LOU'S VIEWS: Booking art on the library's pedestals

May 4, 2009
Empty for more than 90 years, the pedestals in front of the Central Library now have a resident—or two, depending on how you are counting. Peter Shelton's "thinmanlittlebird" is the name for the towering figure on one side and the punctured puff on the other. Before I get to them, though, perhaps a little history might be in order.

Falling into the category of "everything old is new again," the story behind the empty pedestals concerns budget. When the Central Library opened in 1917, Paul Cret's design called for artwork to be placed on the platforms, but there hasn't been so much as a New York Public Library—imitating pair of lions perching there because money ran out. The library board hoped that a philanthropist would pony up the money for something to place there, but that didn't happen.

Until about five years ago, that is, when the Library Foundation was asked by the library board for some ideas for the right art to front the building. A committee was formed, including the heads of the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art and the Indianapolis Art Center and philanthropist Ann Stack, who would eventually fund a large chunk of the project (no public money was used).

Bret Waller, director emeritus of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, headed up the effort, leading the committee to narrow its choice to 50 artists, then winnowing that to four, who were paid a fee to come up with a proposal. Ultimately, they chose Peter Shelton, an internationally known artist, with works in a long list of collections, including New York's Museum of Modern Art and L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Apparently, nobody said the work had to be totally original. When it comes to the littlebird side, what we seem to have gotten is the latest in his very similar series that includes "godshole," "amberring," and "fatpinkring"—basically, other flavors of donuts at different angles. As for the "thinman," he's very closely related to Shelton's "fourleg" "frogleg" and "alarms."

Many artists have go-to elements, of course. The question is whether the pieces now and in perpetuity make sense in our recently reimagined Central Library. More than a free-standing piece (or pieces) of art, the work has to fit into not just a building front, but also into the visual idea created when the new building was wrapped around the older one, standing behind it, supporting it, sheltering it.

The new work doesn't make any impact when viewed from the American Legion Mall looking north. Look out your window while driving by on North Street and you won't even notice them. Trees on the mall block all but the tip of the "thinman" side. And if you approach from St. Clair Street, you might think a tornado has mangled an antennae tower.

Up close, it's easier to see that this is a human form, with long, thin limbs, all four of which anchor the piece to the pedestal (Of course, if you know the title of the piece, you immediately get the human form, but it's presumptuous to assume that the name of any public work is known by more than a few).

It suggests our primitive side, perhaps, and maybe our rootedness—even though those roots look pretty fragile. At the top, the head at first just looks small. On closer inspection, though, it appears severed off. What to make of that image fronting a library? And of the appearance, from the side, that this being is walking forward, away from the building?

Maybe the answer is on the east side, where it's impossible not to think of a giant hovering chocolate donut. It's attached to the building wall rather than the pedestal, giving it the feeling of an illusion at a Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum.

"littlebird" is perched at an angle, making it more difficult to see as the nest the artist seems to be implying (He's even attached the titular bird-tiny and out of proportion-to it). But there's also the un-nest-like hole in the middle. From a distance, there's also the hint of a gaping mouth, mid-cry. If the proportions were different, a case might be made for this being the disembodied head of the gentlemen on the other platform.

All of which adds up, for me, to a big hmmm.

It certainly works better in context than it seemed to from the initial renderings. But I'm still not sure if, five, 10, or 20 years from now, "thinmanlittlebird" will inspire and impress more than it does now.


I suspect that brilliant acting in the New York production helped push "Rabbit Hole" into its position as 1997's Pulitzer-Prize winner. I suspect that because, while solidly written, the play itself challenges no assumptions, upsets no sensibilities and makes no provocative revelations about life or death or anything in between.

That's not to put down its achievement. "Rabbit Hole," in the Indiana Repertory Theatre's nearly impeccable production, proves itself to be patient, smart and often surprisingly funny—but also a very safe look at how members of a family attempt to move forward from the accidental death of a child. Given the subject matter, I wasn't surprised to run into at least three IRT subscribers who told me they were going to skip this one.

They needn't have worried. The script, by David Lindsay-Abaire, isn't out to shake anyone up a la Peter Nichols' play "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" (which deals with parents coping with their severely handicapped daughter), the film "Ordinary People," or any of dozens of novels that deal with a similar subject. I recall being more shaken by, to name two, Lynn Sharon Schwartz' "Disturbances in the Field" and Anne Tyler's "The Accidental Tourist."

"People want things to make sense," bluntly states one of the "Rabbit Hole" characters. And we know from square one that sense may never be made of such an accident. Actors Lauren Lovett (think Ann Curry crossed with JoBeth Williams), the flailing, can't-take-your-eyes-off-her Gwendolyn Whiteside, and IRT anchor Priscilla Lindsay stand out in a fine cast. The design is impressive and the directing solid. It's not IRT's fault that the play itself has been over-praised elsewhere.
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