is a magnificent swirl of stainless-steel beams that's not nearly as prosaic as its title. I remember the big empty space the sculpture left when it was once removed for cleaning and renovation. But even the scale-model version here is as evocative of the idea of flight — that of bird or plane — as the original, one of the oldest works in the show.

Three other airport standouts: Keith Sonnier's Florida Current (2001), a brightly colored neon installation that runs 245 linear feet along a wall in Terminal 4, where it has provided a soothing welcome to countless people waiting to claim their baggage; Terminal 2's Shell Key 2 (2005), a 192-inch-wide, 72-inch-tall black-and-white Clyde Butcher gelatin silver print on canvas that taunts travelers with a Florida they're likely to see only from an airplane; and Miles Coolidge's Instead of a Bridge (2003), a C-print composed of 20 sections, each encompassing a 360-degree view of a Broward neighborhood, mounted on metal side by side and running along an amazing 360 feet of wall near the ceiling of Concourse B in Terminal 1. The scale of these three works can only be hinted at by the photos in the show.

Some other impressive works are grounded in transportation complexes. I have always been a fan of the Miami architecture firm Arquitectonica's Stair #1 (1988), which brings an air of Jetsons-futurism-meets-1950s-retro to the southernmost end of the Downtown Bus Terminal. Too bad the paper model in the show doesn't capture the vibrant colors and patterns of the ceramic and marble original, which, fortunately, you can see just by driving along Broward Boulevard.

I have never actually seen Tobey Archer's seductive-looking Calypso & Waves (1998), a neon and fiber-optics installation that sprawls through 26,200 square feet of a terminal at Port Everglades. It photographs beautifully, however, and now that I've seen the presentation board for it, which incorporates drawings and color swatches, I'm considering making arrangements to see the real thing, accessible by appointment only unless you happen to have a cruise itinerary that takes you through Terminal 2.

No such appointment is necessary to view the larger-than-life components of Ned Smyth and Barbara Neijna's Accordant Zones (1994), which are scattered around the grounds of the Broward Judicial Complex just south of the New River. They're made of oolitic stone (a grainy native limestone usually cut from ancient coral formations) and include an enigmatic sphere, 16 feet in diameter, tucked between the courthouse and the south end of the SE Third Avenue drawbridge; an inverted cone, 32 feet high and 28 feet in diameter at the top and now almost completely covered with greenery; and, best of all, the massive two-foot-thick disk, 26 feet in diameter, that I have fondly referred to over the years as "The Tomb of the Unknown Rice Cake." The latter two are visible to "guests" at the nearby Broward County Jail. The exhibition's four-panel C-print is just enough of a tease to make you want to see them in person, although preferably not from that facility.

Public art is also a presence, usually on a more modest scale, at other county facilities, including, most notably, parks and libraries. The airy plaza of the monolithic main library in downtown Fort Lauderdale is home to the oldest piece of public art in the county, the deceptively simple Solar Time Plane (1986) by Dale Eldred. The medium of the original is described as "solar diffraction grating with glass and steel," but as anyone who has seen it can attest, it really looks more or less like a gigantic xylophone facing the building at a slight angle. Ah, but when the light is reflected on the metal slats just so, it fragments into the colors of the rainbow. The miniature model landscape in the show captures a bit of the work's magic.

As a longtime skeptic of public art — perhaps I've seen one too many heaps of tortured metal — I was surprised to feel stirrings of affection while going through "Survey of 30 Years of Public Art in Broward County." I've lived here long enough to witness the increasingly accelerated urbanization of the area, to the extent that almost anything that provides a contrast to the contagion of faux-Mediterranean architecture and sterile high-rises is welcome. Or maybe familiarity has bred not contempt but, at the very least, tolerance.

At any rate, I can offer a qualified recommendation to visit the Art and Culture Center show. Even though it presents public art once removed, it might spur you to track down the original on-site works. After all, you helped pay for them.