As public-art fiascoes go, the People Project is a drunken wreck. Whatever criticisms may have appeared in this column in the past pale in comparison to the reality of this vulgar, pathetic display of a bad idea come to rotten fruition. The Regional Arts Commission and Focus St. Louis, the two nonprofit organizations who co-spawned this mutant strain of Chicago's Cows on Parade, have perpetrated a scandalous and cynical -- and potentially debt-ridden -- embarrassment on the region. Not one right decision has been made in bringing the People Project into being. Now that these hideous objects have finally made their way onto public thoroughfares, citizens of the region have to ask, "What did we do to deserve this?" Shallow in concept, bankrupt in realization -- and they're ugly, too. Where are the Taliban when you need them?
O'Fallon, Ill., is a quaint, Norman Rockwell Main Street little town. The train still stops there. A floral shop, a hole-in-the-wall tavern devoid of afternoon rowdies, a thrift store -- these are just a few of the storefronts that enhance the central business district. The counterwoman at Wood Bakery (with come-in-your-mouth cream-filled chocolate-covered long johns to die for -- or at least drive to Exit 14 for) asks whether the photographer is taking pictures of "the sculptures." She says "sculptures" without prodding, even though the coordinators of the People Project avoided using such a word to describe the "people figures" because they surmised it would probably be too "artsy" a term for the sort of people who work in bakeries in O'Fallon, Ill.
She reports that the sculptures aren't faring too well. A heavy rain the week before left them damaged. One tipped over and was removed, presumably for repairs. Those that remain could only improve the look of the town if they took their leave as well. "Everyone's Aunt Marcie" stands in front of Steven Mueller's florist shop. She's lost her middle finger. She sports a cheap wig and a face that threatens to make children cry. "Everyone's Aunt Marcie" shows the result of one of the People Project's many bad ideas. The employment of a wooden manikin as armature limited the artist's ability to attain an appealing sculptural form. Artist Connie King has managed to design a manikin that wouldn't be allowed on the retail floor of the most down-in-the-dumps dress shop.
Near that train depot, seated on a bench, is a green scaly woman sunbathing, a purple lizard luridly attached to her inner thigh, another purple reptile oozing from her rib cage. Connie Mielke's "Summer Daze" is an act of public-art vandalism on unsuspecting O'Fallon. If there's anything good to come of this, maybe people will learn to appreciate Richard Serra more.
"RACEMAN" is a sports car and driver held perpendicular to the ground a few steps from "Summer Daze." Built by Kevin Trobaugh and sponsored by the St. Clair Auto Mall, "RACEMAN" would be entirely ineffectual if not for the title. In civil-rights history, a "race man" was one involved in the movement, one who was known and recognized for taking a stand against the racial injustices of the time. The perpetrators of the People Project would sooner have the public forget history. They would sooner the public accept that these forms couldn't possibly refer to anything else -- to matters of substance, for example, or gravity, within a larger context that might provide meaning. Rather, the People Project is -- the public is reminded insistently -- about "fun."
Just ask Jill McGuire, the one and only executive director of RAC in its 17-year history. "RACEMAN" is "a car with a figure in it. It is not flippant. There's no double meaning there." Nor does the sculpture in Grandel Square, "Undercover," a figure opening wide its yellow raincoat to expose books hidden underneath, refer in any way to being a flasher for literacy. "I'm sorry, I don't agree with that," McGuire says. "I don't know what you're talking about. It is a figure that is talking about reading."
McGuire takes particular umbrage at the idea that visitors to the Old Court House, opposite Kiener Plaza -- the scene where the momentous Dred Scott decision was argued -- might find their sober contemplation of history demeaned by seeing the brazen pop-art colors of Charles Houska's "Big Fishbowl Head" as they walk out the door.
"I think that's absurd to put that kind of meaning into figures that are fun and enjoyable and temporary," McGuire argues.
She's more right about that than she suspects. It is absurd to put meaning into these figures, because they lack the conceptual foundation to contain meaning. These objects de-mean the historical, sociological, political and environmental landscapes that surround them. When these figures received their grand media unveiling in April, the Post-Dispatch gave front-page multicolumn coverage in the Sunday edition. The piece, co-written by Jeff Daniel and Ellen Futterman, read -- at best -- as halfhearted in its praise (the next week, Daniel followed with a kind of critical mea culpa, questioning the lack of curatorial judgement exhibited by the People Project) and made no mention of the fact that the P-D and STLtoday.com were on the booster bandwagon, having sponsored eight figures in an investment of roughly $40,000 (Daniel says he didn't know).
The Post-Dispatch article concluded with the remarks of local artist Tony Orlando, who claims that he transformed his figure, "Serf 2000" -- described as a piece "literally and figuratively enslaved by technology" --into "the more positive 'Electric Personality' to please his AmerenUE sponsors."
Orlando told the P-D, "I had no problem with that; it was still fun."
To bemoan the lack of integrity inherent in the art world is an immature lamentation, perhaps, but the People Project exhibits a degree of cynicism rare even for this town. A gander at Orlando's creation, which stands amid a messy menagerie of forms in Aloe Plaza, across from Union Station, brings up the question of whether Orlando changed anything but the title. The figure is wrapped in electrical cords, a remote bound to the forearm, cell phone in one hand and a lamp in the other, a computer keyboard for a chest, a toaster on one thigh, transistors implanted in thighs and calf, ears covered by earphones, a Zenith minicam stuck to one eye, the back of the torso supplanted by stereo speakers and an industrial exhaust system -- should Orlando be criticized or praised for duping the corporate sponsor into accepting this work (and paying the artist's $1,500 honorarium) as "positive"?
Gauging the value of art is not as tricky as people are led to think. Art that is made to be sold as a product is worth what the buyer is willing to pay for it. It's that simple. After September, when the figures that have survived the wind, rain and humidity are put up for auction -- both to help pay for this abomination and to contribute to charity -- don't expect the big bucks that were generated by Cows on Parade or the Big Pig Gig in Cincinnati. There aren't that many fools who will part with their money in tight-fisted St. Louis. Don't expect those fabled cultural-tourism dollars, either. The family planning a detour to see those people figures on the way to Branson exists only in the boosters' dreams.
What is to be done? The morning after the People Project figures first appeared, Bob Putnam and Sherri Lucas discovered a group of sculptures in front of their soulful bar, the Way Out Club. Lucas says Putnam wondered whether they were "the stepchildren of the People Project."
They are not. The breakdancers in front of the Way Out are the product of local artist Patrick Richey's Rebel People Project. "There was never any company putting its money behind me," Richey says with pride. He didn't need a wooden manikin to make art. A St. Louis native who recently moved back from the Bay Area, Richey talks about the public-art spirit of that region. "In the Mission, in San Francisco, there's a full-on graffiti mural of a girl made out of flames, butt-naked, flying through the air. The People Project wasn't going to have no butt-naked flaming chick flying through Kiener Plaza. It would have been cool." (There is a red, white and blue female people figure in Kiener with firecrackers for hair -- "Freedom" -- hoisted into the air by a pole up her crotch.)
Richey's breakdancers aren't very compelling as sculptures until they're put in the context of a renegade act abutting the deranged status quo. They encourage thought, action.
They mean something.