The architecture of New York City’s public parks works best when it goes unseen. Although every square inch of Central Park is excruciatingly planned down to the bedrock, you seldom notice the vast infrastructure supporting the greenery, with the exception of walkways and lampposts.
Madison Square Park succeeds for that same reason. In one of the city’s most congested areas, it provide an oasis for the white collar workers and wealthy elites that have populated the Flatiron District for centuries. But ceramicist Arlene Shechet has little interest in padding this peaceful narrative with Full Steam Ahead, an exhibition of public artworks recently commissioned by the Madison Park Conservancy.
Instead, the tireless artist, on the vanguard of experimental sculpture, has decided that the Trump Era requires public art to be political. Her work reimagines Madison Square Park as a site of community organizing. While other artists have happily filled the park’s green spaces with atmospheric and Instagram-worthy sculptures, Shechet has chosen to drain its reflecting pool and install her work in the pool’s basin. The result is architecturally akin to a 360-degree theater-in-the-round, which sits just underneath the steely glance of the park’s monumental 1880 bronze statue of the Union Admiral David Glasgow Farragut from the Civil War, created by architect Stanford White and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
The programming that surrounds Shechet’s exhibition also enlivens the space with possibilities, recalling the spontaneous Happenings of performance artists, which peppered the city in the 1960s and ’70s. Recently, the celebrated actor Dianne Wiest performed selections from Samuel Beckett’s existential play Happy Days amid Shechet’s sculptures. Shechet designed Wiest’s costume, which looks like the lovechild of a boulder and the scrap heap.
Public parks are more than the leisure lawns they masquerade as today. Historically, New York’s parks have hosted an early settlement of African American landowners in the mid-19th century, Hoovervilles during the Great Depression, and even military barracks, as recently as the mid-20th century. Shechet understands this history, unmasking the genteel face of Madison Square Park by confronting the statue of a Civil War admiral with “Forward” (2017–18), a cherrywood statue of a woman in repose just below the monument.
Somewhat reminiscent of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue, “Forward” appears to gaze outward into the distance. Shechet presents this faceless, wooden monument as an alternative to the militaristic icons that typically dot the city’s public parks. It’s a gentle reminder that women typically go unnoticed throughout history, and that America often prizes the accomplishments of war above all else. After all, there are nearly 150 historical male statues in the city compared to just five of women.
The other sculptures in Shechet’s exhibition are deceptively joyful, yet again, she smuggles political content into the park — this time through the statues that populate the emptied pool basin. Altogether, the resulting picture is reminiscent of Paris’ whimsical Stravinsky Fountain that sits near the Centre Pompidou, spouting water from zany loop-de-loop sculptures and an outsized pair of red-lipsticked lips. Like the reflecting pool in Madison Square Park, the Stravinsky Fountain is a common meeting point for people.
Ultimately, Shechet is interested in uncovering the presumed neutrality of these communal spaces with highly political sculptures that masquerade as amusing follies. Upon first glance, two of Shechet’s sculptures look eerily similar. Seen as companion pieces, the two iron and aluminum statues resemble a pair of gymnasts frozen mid-cartwheel. Closer inspection (and the use of very esoteric knowledge) reveals that these sculptures, named “Tilted Channel” and “Channel Liberty (with Fallen Arm)” (both 2017–18), represent tools used for casting molten materials like porcelain, called sprues. The symbolism doesn’t stop there — “Channel Liberty” is also a reference to the Statue of Liberty, whose torch once lived in Madison Square Park as a fundraising effort for the full statue from 1876 to 1872. Here, the famed lady still holds her torch high into the sky, but the arm holding a tablet, referring to the Declaration of Independence, is missing. These seemingly innocuous statues therefore tell a much more contentious story about the state of contemporary American politics.
A subdued overture for New York’s resistance against President Donald Trump, Shechet’s sculptures create a dialogue between Madison Square Park’s military monument and Lady Liberty’s beleaguered defense of refugees. The precise message is not expressly clear (why, specifically, should we reject a monument honoring a Union war hero?) but the artist’s gesture is appreciated. It is a much-needed injection of politics into the public realm, but one that refrains from forceful didacticism.
Full Steam Ahead continues at Madison Square Park (11 Madison Avenue, Flatiron District, Manhattan) through April 28, 2019. The exhibition is organized by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Julia Friedman, Tom Reidy, and Tessa Ferreyros.