Alexander Calder’s ‘Eagle,’ 1971, and Carolina Silva’s ‘Air Below Ground,’ ongoing. Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum
Science Fact, Science Fiction

by Lindy West

I hate to be so literal, because I am really not that literal a person, but I want to talk about whether Alexander Calder's Eagle looks like an eagle. Because it doesn't. Which is fine—the sculpture's ecstatic upwardness combined with its self-evident weightiness points at a fundamental aspect of eagley being, which is this: That enormous, serious, iron-boned creature has no business being up in the sky unless some joker threw it out of a goddamn airplane, and the fact that it is up there all casual-Friday snooping for salmon is a testament to the fact that science fact will always be more interesting than science fiction.

And speaking of science fiction, what Alexander Calder's Eagle actually looks like is one of the Mystics from The Dark Crystal. Boom. You know I'm right (and it is not a Skeksis, so don't even start). Oh my god oh my god oh my god, idea time: For Halloween, someone should drape Eagle in magical hobo rags and an Edgar Winter wig and 600 pounds of flour, and we could have a Dark Crystal–themed 'Ween party at the sculpture park! WATCH OUT FOR GARTHIM, YOU GUYZ!!! Boom. Idea time.

Subversive Leaks, Summer Theater

by Jen Graves

Actions have happened and will happen again—involving smoke, balloons, light—inside the empty black cube next to Alexander Calder's big red Eagle. Seattle artist Carolina Silva made the box, which sits on a stage, and every once in a while, she adds elements and effects. I have not seen these, but given that Silva has, in the past, created installations that lock unwitting people in darkened rooms with poison warnings and only glass ladders for escape, I have little doubt that what happens here will be of at least some poetic interest.

Even the box alone is not unoccupied. Its four open sides fill up immediately with the views they frame—epic views, each the envy of a landscape painter. It might bring to mind the four square openings Robert Irwin cut out of the windows (windows in windows) in a museum gallery overlooking the Pacific in La Jolla, which also acknowledges that the art can't possibly compete with the environment. In Irwin's room, you don't even see the art at first. You only smell the salt of the sea air, and aren't sure how it's coming in, like the room has a subversive leak. And it does.

But my favorite feature of Silva's installation—titled, tantalizingly, Air Below Ground—is the hole cut in the middle of the platform, emphasizing the mystery below the stage rather than what happens on top of it. Extending down from the hole is a handcrafted tunnel that looks like an intestine or the result of a worm's imprecise labor. It's guarded by written warnings not to step into the hole—but someone has, busting the plaster gut already. Maybe Silva has repaired it by now, maybe not. The mystery has become a body has become an injury. Summer is a dangerous time.

Beyond Monoliths to Stereoliths

by David Schmader

Richard Serra's Wake involves five towering steel structures, all jutting up from the earth like woozy obelisks the color of rusty nails. The structures are spaced out in the elegantly staggered manner of a dolphin pack or bikers on a highway, inviting viewers to walk among and between them and get up close. Then the thing comes to life, as seemingly near surfaces veer off into the distance, and faraway planes swoop down beside you. More than any work of art in the history of civilization, Wake begs to be touched, and even the most proper art patrons will be tempted to press as much of their flesh as possible against Serra's sculpture. But, of course, all such touching is forbidden, so here's the next best thing: During summer, Wake spends all day soaking up the sun. When evening cool arrives, the stored warmth radiates out of the steel and onto your skin if you just stand close. It's a fully legal connection to a work that wants it, bad.

Clean, Sweet, Oxygen-Rich

by Goldy

One of the most impressive installations in the park is its most disappointing: Richard Serra's Wake, which—I totally agree with you, Schmader—begs to be touched. You want to glide your hands across its undulating surface, run your fingers along its sharp edges, throw your body up against its sun-warmed bulk—but Do Not Touch signs abound, enforcing the tyranny of the visual. Might as well be locked in a goddamn museum.

Mark Dion's Neukom Vivarium, by comparison, the only indoor installation at this outdoor park, is much less standoffish. It's an 80-foot nurse log enclosed in a climate-controlled incubator, and the first thing that greets you is its cool, moist air wrapping around your body and filling your nostrils with the clean, sweet, oxygen-rich scent of a Pacific Northwest forest. Neukom Vivarium is art you inhale.

And touch. On a recent visit, the volunteer staffing the place (it always has a volunteer explaining what's going on in it) actually encouraged my daughter to stroke some thimbleberry leaves and feel their fuzzy surfaces. She suggested we could taste the art when the berries—thimble, salmon, black, other—were in season. Neukom Vivarium is art you eat.

My daughter barely commented on Wake as we passed by, except to scold me for touching it in defiance of the signs. But the next day, while walking through Seward Park, she was irresistibly drawn to a patch of wild thimbleberry. Good art sticks with you.

I'm Talking About Life & Death

by Paul Constant

It's probably awful for the books editor to say this, but I hate the words in the sculpture Love & Loss by Roy McMakin. They just feel so gimmicky: Over a 40-foot-square stretch of land, you see "LOVE" spelled out in the forms of a bench, a table, a V-shaped tree, and another table. In the other direction is the word "LOSS." Of course LOVE ends at a table, where presumably you can feed your loved ones and enjoy each others' company, and LOSS ends—choke—in an S-shaped curve of sidewalk that goes nowhere. As a text, I've seen subtler teenage poetry.

But the whole melodramatic mess is worth it for the revolving ampersand with red neon highlights that's hoisted high in the sky between the words. From the ground around the sculpture, the & shares the skyline with the Space Needle and the P-I globe, as it should—because all of our stories come from the tension and congress inherent in that &. You can keep your petty love & loss, I'm talking about war & peace, feast & famine, crime & punishment, life & death. I don't care if the rest of the sculpture wears away to nothing as long as that beautiful ampersand stays up and flying like a flag, a gaudy reminder of the conflicts & resolutions that make life worth living.

They'll Fall on You

by Josh Potter

I guess the sculpture park people thought they were being pretty clever positioning Bunyon's Chess so the legs of this sculpture's triangular base fit snugly into a three-sided, forgotten corner of the property. And weren't they smart to put the maybe nautically reminiscent piece, with its huge shipwrecked logs interfacing with steel piping and anchor chains, by a pier? And wasn't the artist, Mark di Suvero, so clever to create a sense of visual tension between the rakishly angled tripod and the three precariously hung logs that seem to undermine it? And abstraction and spatial relationships? And postmodern existentialism?

When I go camping, I always remember not to camp under dead or sick-looking trees. I used to live in Montana where, especially after a forest fire, if you camp under certain trees, they'll fall on you and YOU WILL DIE. The other day, as I'm trying to reconcile Montana with modern art, a pack of tourists with visors and fanny packs waddles up the hill I'm standing on. A commuter train rumbles by 20 feet from the sculpture. And I suddenly feel very bad for these logs stuck on this tripod, which once lived—and could've died—in a forest far away from here.

Forty-One Times a Day

by Cienna Madrid

Sculpture is nice, sure, but nothing stops traffic like a train. Alarm bells sound. Red lights flash. Crossing arms lower to warn of the parade of industry and imagery winding along Seattle's waterfront and through the sculpture park. This parade happens 41 times a day. Some train cars are empty; others carry grain, coal, hazardous chemicals. The interruptions can last upward of 20 minutes. I've watched people—children—scurry to throw loose change, even a banana, onto the tracks, eliciting a censuring whistle from the engineer. I've counted 142 train cars trundling past at one stretch, marked with ornate, indecipherable tags and spray-painted cocks of all styles and colors—a United Nations of cocks. A few have messages: "Michigan's not so bad." Also, "Amanda is a whore." But the most beautiful tag I ever saw was a five-foot-tall portrait of young girl with strawberry-blond hair, crooked eyes, and gapped teeth. She looked like a young dairy princess, someone who should be treasured in a locket. Instead there she was, plastered on the side of a train for everyone to treasure. Security guards patrol the sculpture park to keep people from touching the art, but anyone with enough brass can leave their mark on a train.

Lawnism

by Brendan Kiley

Nicholas Nyland was born in Lakewood, Washington, a land of many lawns—small lawns around small houses; oddly shaped lawns in the median strips and strip-mall parking lots; the long lawns, visible from the highway, that are civilians' only peek into the local army base. Nyland's temporary installations at the park are definitely lawny. He's placed coils of nautical rope and let the grass grow up around them, like you might see in a front yard in Aberdeen. He's made a brick garden path, painted with flecks of springy colors you might see in a flower patch or a French painting of people dejeuner-ing in l'herbe. The most ostentatious of these understated objects is Nyland's Pallet of Bricks which is—wait for it—a pallet of bricks, like you might see in the lawn of a homeowner who's putting an addition on her house but first let the neighborhood kids mark it up with pastel chunks of sidewalk chalk: baby blues, bright yellows, oranges. On the sunny afternoon when I went to the park, some kids tried to pick up a few bricks from the top of the pallet. They were disappointed to find that the bricks had been glued together.

A Blanket for the Mind

by Bethany Jean Clement

The driftwood log of Gretchen Bennett's The Jetty lies in the meadow of tall grass on the hill slanting down toward the Sound. In this meadow, there is also the shiny stainless steel tree (Split, by Roxy Paine): the tall and glamorous cousin to the pale silver of this driftwood. The log has a pattern carefully, shallowly chiseled into it—triangles and stripes—and the pattern is painted red and beige and putty and also, here and there, just inner, rawer wood. It looks modeled after a Pendleton blanket, and according to the placard jutting up awkwardly in the grass nearby, so it is. If you've guessed it, you have a sharp and sudden sense of satisfaction.

The placard also says "VISITORS ARE WELCOME TO SIT ON THE LOG." And so you must go back and sit. The grasses distinguish themselves—tall and wheaty ones, two colors of clover, dandelions, California poppies, the pasture-plant vetch—as the wind ruffles them. It smells like wild hay, and there are paths and indentations, like animals have walked and rested. A single white-crowned sparrow does what birds do, flitting about in the grass all around you. The view is more city than water: the Old Spaghetti Factory, the green roof of the park's Vivarium, the tide of cars and trucks on Elliott Avenue (which, you imagine, wanes overnight, as a tide should do). The log has drifted far, mysteriously beached itself here, and acquired the idea of a blanket, one for your mind as much as your behind.

Support The Stranger

Hidden

by Charles Mudede

Tony Smith's sculpture Stinger is, for me, all about the right season and the right time of day. The sculpture is disenchanted by the middle of the day and the middle of winter. Most of its magic is found in the middle of summer and at the end of the day. What happens at dusk? Particles in the sky absorb and scatter the remaining light. What happens in a summer? Because your location on the oscillating earth is closest to the sun, there's more light, and more light means more photosynthesis, and more photosynthesis means more plant matter. The leaves appear on the trees surrounding the sculpture and obscure it.

Something else enhances this black and bulky metal python: distance. You must take the winding path down to it from the north; do not approach it directly from the street. In the way that movement across a given space involves time, this walk along the winding path involves a narrative, a journey—trees, train, wood chips underfoot, other people ahead and behind—to the now-hidden, now-visible object. Distance, distortion, obscurity (path, dusk, leaves) are the ornaments of this simple, minimal sculpture.

Buff, Get It?

by Dan Savage

If I remember correctly... there was some dead gay dude who left the city some ton of money for a piece of public art.*

There was a string attached: The art had to include a nude dude. Full frontal, with peen. Otherwise, no money. So the city commissioned some naked dude art from some ancient old lady artist who probably hadn't seen a peen in 40 years, and she managed to create something even creepier than the dead gay dude's slightly drooly request/bequest required: A naked man faces a naked boy... and, every once in a while, one, the other, or both disappear into a shaft of water.

One naked man would've been suggestively homoerotic and two would've been explicitly homoerotic. So we got Father and Son, as the piece is called, because there's nothing the least bit homoerotic about a father standing naked in a fountain with his boy... so long as we're talking "father" in the paternity sense and not the "ordained Catholic priest" sense.

I ride my bike past Father and Son two or three times a week, and despite the controversy that greeted it when it was unveiled, it honors public art's implicit pact with the public: be boring and safe, be something that might inspire thought if someone took time to look, but don't be something that demands to be looked at.

Father and Son contains Seattle's dullest nudes this side of the Fremont Solstice Parade. recommended

* I did remember correctly: "Stuart Smailes was a jolly, potbellied man, proudly gay, with a walrus mustache and a passion for Broadway shows, merry-go-rounds, and calliopes," according to the LA Times. "But most of all, he was an art buff—so much of a buff that he left a $1 million bequest for a fountain sculpture to the city of Seattle, with an unusual stipulation: It had to include a naked man."