Richard Serras Wrights Triangle (1978)

Richard Serra, Wright's Triangle (1978)

When I drove up to Vancouver a couple of weeks back for the Ives Ensemble performance I turned out to have left home too early.  I wasn’t going to be able to check into my hotel into 4pm and it was looking like I’d arrive around 2:30.  I realized this right as I was nearing Bellingham, which is less than a half an hour to the US/Canada Border.  Western Washington University is located in Bellingham and this university was very familiar to me as it was the closest University to where I grew up. I was involved in debate in high school which required a lot of research and the WWU library was a frequent destination. Additionally I attended an intensive debate camp there for several summers.  So I knew that they had extensive public art there and I’d just read on  a “best PNW art” that the Richard Serra there was one of his first major commissions. I recall a number of occasions during debate camp that we’d lie on the bricks inside the double triangles of this large sculpture, escaping the other students for some time.  Since that time I’ve become rather taken with Serra’s art after seeing his new piece at Seattle’s Olympic Sclupture Park and seeing his episode in the Art:21 series. This confluence of events caused me to amend my plans and spend a couple of hours with WWU’s public art.

Nancy Holt , Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings (1977-78)

Nancy Holt , Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings (1977-78)

It was a perfect late winter day for rambling around a university campus looking and photographing art – clear, sunny and crisp. I drove up to the campus visitor’s center where I was able to pick up a nice guide to their public art (which you can check out online) and purchase a two hour parking permit. I parked in a centrally located lot and set out on the South Campus walking tour.  One of the great features of public art is that unlike most galleries you are free to photograph it.  There has been a few recent cases of artists or institutions trying to secure some sort of control over this but it is a fools game. In the main most public art is installed by the public, for the public and its imagine also belongs to the public.  One of the major attractions to me of public art is that a given piece can succeed as a subject, a framing device,  for its textural properties and so on, far beyond its qualities in and of itself.  As I wandered around Western checking out the various pieces I’d attempted to document them as a piece of art but to also investigate their various properties as a subject for photography. The most enjoyable pieces of course succeed in both aspects and likewise the least enjoyable fail at both.  Nancy Holt’s Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings is one of those that I both enjoyed in and of itself, its form of interlocking rings evoking such structures as Stonehenge while its external form and rough stonework ancient burial structures such as those at Brú na Bóinne in Ireland.

Robert Morris  Untitled (Steam Work for Bellingham), (1971, Installed 1974)

Robert Morris, Untitled (Steam Work for Bellingham), (1971, Installed 1974)

Right nearby Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings was Robert Morris’s Untitled (Steam Work for Bellingham) which was basically an enclosed square of stone from which steam was supposed to emanate.  While it is unfair to judge it not in operation I think that it raises questions of its implications in this state.  This is another factor to be included along with those listed by the artist: “Chance and environmental factors such as sunshine, wind, and fog affect the forms of the artist’s material of steam.”  From a distance though the piece does open up, almost looking like a gray Jackson Pollock lying amongst the grass. See the online guide for an image of it in full steam.  These first few pieces were located on the outskirts of the central campus area but now my walking tour turned toward the center of campus were there are several sections with a pretty high density of artworks.  I didn’t spend too much time with Bruce Naumann’s Stadium Piece as its evocation of the seating area of a sports stadium didn’t do much for me (but see the picture of it at night in Westerns online guide) but not too far away were Beverly Pepper’s Normanno Wedge (1980) and Normanno Column, (1979-80) which I found a lot more appealing. While not startling one as a reinvention of public art, these fit beautifully into the campus environment and their concern with more elemental forms contrasts nicely with the trees that would have once filled this valley and as an abstraction of the totem poles of the regions original inhabitants.

Lloyd Hamrol, Log Ramps, (1974; reconstructed 1983 and 1995)

Lloyd Hamrol, Log Ramps, (1974; reconstructed 1983 and 1995)

Most of these pieces that I’ve encountered so far are all ones I was fairly familiar with, though it was nice to reacquaint myself with them from my current context.  While I was somewhat interested in art as a teen my appreciation and knowledge has certainly grown over the years.  In-between the two Pepper pieces was a new installation, Tom Otterness Feats of Strength (1999) which I had not previously experienced. This charming piece of art was a dozen or so cartoony figures engaged with various rocks in in various contexts in an open plaza.  The tiny-ness of the figures contrasted with the obvious weight and scale of the rocks directly demonstrates the strength and the whimsy belies a metaphor of man’s interaction with the bones of our planet.  The plaza where these figures were located was a bit off of the main drag and seemed to accumulate students talking on cell phones who no longer even see the art.  Just around the corner from this area is Lloyd Hamrol’s, Log Ramps, another familiar piece that honestly I’ve never been overly taken with.  it is four large triangles forming an open pyramid, made up of rough hewn logs painted a uniform dark brown.  While the logs may evoke the PNW’s copious forests and timber industries and the simple forms perhaps the betrayal of nature this has never been a piece that has said much to me. On this day a student was perched on one side of it reading a book and talking on his cell phone.  Another feature of public art (I think of all of the people sitting in the shade of the Calder in the Olympic Sculpture Park) and one that this piece has certainly provided ample opportunities for.
Richard Serra, Wrights Triangle (1978)

Richard Serra, Wright's Triangle (1978)

Just around the corner from Log Ramps is the Serra that original inspired this visit.  A piece I am quite familiar with, this time I was looking at it as a thing in and of itself and not as a structure located at this confluence of campus paths. It feels almost constrained in-between the buildings here, almost serving the traffic flow purpose of an island in a residential street.  The openings at each corner are easy to slip into, but not mammoth and on the inside of the sculpture there is a double wall on one edge of the triangle.  The wall serves as canvas to the sun as pictured above and also (also) the the graffiti of the students which you can see only as a faint residue.  The paths were aswarm with students as I reached this point, out on a nice day at the end of classes or moving between the northern and southern sections of campus but inside I was alone and cut off from their activity.  This triangular sculpture isn’t one of the epically huge Serra’s but it fits right into its space and is definitely one of the highlights of Westerns collections.
Alice Aycock, The Islands of the Rose Apple Tree Surrounded by the Oceans of the World for You, Oh My Darling (1987)
Alice Aycock, The Islands of the Rose Apple Tree Surrounded by the Oceans of the World for You, Oh My Darling (1987)

Taking the path to the west from Wright’s Triangle,  you come to the unwieldy named The Islands of the Rose Apple Tree Surrounded by the Oceans of the World for You, Oh My Darling by Alice Aycock. Another piece I was heretofore unfamiliar with, I liked this one a lot. A strangely shaped and compared to most sculptures, quite flat cement object embedded in the ground. It evokes a fountain and it indeed seems to be able to sculpt water and yet it isn’t a fountain. The cryptic symbols and patterns on its surface provide much to ponder and also are brilliant subjects for carefully cropped photos. Near this piece was Meg Webster’s, Untitled (1990) which I can’t recall having seen before, but considering that it was a depression in the ground overgrown with vines, I perhaps may have just never noticed it. I wasn’t overly impressed on this occasion, an example of a piece that fails as an object and as a subject, you’ll have to turn to the online guide for an image of it.

Isamu Noguchi, Skyviewing Sculpture, 1969

Isamu Noguchi, Skyviewing Sculpture (1969)

Backtracking to the Serra, I then took the main path to the campus’s Red Square which contains Isamu Noguchi’s  Skyviewing Sculpture. One of the earliest additions to the collections and one of the most visible being located in the central square this is certainly one which I’ve known and liked for a long time.  I’ve always been rather attracted to geometric solids and platonic ideals constantly drawing spheres, hypercubes and other shapes in my youth. I particularly enjoyed cutout solids like this and I certainly recall appreciating the elegance of this piece even as a surly teen.  Likewise this is another great subject for photography as it casts great shadows and has many pleasant edges and features for unique framing’s. Like Noguchi I also enjoy circular windows and their framing potential. Around red square and environs are several other pieces two of which again evoke totem poles; Scepter, the third sculpture installed on campus from WWW alum Steve Tibbetts and Norman Warsinske’s Totem, the second piece in Westerns collection.   Against a wall that leads away from red square is another Norman Warsinske piece, the mandala like Wall Relief.  In a secluded square, past Totem is the large rusted steel India, installed in 1976 by sculpture Anthony Caro. This piece is like a pile of steel, haphazardly stacked, perhaps as a discard or in the process of clearing a space. Later someone, perhaps an exploring kid or a bored night watchmen, stacks them up a bit, then losing interest they remain that way to rust away.  The connection to India is not immediately clear, though the guidebook indicates that it is a reference to the layered nature of much of the architecture on the sub-continent. This is one of those pieces that really revel in its dimensionality and offers unique perspectives from all angles. In the waning light of my visit, its angles and shadows added an extra element.

Anthony Caro India (1976)

Anthony Caro India (1976)

The tour is now on its northern extents and the pieces are a bit more spread out.  On the edge of a secluded field a ways past India is the sculpture that sticks out most in my mind from my youth. Richard Beyer’s The Man Who Used to Hunt Cougars for Bounty (1972).  This stone sculpture of a man with what looks like a large bear in in his lap has his head thrown back in emotion was know colloquially as “man fucks bear”.  Just look at it. Walking across the field one encounters a large metal box that one can walk through, Donald Judd’s Untitled (1982).  A metal box with dividers inside it that angle as one walks through it so that it either narrows or widens depending on your entry.  A bit of a walk from here on the far northern end of the tour is Robert Maki’s Curve/Diagonal (1976-79).  This curved sheet metal piece works beautifully with the shadows and light and while I only saw it in the late, late afternoon, it clearly would change aspects throughout the day.

Mark di Suvero, For Handel (1975)

Mark di Suvero, For Handel (1975)

As I began to loop back to where I had parked I walked past Western’s largest and probably most iconic sculpture, Mark di Suvero’s For Handel. This large red knotted steel girders perhaps evokes all that people disdain in perceived excesses of modern art and in and of itself I find this piece rather empty. However it interacts in the space that it has been place in quite a few interesting way. The play of the sunlight upon it and shadows its casts, its framing aspects of the buildings that surround it and most strikingly its bright primal colors against a stark blue sky. Apart from this it is a great subject for photography with all of its various angles, shapes and framing elements. di Suvero’s love of music and the placement of this piece near the music hall gave this piece its rather hard to fathom dedication to Handel. I was now running seriously behind time and would have to hustle to get up to Vancouver for the concert. Still I spent a few minutes with the remaining pieces that lined my path back to my car. There were two pieces installed just inside the library entrance, Scott Burton’s Two-Part Chairs, Right Angle Version (a Pair) a rather uninspiring (and uncomfortable looking) pair of rough hewn granite chairs.  Just up the libraries stairs from these was the much more interesting clock like Mindseye by Mark di Suvero working in a much smaller scale then his epic Handel. Back outside and walking behind the library was Mia Westerlund Roosen’s Flank II (1978). This piece is basically two triangular prisms made of concrete enclosed in a copper casing stacked on each other.  The effects of time on the piece are by far the most interesting aspects of the piece as its form and placement don’t do much for me.

The light was definitely well faded at this point and I was about an hour past the time on my parking permit so I made my way out of Western at a pretty fast clip. I did swing by  James FitzGerald’s Rain Forest, which was WWU’s first sculpture which was deep in the shadows and my photos didn’t come out. There is a good picture of this fountain (actually running as well which it wasn’t on this day) in the online guide. After this I quickly left campus and made my way up to Vancouver for the show. I made it with about five minutes to spare.  There were I think four pieces in Westerns vast collection that I didn’t see, these were all out in more far flung locations which would have cost me too much time to have seen. Another reason to return to this magnificent collection. You can see all of my photos I’ve uploaded from the collection in my WWU Public Art group on Flickr.

By the arts building is a little patio bordered by a small cove of trees.  This area had numerous instances of  student art, my favorite of which was this Andys Goldsworthy like piece in the trees.

By the arts building is a little patio with kiln's on it, surrounded by a small cove of trees. This area had numerous instances of student art, my favorite of which was this Andy's Goldsworthy-like piece in the trees.