Art: 'Open Air' spotlights boring banality

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's "Open Air," on the Ben Franklin Parkway through Oct. 14, neither con- veys nor inspires anything suggesting emotion or a sense of natural splendor.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's "Open Air," on the Ben Franklin Parkway through Oct. 14, neither con- veys nor inspires anything suggesting emotion or a sense of natural splendor. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff)

The "public art" light sculpture looks like nothing more than a mall grand opening.

Posted: October 01, 2012

Making art that serves the people is a noble goal, yet as both the Bolsheviks and the Mexican muralists discovered in the last century, it's not easy to accomplish.

The art of the Russian avant-garde proved to be too radical aesthetically, that of the muralists too extreme politically.

With a "light-sculpture" project on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway called Open Air, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer has succeeded in bridging the considerable gap between aesthetic ambition and public taste. His resolution was simple: exploit the exceptional capabilities of current computer and communication technologies to transform an art idea into participatory entertainment - alfresco Facebook meets science fair.

The Open Air light display is not only "for the people," it's "by the people." But that's its fatal flaw; art by committee is inevitably doomed to fail.

Lozano-Hemmer provides the lights - 24 high-intensity beams set on either side of the broad boulevard - and the public creates the programming, in the form of brief voice messages - birthday wishes, political musings, whatever - sent from mobile phones or texts entered on the project's website, www.openairphilly.net.

Digital technology translates the messages into instructions for the lights, which move back and forth and up and down and flash on and off in response to the algorithms. The lights create these seemingly random patterns along a short stretch of the parkway east of Eakins Oval for three hours every night through Oct. 14.

The Association for Public Art, which commissioned Open Air, calls it art, but it's little more than an ingenious demonstration of the technological imperative, the kind of project an overachieving high schooler might dream up.

As putative "public art," Lozano-Hemmer's project is designed to attract people to the Parkway, to correct Penny Balkin Bach's characterization of the cultural corridor as a "non-place" at night. (As executive director of the association, Bach is the project's patron.)

So the script, as presented in advance publicity, was as wonderfully enthusiastic as the computer simulations of what the "light sculpture" was going look like. The reality is a bit less than that - quite a bit less.

The light display isn't much more impressive than what one might find at the grand opening of a new mega-mall. As visual invention, it's banal and boring.

The beams aren't sufficiently powerful (I suppose given the location they couldn't be), and they're attenuated by the ambient light from nearby Center City high-rises and even from the "light box" atop the adjacent Barnes Foundation.

The projections lack any visual interest, rhythm, or coherence, except when they occasionally form a cone. (I presume this happens when a message is called in from the Parkway, and GPS directs the beams to converge over that location.)

The pulses of white light neither convey nor inspire anything suggesting emotion or a sense of natural splendor. Lozano-Hemmer, like many artists before him, underestimates the capacity of nature to overwhelm attempts to impose structure on unbounded open space.

For comparison, think of the twin vertical beams that memorialized the fallen World Trade Center, or even any of Christo's more physical interventions in landscapes. These were deeply evocative, in the first case, and perceptual challenges, in the second. Open Air is neither. It's the Rocky statue in lights.

The project does function as a marketing initiative for the city, which hopes for a national image boost for lighting up the sky over its museum half-mile to encourage democratic discourse.

Yet it goes beyond civic promotion. Open Air and the Made in America concert Labor Day weekend appear to point to the Parkway's destiny as a playground for the young and the hip. I don't expect we'll see too many grannies wandering along in the autumn chill under the Open Air beams, "shouting out" into their iPhones.

West Coast impressions. Like Pennsylvania, California produced a regional variant of American impressionism - not surprising given that the southern half of the state enjoys a Mediterranean climate.

West Coast impressionism isn't often seen on our side of the country, but if you're familiar with the artists of the New Hope colony you already have an idea of what it looks like.

The Irvine Museum south of Los Angeles began sending paintings from its California impressionism collection around the country in 1998. A group of 28 canvases from Irvine is on view in the Arthur Ross Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania through Oct. 28. It isn't a large show - 28 pictures by 23 artists - but it's a representative cross section of what was, in the first three decades of the last century, a relatively extensive and popular movement.

The first thing the exhibition reveals is that the movement's alternative name, California plein-air painting, is more apt than "impressionism." The paintings are mainly landscapes, but some of the earliest ones bear little resemblance to classic impressionism as the term is commonly understood.

Besides a liberal number of heavily brushed pictures in a style akin to Ashcan realism (though the subjects are completely different), the show also includes a couple of Whistlerian nocturnes, one of which, a moonlit seascape in a rich blue-green by Granville Redmond, is a gem.

This suggests that "impressionism" meant something different to West Coast painters than it did to the French, or even to such New Hopers as Daniel Garber. California paintings can be bright and vivid, but often are thickly brushed, like Purple Tide by William Ritschel, a leading painter of seascapes whose style is closer to Winslow Homer than to Childe Hassam.

Many, if not most, of the first-generation California impressionists were immigrants to the state from the East and Midwest in the early 20th century. And for many, their academic training included the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

This is evident in the show's earliest landscapes, from the late 19th century, by artists such as Thaddeus Welch, Thomas Hill, and Charles Arthur Fries. Hill's mountain scene brings to mind Albert Bierstadt, while Hill and Fries offer dun-colored views of rolling hills.

Eventually, though, some Californians introduce French color and sparkle into paintings such as Poppies and Lupines by Redmond, The Joyous Garden by Benjamin Brown, and Mission Garden, San Juan Capistrano, by Arthur G. Rider.

Light infused with warm, soothing color characterizes several of the exhibition's most appealing pictures, particularly Alfred Mitchell's In Morning Light, a beach scene dominated by roseate cliffs; Rider's The Spanish Boat, and a quiet, shimmering seascape by Frank Cuprien, An Evening Symphony.


Art: Western Light

"California Impressionism" continues in the Arthur Ross Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania, 220 S. 34th St., through Oct. 28. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Free. 215-898-2083 or www.upenn.edu/ARG.


Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at edward.sozanski@gmail.com.

|
|
|
|
|