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The San Diego Union-Tribune

 
COMMENTARY
Port surrenders in the battle against kitsch

ART CRITIC

March 11, 2007


MICHAEL FRANKLIN / Union-Tribune
It is one of the famous moments in the history of photography: a sailor kissing a nurse on V-J Day in Times Square. The late Alfred Eisenstaedt, one of the 20th century's great photojournalists, simply turned around as he was dashing down the street, looking for the right shot to capture the exuberant moment. He saw the embrace – and the picture itself is now history.

Now, meet the monstrous 25-foot, 6,000-pound sculpture by J. Seward Johnson that evokes this same kiss and carries the tacky title “Unconditional Surrender.”

The hulking pair of figures are on view, courtesy of the Port of San Diego, in the G Street Mole Park downtown.

Eisenstaedt's “V-J Day at Times Square” is a endearing emblem of war's end, a metaphor of joy for the close of World War II. He called it his “one-in-a-million composition,” which is saying a lot for a man who made so many memorable pictures, from portraits of Greta Garbo and Ernest Hemingway to scenes containing the mournful survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima to delighted children at a puppet show in Paris.

TELL US WHAT YOU THINK

Masterwork or monstrosity? E-mail arts@uniontrib.com with your comments. Be sure to include your community and phone number (for confirmation purposes only) and we'll print some of your responses next week.

Of the pose of the pair in “V-J Day,” Eisenstaedt said, “They were very elegant, like sculpture.”

Perhaps Johnson read that line. How I wish he hadn't. The charm of the picture is trampled under the big feet of this giant couple.

The words of Fielding Mellish from Woody Allen's movie “Bananas,” reacting to his courtroom trial, come to mind while staring up at Seward's sculpture: “It's a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham.”

The figures look like something from a cheap souvenir factory, blown up beyond any reason. Johnson doesn't pay homage to the famed picture; he trashes it. His big bronze male sailor and female nurse are about as expressive as inflatable figures atop a parade float. In Eisenstaedt's photograph, you don't see their faces. In Johnson's sculpture, you wish you hadn't.

Strangely, it appears as if the artist never asked permission to mimic the couple from the picture in three dimensions. A Life spokesperson said: “Since Time Inc. holds the copyright to that photo and the artist did not obtain our permission to create the sculpture, unfortunately the sculpture is an infringement of our copyright.”

But even stranger, the executive director at Johnson's Sculpture Foundation, Paula Stoecke, said in an e-mail that “the sole photograph used for reference and inspiration for this sculpture was actually by Lt. Jorgenson of the Navy.”

So, even if we think about the famed Eisenstaedt picture while gazing up at the sculpture, we're somehow mistaken – and so is Time Inc. and news reports when the sculpture was installed last month. The 88-year-old nurse Edith Shain, the nurse in Eisenstaedt's photo, was brought to San Diego for the opening ceremonies. She must also be misinformed.

So, I guess that makes Seward's sculpture a copy of a copy.

Johnson is also known for sculptures that mimic equally iconic paintings by Renoir, Manet and Van Gogh, painted bronzes that are closer in scale to the original than his Eisenstaedt knockoff. But even if he is slavishly copying great originals, he probably didn't need permission to do so. The law tends to favor anything except the most literal borrowings.

Issues of intellectual property aside, Johnson's sculpture reveals a fundamental blindness to the source of the appeal for Eisenstaedt's “V-J Day.” The pose may be almost sculptural, as the late photographer said, but isolating the figures turns a small, vivid slice of history into a kitsch monument.

It's not hard to figure out what could have been the appeal for the Port of San Diego's public art committee that sanctioned this thing and sent it on to the Port Commissioners for official approval.

Applying a bit of theme-park logic, the piece fits its site, since the backdrop is the Midway Aircraft Museum, a retired carrier turned showcase. Nearby is the multi-figure “A National Salute to Bob Hope and the Military,” another kitsch homage for the celebrity whose name became forever tied to USO tours (it's still in progress as the central Bob Hope figure isn't in place yet). And a few yards away from both is the more dignified if pedestrian “The U.S.S. San Diego Memorial.”

“Unconditional Surrender” is on loan from the Sculpture Foundation in Santa Monica (a nonprofit venture that promotes Johnson's art) and is scheduled to be on view for a year. But deadlines aren't always what they appear to be with temporary art. Mark Di Suvero's sculpture “Isis,” located on the median where Laurel Street and Harbor Drive intersect, went up in the summer of 2004 and was supposed to be on view for about one year. But it's not coming down until July.

Then there's Johnson's own “The Awakening,” an even bigger production than “Unconditional Surrender.” It consists of a statue of a giant who looks as if he's struggling to emerge from some subterranean depths. It has remained at Hains Point in Washington, D.C., 25 years after its temporary installation and long after its permits expired.

Although Johnson's Eisenstaedt takeoff was loaned at no cost, transporting and installing it here was not free. That amount totaled $67,000, money – need it be said? – that could have been put toward presenting art with merit.

Though “Unconditional Surrender” is devoid of any, Seward's piece seems to please viewers. During recent visits, couples were imitating the famous pose, as someone took a picture. This seems to have been its big appeal when it debuted in New York on the 60th anniversary of V-J Day in 2005 and when it traveled to Sarasota, Fla.

His trademark conceit is the person on a bench that makes you do a double take because the figure looks just realistic enough to fool the eye for a moment, even if the skin is bronze. He's applied this idea to figures doing everyday things, from golfing to fishing; to family groups and even to the re-creation of people and scenes from the most popular impressionist-era paintings, like Manet's “The Fife-Player” (1866) and Renoir's “Luncheon of the Boating Party” (1880-81).

Does “Unconditional Surrender” provide fun photo-opportunities? Without a doubt. Does this redeem the piece? Not in the least. This is amusement park stuff, on a level with inserting your head in the right place on a signboard character or creating the illusion (digitally) that you and/or your family are in a scene from “Finding Nemo” or “Cars.”

If this is what the Port of San Diego thinks it should be placing on view, even at a modest cost, then we have to conclude that the program is devoid of vision or standards. Johnson has a formula that attracts an audience. But that doesn't mean a public agency should subject viewers to such drivel.

In a democratic culture, artistic drivel and gimmicks have every right to exist. Still, we should hope for more from custodians of public land. Drivel and gimmicks can rise or fall in the marketplace. Artists like Johnson, Thomas Kinkade or Wyland have every right to get rich and famous from their art if people choose to buy it, but that doesn't mean public entities need to promote such stuff too.

Other local entities seem able to present substantial art. And the results prove that art for public places can be both accessible and innovative.

There are stellar examples of contemporary art on the University of California San Diego campus, works like Alexis Smith's “Snake Path” and Tim Hawkinson's “Bear.” Caltrans commissioned exemplary local artists to make work for its new trolley stations, completed in 2005, and the results are both accessible and fresh: Anne Mudge's root-like sculptures in wire for the San Diego State University station and Roman de Salvo's words on tile that create a set of riddles in the Alvarado station.

The city of San Diego's Commission for Arts and Culture has recently picked a pair of artists with vision, Po Shu Wang and Louise Bertelsen, to create an ambitious sculptural work for a new East Village park. It will merge visual spectacle with sophisticated science.

“Unconditional Surrender” is symptomatic of how the Port of San Diego is failing us. Its choices represent the view that art in public places has to pander to some lowest common denominator, as if to do anything else would alienate a potential audience. This is the kind of faulty reasoning that lands a monumental-scale caricature of Eisenstaedt's photograph on our shoreline. Call it a sham, a mockery or a travesty. They all fit.

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