After inching through the public art gamut for nearly three years, undergoing numerous trials by committee and verbal hazing by dissident locals, last fall Ohad Meromi finally unveiled his public sculpture “Sunbather” (2016) to the world.
This ambiguous sunbathing humanoid is endowed with neither gender nor age. Its dimensions approximate the chassis of a Fresh Direct delivery truck. It’s made of about 400 pounds of bronze. It looks like something a pre-schooler might construct out of hot-pink pipe cleaners, magnified a millionfold.
The work has not been installed in a contemplative, tranquil nook like so many pieces in the nearby, walled-in sculpture garden of the Noguchi Museum, which has managed to remain invisible for decades now. Nor, does it occupy a weathered pier just past Socrates Sculpture Park, heroically turning to rust like one of the gargantuan Mark DiSuvero abstractions there. . “Sunbather” is not so sublime. It has been plopped down in the middle of Jackson Avenue in a rapidly gentrifying part of Long Island City, Queens, between four lanes of traffic (not including turning lanes). At rush hour, it seems to revel in a cloud of Volkswagen fumes, as irreverent as someone still smoking Marlboro Reds.
The sculpture was commissioned by New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs through its Percent for Art Program, which has been one of the most prominent public art organizations in New York City. Since 1982, the program has pursued its mission to allocate one percent of the yearly budget of city-funded construction projects to the realization of large-scale public artworks. With this one percent, a few artful human beings are brought to the table with many an artless human being to take part in the urbanism conversation.
But the artless — the developers focused on the bottom line rather than the top of the line — have also benefited from this one percent, receiving a boost by the big-hearted Dostoyevskian idiots of the world who transform uninspiring city plots into destinations for investment.
As Meromi’s “Sunbather” does its thing in the middle of Jackson Avenue, it also broadcasts the message, “Long Island City has arrived!” — which is code for: the idiots (the artists) have thrown in the towel and vacated; the industrial property is now ripe for the bidding war.
Contemplating a work of art in this extraordinarily unsexy part of Queens, as opposed to, say, the ritzy Seagrams Plaza in midtown Manhattan, reminds me that the “everyman” does still exist. “Sunbather” is not there as eye-candy for the out-to-lunch investment banker or the pack of Swiss tourists caught in all-day gridlock between MoMA, the Whitney, and the New Museum. It is there for the un-arty, un-culturally-sophisticated working-class resident, 9-to-5 laborer, and just plain old commuter, who populates our city’s outer boroughs and its 24-hour circulatory system.
This perspective on the city reminds me of Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” from the 1830’s, the famed woodblock series celebrating quotidian life. In one of the most famous views, we witness the exact moment a gust of wind blows a stack of paper out of a person’s hand. One forgets about the stoic mountain looming far from the action. In other images, the mountain’s tip just barely peeks over the horizon line, as if to say: whoever you are, however far way from the mountain you are in this sprawling landscape, you are still part of the picture. Mount Fuji is just as centralizing as the tallest steeple in any hilltop town, or the highest skyscraper in any financial center. The toothpick of Freedom Tower (whatever its called), asserting its authority all the way out to Coney Island, is our Mount Fuji.
“Sunbather” seems to indulge this premise. Like Hokusai’s prints, Meromi’s sculpture bathes us in life on the outskirts. But however it may undermine the ivory tower of the art cabal, it also, paradoxically, fulfills the dream of another variety of plutocratic mindset. Here, I refer to the multitude of real-estate agents who have achieved an expertise at exploiting artists in order to transform the perception of such peripheries as far more central, and thus far more expensive, than they were before the installment of the artwork.
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Art’s beauty (or repulsion) lies, as they say, in the eye of the beholder, and Meromi’s “Sunbather” is no exception. Its lumpy, anatomically incorrect distribution of body mass is not exactly walking off with the best-on-the-beach trophy. Yet, it’s hard to say precisely which of its displeasing aspects has rubbed so many people the wrong way.
When the work was announced back in 2014, the artist and the Department of Cultural Affairs were slowly backed into a corner by local residents who objected to being left out of the machinations of exactly how $515,000 taxpayer dollars were poised to leave them with a man-who-fell-to-earth. The locals demanded inclusion on the vetting process, and as a result the commentary floodgates sprang open.
In the meantime, Meromi’s work had already been selected by a panel of arts professionals and representatives from the Council Member’s Office and Community Board. It was somewhat late in the game (March 2015) for the sculpture (and its creator) to face the nearly 300 local residents who gathered for a town hall meeting at MoMA PS1 to air their grievances.
The first question from the locals was certainly legitimate: who is this artist the cat dragged in? Meromi, now in his mid-40s, is an Israeli born resident of Brooklyn who has taught at Columbia University and Bard — is a seasoned pro on the international art circuit, having exhibited his work all over the place, and emphatically not the pre-schooler dabbling in pipe cleaners that he may appear at first to be.
But his work, perhaps unintentionally, turns out to be a button pusher. And the pushback it has already received is a healthy sign. One would hope that the outer-borough everyman and -woman would get in on the action, given that it’s the context of their neighborhood that supplies the work with its leverage.
But leveraging anything in this city is no easy trick, and just because something occupies a public place doesn’t make it visible. If anything, there is a level of reverse psychology to the art of sticking out. Even the people most obviously in need attention, consideration, and help — the broken-down woman with her overstuffed garbage bags in the middle of the subway car, or the man at the intersection with two stumps for legs and a cardboard sign asking for change — tend to blend in as if camouflaged by the city itself.
Or is Meromi’s sculpture less about the ignorable victim and more about a kind of subliminal aberration? That is to say, a magical, almost divine presence? Consider the Babushka Lady — the nickname given to the unknown woman caught in the Zapruder film of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — so called from the headscarf she was wearing as she stood in the middle of the grassy knoll, which is similar to those worn by elderly Russian women (babushka literally means “grandmother”). Is she the smoking gun? Ask Oliver Stone.
In its long life as a permanent fixture on Jackson Avenue, Meromi’s “Sunbather” will go through phases of being seen and unseen. It may stick out lie a sore thumb for one generation, and then wear a cloak of invisibility for the next. It will pulsate over time. People will stop seeing it one day and then wake up the next and say: What is that thing, and who made it?
Despite its current conspicuity, the “Sunbather” is quite conventional and conforming. What, after all, could be more traditional than a reclining nude? Every sculpture park and college green in the Western world displays at least one ambiguously reclining form by the likes of Henry Moore or Anthony Caro. Meromi’s sculpture is perfectly in sync with the subject matter of modernity, as well as a nod to so much art history that it’s hard to know where to begin. (The Parthenon’s river gods? Cezanne’s bathers?)
Ironically, I would think that virtually anything other than a reclining pink figure would have been even more controversial. Imagine if Meromi’s sunbather had been a 20-foot-tall standing naked woman with the body type of an R. Crumb model. Or a man flat on his back? And what about the color? If you look at the classic Crayola crayon set, you will find that we still live in a world where the brown crayon is labeled “brown” and the peach crayon is labeled “flesh.”
Meromi has sculpted perhaps the only politically correct human figure that can be made in the sexually and racially-charged climate we are living in. His pink androgyne seems bred for balance in the current topsy-turvy limbo of race and gender polemics.
The work, which is as anatomically out-of-whack as any bather Cezanne ever painted, is not even the point. Given its title, “Sunbather,” Meromi’s imaginary form — displaced from Cezanne’s pastoral arcadian world of Aix-en-Provence — is more evocative of a person who has survived the radiation storm of a Bikini Island A-bomb test than someone out to catch a few rays in the South of France.
While the comments Meromi has received may at first seem shallow, they are in fact quite thought-provoking. Some outspoken critics plainly call it “bad.” Others have labeled it an “ugly piece of poop” and a body sculpted with “used bubble gum.” One art lover wrote: “This looks like you dug up Gumby’s grandmother and threw it on the median.” Gumby’s babushka? That is like totally Grandma-phobic!
At a recent public discussion at The Sculpture Center, Meromi himself used the word “ugly” at least three times to describe his own piece. Clearly he was getting in on the fun of trashing his art, while cleverly deploying his skill at the art of self-deprecation.
This is of course not the first time that a reclining pink nude shocked the public. Consider Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” (“The Luncheon on the Grass,” 1862/3), as bold and scandalous today as it ever was. Manet’s infamous naked lady sits between two rude dandies who haven’t even bothered to remove their hats. A scantly clad second woman off in the distance is said to be douching in the river, if you can believe that.
Some of the quotes I found from the time that Manet painted his masterpiece are not unlike the current discourse around Meromi’s “Sunbather.” A critic once wrote of the “Luncheon”: “Some seek ideal beauty, Manet seeks ideal ugliness.”
Or consider the other French Realist of painterly shock and awe, Gustave Courbet. Courbet wrote the book on making art to piss off the peanut gallery, or whatever jury happened to be out there. In an 1850 letter to a friend, he wrote: “I will be so outrageous that I’ll give everyone the power to tell me the cruelest truths.” And in reference to the critical reception of his “La Femme au perroquet” (“Woman with a Parrot,” 1866) he once wrote: “I told you a long time ago that I would find a way to give them a fist right in the face. That bunch of scoundrels, they caught it.”
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