Public art is in the headlines, even on the front page. A sculpture of an oversize deer has taken up residence on the Chicago Riverwalk. A beloved mural, which richly depicted Mexican and Mexican-American culture, has been erased from the walls of a building in gentrifying Pilsen. People take smartphone shots of the deer. They leave flowers and devotional candles at the base of where the mural used to be.
It's no surprise that public art has come to the fore under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, an arts-loving pol who once trained to be a ballet dancer. Having already placed sculptures along the lakefront and proclaimed 2017 the Year of Public Art in Chicago — it's the 50th anniversary of the unveiling of the Picasso in Daley Plaza — the mayor announced an initiative to put new sculptures, murals and other artworks in each of the city's 50 wards.
Public art is to him what flowers and fake wrought-iron fences were to former Mayor Richard M. Daley: a beautification drive that doubles as a political advertisement. With parts of his city beset by unceasing gun violence, you have to wonder if musing about art is, for the mayor, a form of recreational therapy.
But even art can spark culture wars. Consider the recent brouhaha in New York over Fearless Girl, the statue of a defiant girl, arms akimbo, who seems to block the path of that famous symbol of Wall Street, Charging Bull. Is Fearless Girl a symbol of feminist empowerment or a marketing ploy for the investment firm that sponsored it? Does Charging Bull represent capitalist strength or unmitigated greed? Meaning, as well as beauty, is in the eye (and ideology) of the beholder.
"It's tricky to make public art," said Chicago artist Tony Tasset, creator of the 12-foot-tall, 20-foot-long sculpture known simply as Deer. "The public hates art a lot of times. It's different from when you make art for a gallery or a museum. People that go to galleries and museums — they know (something about art). There's often a wall label ... or a docent that explains everything. You don't really have that outside."
On the other hand, no gallery can match the drama of a cityscape like Chicago's, which challenges artists to create works that can stand up to its enormous scale. Some, like Tom Friedman, a University of Illinois at Chicago alum who now lives in Massachusetts, are up to the challenge. Friedman's Looking Up, a 33-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture of a quasi-human figure that's on view through Sept. 30 at Lake Shore Drive and 48th Street, gains strength from the lakefront's expanse of water and sky. The thin figure — its neck craned back, its eyes gazing skyward — evokes wonder. The design would be far less impressive if the sculpture were confined by a gallery ceiling.
With Deer, Tasset offers a more literal rendition of his subject, yet he, too, brings new life to the sculpture's environs — in this case, a moribund patch of grass on the Riverwalk between Franklin and Lake streets that overlooks a bend in the Chicago River. Once city officials assigned that site to the Chicago artist, he imagined a person coming around that bend and seeing — huh? — an oversize deer.
"Some people will consider it kitsch," Tasset says of the piece, which is on loan from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., and will be on view through the end of October. "But to me, it's about kitsch."
The fiberglass sculpture, which represents a female deer, was inspired by lawn ornaments. Tasset tweaked the type, making his deer the size of a small dinosaur. Whether or not you buy his idea that the piece's larger-than-life scale invests Bambi with a sense of power — the deer as garden-chewing pest rather than adorable creature — the sculpture is an eye-catcher that recasts a common yard decoration to animate an underperforming public space.
Michael Darling, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, praised the city's public art initiative for using Chicago artists such as Tasset and Scott Reeder, whose gaudy, gold-colored Real Fake sculpture has been provocatively installed near President Donald Trump's riverfront Chicago hotel-condo skyscraper.
"The fact that millions of tourists are seeing Chicago artists on that waterfront is super important," Darling said. "We know that a good portion of these audiences are from out of town — they get a glimpse into the creative life of the city."