Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An art-rospective journey

Some things beg to be interpreted as phallic. The Washington Monument, lipstick, water bottles...they all elicit a semblance of this shape. In fact, an industrial designer friend tells me it is more difficult to avoid than you'd think.

A sculpture that I recently saw at the University of Alabama solidified her comment. Assembled by artist Craig Wedderspoon in 2010, the work is a construction of aluminum squares mimicking a textile pattern. While the components align with its title, "Argyle," the shape they form is another story. Twisting and undulating from the bottom up, this dynamic sculpture, well...looks like a penis. (I don't think I need to enumerate on the details--see right.)

Then again, maybe I'm jumping to conclusions; there is more than one way to look at art. I sat and stared at the sculpture for a while, legitimately trying to get my head out of the gutter. The best interpretation I could muster up was a gourd. Pitiful. After muttering some self-deprecating thoughts, I conceded to my initial impression. I got tired of trying to see beyond the phallus.

Now having reconciled with this undeniably suggestive sculpture, I ventured to experience it from other angles. Located at the intersection of a thoroughfare, I found that people had to interact with it in some capacity. I noticed a couple folks graze against it out of sheer laziness; one passerby brushed his hand across the sculpture--a friendly gesture of acknowledgment. I took great pleasure in watching people engage with the artwork, and wondered if the feeling was mutual. I did have quite the begrudging expression for a while.

From a theoretical perspective, I considered Wedderspoon's work as an intersection of gendered associations: the penis (a pretty obvious one) and the craft of knitting. Indeed there is a Michigan-based artist, Mark Newport, who emulates this concept with his hand-knit, adult-sized super hero costumes. His works represent the convergence of a traditionally feminine craft and a largely masculine domain. Perhaps Wedderspoon had something similar in mind.

My brief research on "Argyle" led me to a recent article on the proliferation of phallic symbols on campus. It turns out everyone else's mind is in the gutter. Some of these like-minded folks, however, are calling for their removal. Says one professor of "Argyle": “I’m just tired of looking out my window every morning and seeing a giant penis. We need to ensure we are practicing safe architecture.” Is there something inherently dangerous about a penis? What is more, if you can't re-frame the connotation of a piece, you can at least try to re-frame your experience of it. Instead of being offended, why not see it as a source of light-hearted humor whenever you look out the window? I don't mean to sound high and mighty--you're entitled to take offense to whatever you'd like--but this artwork has alot to offer. Least of all, it presents an excellent reminder that life shouldn't be taken too seriously.

If you'd like to see more sculptures at the University of Alabama, see this map of the public art on campus, a project developed by the Department of Art and Art History.