Once I start thinking about art in unexpected places, I paradoxically expect to find art everywhere. Thus expecting the unexpected, I pay more attention to the details of my environment, noticing infrastructure and the behavior of people alongside details and ornamentation. Walking down a street becomes a game in which my role is to decide how much is intentional and how much accidental. It also becomes a meditation: asking myself about my built environment leads to a search for the physical evidence that reveals its history. What can I see and feel of the layers of people and purposes that have made a place what it is in the moment in which I occupy it? How does the creation or installation of artwork in unexpected places activate and engage those histories?
I run along the river in southwest London, which as the city continuously expands feels as though it has been a construction zone for as long as I can remember. The construction usually hides things behind fences, but in this case the fence called my attention to a brick surface that hovered in my perception between intentionally designed and accidentally damaged. Day after day, my brain worked to see the pale, tree-like forms amid the strong grid of bricks, and I still wonder about the intent of the designers in creating such an ambiguous design.
Duncan Titmarsh designed five Lego™ maps for the 150th anniversary celebrations of the London Underground, from 1927 to a projection of what the system would look like in 2020. I first discovered the Lego map at Green Park station, near the exit, as I was looking for a map of the area. Underground stations typically have system and area maps near every exit, so it was a surprise to discover that the map toward which I headed was made of Lego, not print. Find out more by watching this Londonist video.
The commissioning of public art by institutions is a common occurrence, of course. Carina Wyatt and Cathy Ludlow work together as Stamped Arts, an educational art team that works with school groups to create a variety of programs and public projects, including mosaics.
The Columbia School is in a residential neighborhood with a growing arts community; I came across these murals on my way back from a gallery visit. The designs are intriguing because they seem so fragmented—like the individual elements of mosaic glass themselves, the horticultural imagery seem like excerpts from an older, more scientific source.
Artist Annie Whiles also used horticultural imagery in her International Carpet of Flowers, leading like a red carpet up to the entrance of a movie theater in the center of Peckham. I was looking for the exhibition “Bold Tendencies” when I found Whiles’ piece, and was both intrigued by the installation and confused about the apparent lack of interest in the piece demonstrated by the vendors whose stalls were installed over and around it, without attention to its boundaries.
Further research revealed that the project was part of a larger controversy around gentrification and displacement in Peckham—an important reminder that the space seen by urban developers as “empty” is rarely so.
Rose Street, in the Scottish city of Edinburgh, is a pedestrian street that has embraced public art, incorporating not just the visual but the literary arts into a street filled with people strolling past restaurants, pubs, and boutique stores. A particularly striking example of public art engaging this primarily commercial space, Astrid Jaekel’s cut-paper illustrations of George Mackay Brown’s poem, “Beachcomber,” were translated into steel and installed as decorative window grills along a section of the street without storefronts.
I went to Winchester to see the incredible artwork of Kate MccGwire, and with extra time on my hands decided to visit the cathedral, about which I admittedly knew nothing. Most of us probably think of cathedrals as a part of art history in themselves—but I suspect fewer people think of churches and cathedrals as venues contemporary art. I was thrilled to discover this haunting installation by sculptor Antony Gormley—a site-specific work that responds to the seasonal flooding of the crypt.
Just a week or two before I was in Winchester, Maggi Hambling had completed and installed two altar tapestries. My tour guide conveyed her strong dislike of the tapestries even as she praised the openmindedness of church authorities willing to engage with contemporary artists and their sometimes unconventional expressions of spirituality and faith.
The only unexpected thing about Winchester Cathedral’s massive western stained-glass window is its history. Although it looks contemporary, in its crazy-quilt mosaic of abstract fragments of glass, the west window of Winchester Cathedral is actually a product of the seventeenth century. The windows were destroyed in the English Civil War and, too fragmented and dispersed to be reconstructed, were simply rebuilt (after community members hid the shards for eighteen years, waiting for the restoration of the British monarchy), in their current, very contemporary-feeling, style.
I went to Hauser & Wirth’s Piccadilly gallery to see “Trade Routes,” an exhibition of contemporary artists around the world whose work engages with imagery of cultural exchange and interaction. The gallery is in an old bank building, originally designed by Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens. Like the Postal Plaza Gallery, the renovation preserved many of the original features of the building—including one of the large vaults, in the basement. We’ve been hoping to use our vault as a space for new media, so you can imagine my pleasure (along with a slight sense of having been pre-empted!) when I discovered that Hauser & Wirth’s curator had chosen the vault as a venue for a video installation.
Our architects at the Postal Plaza Gallery, Elliott + Associates, designed the renovation to keep questions about the building’s own history and intentionality in the foreground. As we install the permanent collection, it will bring its own histories to bear on that of the building—and the results will, I know, be unexpected. I hope that the Postal Plaza Gallery, the Gardiner Gallery, and all the programming of the OSU Museum of Art will continue to surprise visitors with work that changes the way they see the world. I was asked recently if Stillwater “was ready for” art that innovates, challenges, and shakes up people’s expectations—and my response was that the city and the university aren’t simply ready for it—we are hungry for it.