The competition to design a staircase and work(s) of art at the end of Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica has been narrowed down to four finalists: Red Grooms, George Herms, James Turrell, and the team of Newton and Helen Harrison. The competition is being conducted by the Santa Monica Art Foundation (S.M.A.R.T.S.) and is underwritten by the developer of the new Park Hyatt Santa Monica Beach Hotel, Solit Interests Corp., as part of the development agreement with the city. The four finalist’s proposals were unveiled March 30 and were on view at Santa Monica City Hall in April.

The four designs were in answer to S.M.A.R.T.S. call for site specific environmental artwork and artist designed beach improvement.  The intent of the competition is to create a new means of public access to the beach and to visually and conceptually terminate Pico Blvd. Artists were also asked to design inexpensive, durable, and functional works of art,  to address environmental issues dealing with Santa Monica Bay. A budget of $650,000 will cover artist fees, design, construction and installation. The winning project is expected to be completed in time for the hotel opening in May 1990.

The four entries differ greatly in attitude and execution: Red Grooms’ scheme-is probably the most lighthearted of the projects, featuring a theme park of monumentally-scaled muscle men, women, and children. The  park, situated directly in front of the new hotel and called “Musclerama Park”, is meant as a celebration of the famed Muscle Beach. The artist claims to be using his allusions to inspire both nostalgia and physical pleasure.

George Herms proposes a series of five discrete sculptures, intended to provoke concern about the environment. The sculpture, with provocative titles such as “Hero’s Fountain”, “Purification Station”, and “Tower of Hope”, make use of found marine objects (buoys, gears, etc.). Attention is also given to the existing storm drain as an environmental issue by lining it with buoys and monitoring its pollution output. Each sculpture suggests ritualistic and transcendent settings, while also recalling ancient religious sites.

James Turrell’s scheme is more abstract. Platonic forms dominate the site and are linked by a series of “succulent gardens”. These architectonic forms, termed “transformation spaces” by the artist, are designed as spaces from which to experience framed views of land, horizon, and sky — what Turrell calls a “magical and perceptual experience.” A reflective tide pool terminates the Pico Boulevard axis.

Artists Newton Harrison and Helen Mater Harrison propose a “place of power”, formed by “the unique intersection of the north/south axis.” Each axis is treated as an independent work of art, but the intersection is intended to conceptually knit the site into the larger community. According to the artists’ narrative, one element, the “walkway”, is a “reflection on a variety of experiences generated by walking”. Markers along the path describe brief narratives of walking, including historical and political themes. The second element is a stair and a ramp that wind through four representations of Southern California’s ecologies- desert, forest, marine and lake.

Each of the entries is sophisticated and provocative in its own way, as is to be expected from the cast of players. It is disturbing, however that the jury felt obliged to narrow the field down to the greatest hits of the art world today. In striving for extreme variation for its own sake, it is possible that some equally valid projects were overlooked, or that the finalists were chosen for their alliance to a current trend or mode of thought. Turrell’s scheme, for example, is an advance on his well-known work in Arizona, but his strategy does not seem to recognize the vast difference between the Santa Monica site and the desert. Herms’ scheme also presents mature examples of themes previously found in his work, but which again dismiss the potential of the site. His five sculptures in themselves negate the site by introspection and appear to be arranged as an afterthought.

Conversely, both the Grooms’ and Harrison entries go one step further and employ the site as a vital part of their designs, one metaphorically and the other physically. Each scheme cannot be imagined anywhere else. They succeed in both their placement and the site-specific references that generated the projects although they could not be more different.

The whole competition process begs the question of the common developer/city liaison in commissioning public art. It seems ironic that the competition brief voices a concern about environmental protection, and yet the existence of the artwork depends upon the erection of a large building of questionable aesthetic benefit to the city. As often happens, a compromise results from these deals, and the public has to live with the result. Santa Monica will have its public art, and the winning scheme will be overwhelmed by the shadow of the building that made it possible.

Kevin O’Brien

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