Formalist Public Sculpture Takes Over Chicago’s Lakefront

Ted Sitting Crow Garner, “Birds of Fire” (All photos courtesy author / Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — Here is your popular American quiz show question for the day: “He is a Chicago sculptor of Native American heritage with an awesome name, who also won a round of Jeopardy! in 2011.”

Answer: “Who is Ted Sitting Crow Garner?”

In addition to being a bit of a brainiac, Mr. Garner is also a very fine artist, and his Birds of Fire series has been installed on Chicago’s lakefront along with pieces by 30 other sculptors. They are part of the Chicago Sculpture Exhibition, which is a collaboration between city aldermen and Chicago Sculpture International, a group that supports and promotes sculpture in Chicago. From now until May 2013, you can see a sculpture pretty much every few hundred yards near the lakefront path, from Belmont Harbor on the north side through Grant Park, next to the Magnificent Mile in the downtown Loop area.

What’s striking about the sculpture on display is how well the choices balance all the different requirements of public art. If it were solely up to bureaucrats and aldermen, it would probably just be fiberglass cows “decorated” by local artists everywhere. While many of the works on display use bright, eye-pleasing primary colors (like the red steel of Garner’s sculpture, or the Klein blue of Robert Craig’s work at Fullerton Avenue), there are also sculptures that really grapple with the problems of formalist values.

Donald Noon’s “Mohawk”
Jason Verbeek’s “Prairie Pump”

I am thinking in particular of Donald Noon’s “Mohawk” and Jason Verbeek’s “Prairie Pump,” pieces which both, in their unique ways, explore the weight of materials, the play of texture, the transition from line to volume, and the distribution of weight between the air and the ground.

What with this lakefront installation and the city-sponsored street art going up in some of Chicago’s neighborhoods (not to mention the city’s iconic public works like Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” and Jaume Plensa’s “Crown Fountain“), it seems that 2012 really is the year of public art in Chicago — a welcome development in a time when cities all across the country are cutting their arts budget.

See more of the public sculptures installed for the lakefront Chicago Sculpture Exhibition below. 

Andrew Light’s “Untitled”
Ben Woitena “Vida Blue”
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