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 BrÃº na Bóinne in Ireland.
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.
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.
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.
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.