There is a dessert called Spotted Dick. It is made of suet, flour and raisins. Its presence on restaurant menus in England astonishes tourists yet delights their children. The Spotted Dick school of landscaping involves plonking large, randomly-oriented rocks into flower beds and lawns. A friend tells me that one good way to assess restaurants is on the creativity of their desserts. Spotted Dick is safe and very bland.
That analogy can be extended to evaluating institutions through their public art. The University of Wyoming Spotted Dick genre comprises statues of people on horses. In summer I see visitors on the Laramie campus, puzzled by their ubiquity. I explain Steamboat and Redwing and their centrality to Wyoming’s psyche of conquered nature and ethnic cleansing.
Two statues present a problem. There’s a mounted Chief Washakie outside the student dining hall on Grand. I tell visitors he gallops to take his mind off so much land and water surrendered to undocumented white immigrants. I wonder what Native American families think when they see it, particularly those of Crow heritage. The statue cerebrates Washakie killing a Crow leader in a dispute over hunting rights. Perhaps prospective Native American students will wander to the Education Building. Inside its foyer they will find a mural showing one version of history, including their forefathers attacking white folks. On a campus with so few Native Americans, it is important to acknowledge a culture which is integral to Wyoming’s identity and history. Both works constitute, at a minimum, an awkward acknowledgement.
What about the luckless horse driven through a stone wall on 22nd? Perhaps it is the relationship between public education and the Legislature. The metaphor is so blatant that it fronts the university’s current strategic plan.
Why, after 131 years, does the UW’s Laramie campus have so little good art? At the center of Prexie’s pasture is The University Family; daddy, mommy and child. Bleached Teletubbies. Regardless of its artistic merits, the busiest landmark on the Laramie campus is a cracked, chipped and badly repaired statue.
There is Ben Franklin outside Arts and Sciences, one hand outstretched. I assume Ben is asking the Feds for a handout, maybe for a proposed dam near Battle Creek. And Socrates outside the College of Law. How likely is it he had chondrodysplasia and hydrocephalus? It was unfair to compound the poor devil’s medical issues by portraying him after a hard night at the Buck.
UW will shortly consider an art plan for campus. Two specialists in public art came to town to stimulate discussion about what might work, given Wyoming’s fragile ego and selective memory. To do so, they show images of what is possible on other campuses. Yes, art from other states. There is a 60-foot-long footpath on the UC San Diego campus, in the form of a serpent, with scales of hexagonal slate, sliding past unconventional quotes and symbolic fruit trees, its head pointed to — a library. Also at UCSD is a teetering house, cantilevered 6 stories up atop an engineering building. It is a tourist draw, as all effective art can be, a meditation on house, home and loss. There is electronic art, like the one where the images of any two strangers can be scanned and blended in a trice. There is lighting art, ephemeral snow art, digital art, mural art, sardonic art — sometimes, astonishing art.
In other states, gentle reader, public art goes beyond recurrent statutes of fellows exasperating a horse. The university has an excellent art department, and hosts many art exhibitions. Yet the grounds of the Laramie campus are singularly barren.
UW’s willingness to use public art to enhance the university and challenge viewers was stringhalted by Carbon Sink. A whirlpool of logs and coal was interpreted as criticism by the energy industry and some legislators. President Tom Buchanan succumbed to pressure. He ordered the work demolished, arguing that whatever statement the artist wished to make had been made. It was a point so logical that the Hermitage, Tate and Louvre duly burnt all holdings older than a year — those artists too had surely made their point. The president’s decision was compounded by establishing a committee to be a clearinghouse for all proposed public art on campus. The saga is recounted in a WyoFile piece, then later in a book, by Jeff Lockwood.
Before a work is recommended, the committee must decide whether stakeholders may be offended. If that risk exists, the committee will direct artists “to engage stakeholders to discuss any proposed installation… with the university and community, or other stakeholders.”
In other words, anticipate censorship.
Only after stakeholders are consulted is a formal recommendation made, ideally unanimously, to the UW president and trustees. The result is largely timidity, banality and repetition. “Stakeholders” is UW-ese for the energy industry. For a state which prides itself on personal independence, it has a long history cap-doffing to the powerful and thin-skinned, as email correspondence on Carbon Sink attests.
Time will tell whether Wyoming is ready for contemporary outdoor art at its one public university. This is a small beautiful campus. It can be enhanced. At its most crass, vibrant art on a public campus tells prospective students and parents: the institution takes risks. It will challenge you, as it tries to challenge itself. It will exhibit art that is not tongue-tied by authority. The only consolation of the Carbon Sink affair was the demonstration that art has power.
In the interim, do yourself a favor. This year’s juried student exhibition is on display in UW’s art museum. Nearby is a David Bradley exhibition. Bradley is a Chippewa who lived in New Mexico for the past 30 years. In spite of serious current illness, Bradley is alternately sly, funny, ironic, angry, proud, dark and deeply personal. On display is his take on commodification, cultural theft and the resilience of indigenous cultures. We could do with such reminders right now.
Bradley’s work is on display until July 14th. I especially liked his First American, stealthily hobbling the Lone Ranger. It’s a refreshing influx of flavor after so much spotted dick. It is time. For tiramisu.
Donal O’Toole works at the University of Wyoming.