A guided tour of Philly's weirdest public art

Posted: August 15, 2012

BEFORE WE get started, let's get one thing straight: Philadelphia is full of beautiful pieces of public art - art that makes our jaws drop when we see them, pieces that we can barely describe without losing our breath from excitement, things we force our visiting friends to see.

We also love that Philly was the first city to implement the "One Percent for Fine Arts" rule. Every developer who gets approved to do work on Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority property must budget at least 1 percent of the building's construction cost to commissioning site-specific public art.

And if you haven't done the Association for Public Art's Museum Without Walls audio tour of public works along the Ben Franklin Parkway, you are seriously missing out.

OK, now that that's out of the way, we feel it necessary to point out that there are also some really god-awful examples of public art in this city: Pieces we're embarrassed about; pieces that make us laugh with one simple mention; pieces we try to steer visitors away from.

Look, we get that art is subjective - one person's trash is another's treasure and all that. But subjectivity doesn't mean we should accept any old thing as good enough for Philly. We're better than that. Here then, are the pieces of public art we believe the city would be better without, categorized for your convenience:

The "That Looks Like Trash" Category

Official name: "Video Arbor" by Nam June Paik

Location: Franklin Town Boulevard between Wood and Callowhill streets.

What it should be called: "Anyone Know the Number of a Good TV Repairman?

Why we hate it: The worst part about "Video Arbor" is that it should be pretty cool. Nam June Paik is one of the world's preeminent video installation artists, and this work features televisions (our favorite household appliance) framed by ivy to create a canopy. There's just one little problem: there's nothing playing on the TVs - so the entire sculpture looks broken.

Official name: "Elemental Intervals" by William Freeland.

Location: On the parking structure between the CVS and the Super Fresh on South Street, between 10th and 11th streets.

What it should be called: "Wait, That's a Piece of Art?"

Why we hate it: Because . . . . look at it. It looks like someone caged a bunch of rocks and stuck it on a building.

The "Why You Gotta Be So Naked?" Category

Official name: "Family" by Timothy Duffield.

Location: North side of Market Street between 18th and 19th streets.

What it should be called: "No, Seriously, Why You Gotta Be So Naked?"

Why we hate it: We understand that the human form has been an integral part of fine art since someone figured out that cave walls made for excellent canvasses. But is it just us, or is this family a little too into naked time?

Official name: "Tuscan Girl Fountain" by Oskar Stonorov and Jorio Vivarelli.

Location: Outside the T.G.I.Friday's at 17th where Ben Franklin Parkway and Cherry Street intersect.

What it should be called?: "That's Going to Leave a Mark."

Why we hate it?: OK, these people technically aren't naked, but they're not wearing much. What puts them on the list is that their scantily clad appearance is combined with the fact that the figures look as if they're falling off the T.G.I.Friday's balcony after one too many Coors Lights.

Official name: "Freedom" by Zenos Frudakis.

Location: 16th and Vine, right outside the GlaxoSmithKline building.

What it should be called: "Resident Evil."

Why we hate it: It totally looks like they're lab rats escaping from some underground GSK facility.

Honorable Mention: "Dedicated to the American Secretary" (between 4th and 5th Street on Market): OK, so it doesn't feature any naked people, per se, but we've always thought this looked like a rock with boobs.

The "We Get It, Ben Franklin Lived Here" Category

Official name: "Benjamin Franklin, Craftsman" by Joe Brown.

Location: Broad Street and JFK Boulevard.

What it should be called: "Ben Franklin Had Huge Feet."

Why we hate it: Look, we actually like the other work by Brown, especially "Two Athletes," (at Broad and Montgomery). But the proportions in this rendering of good ol' Ben are way off. Franklin has huge legs and a tiny upper body. We've heard a lot about Franklin during our Philly tenure, but we never knew he had such athletic gams.

Official name: "Big Ben at Franklintown" by Alexander L. Generalis and Tom Miles.

Location: 17th Street on the Vine Expressway overpass.

What it should be called: "Ben Franklin's Giant Floating Head."

Why we hate it: Did we miss the day in school when the teacher talked about Ben Franklin having a giant disembodied floating head? This work brings up an important question, though: What's the allure of the floating head? See also: "Walt Whitman" at Whitman Plaza on 4th and Oregon that serves up the great poet's head on a platter.

The "This is Just Plain Terrible" Category

Official name: "Wall of Hearts" mural by Jane Seymour and Cathleen Hughes.

Location: South Street between 15th and 16th.

What it should be called: "Dr. Quinn, Mural Woman."

Why we hate it: The Mural Arts Program has done a great deal of good for the city; Jane Golden is a saint, blah, blah, blah. But this is an ad for actress Seymour's Open Hearts jewelry collection. This isn't close to the only ridiculous mural in the city, but this is the one that kills us a little bit inside every time we walk past it. Now, who's up for a trip to that jewelry store in the mall?

Official name: "Covenant" by Alexander Liberman.

Location: Locust Walk at 36th Street.

What it should be called: "Dueling Tampons."

Why we hate it: The University of Pennsylvania campus is full of bad art, but this is a sentimental favorite. Penn students dubbed it Dueling Tampons, spurring a Twitter account (@DuelingTampons) and blog (DuelingTampons.com) that tracks the movements of Penn alumni. The nickname is a little too self-explanatory.

Official name: "Paint Torch" by Claes Oldenburg.

Location: Lenfest Plaza at Broad and Cherry streets.

What it should be called: No name, just the sound of muffled giggles at the sight of the paint blob at the base of the sculpture.

Why we hate it: Oldenburg's work has made Philly iconic in terms of public art (see: "The Clothespin"), but this giant paint brush just doesn't do it for us, especially because of the blob of paint that happens to sharply resemble fecal matter.

The piece got a ton of attention when it debuted, but that's a shame considering one of Philly's best examples of public art, "Gruman Greenhouse," (a/k/a the crashed plane) by Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts graduate Jordan Griska is only a couple of feet away.


Contact Molly Eichel at 215-854-5909 or eichelm@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mollyeichel. Read her blog atphilly.com/entertainment.

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