Tedious People

The People Project only gets worse

As public-art fiascoes go, the People Project is a drunken wreck. Whatever criticisms may have appeared in this column in the past pale in comparison to the reality of this vulgar, pathetic display of a bad idea come to rotten fruition. The Regional Arts Commission and Focus St. Louis, the two nonprofit organizations who co-spawned this mutant strain of Chicago's Cows on Parade, have perpetrated a scandalous and cynical -- and potentially debt-ridden -- embarrassment on the region. Not one right decision has been made in bringing the People Project into being. Now that these hideous objects have finally made their way onto public thoroughfares, citizens of the region have to ask, "What did we do to deserve this?" Shallow in concept, bankrupt in realization -- and they're ugly, too. Where are the Taliban when you need them?

O'Fallon, Ill., is a quaint, Norman Rockwell Main Street little town. The train still stops there. A floral shop, a hole-in-the-wall tavern devoid of afternoon rowdies, a thrift store -- these are just a few of the storefronts that enhance the central business district. The counterwoman at Wood Bakery (with come-in-your-mouth cream-filled chocolate-covered long johns to die for -- or at least drive to Exit 14 for) asks whether the photographer is taking pictures of "the sculptures." She says "sculptures" without prodding, even though the coordinators of the People Project avoided using such a word to describe the "people figures" because they surmised it would probably be too "artsy" a term for the sort of people who work in bakeries in O'Fallon, Ill.

She reports that the sculptures aren't faring too well. A heavy rain the week before left them damaged. One tipped over and was removed, presumably for repairs. Those that remain could only improve the look of the town if they took their leave as well. "Everyone's Aunt Marcie" stands in front of Steven Mueller's florist shop. She's lost her middle finger. She sports a cheap wig and a face that threatens to make children cry. "Everyone's Aunt Marcie" shows the result of one of the People Project's many bad ideas. The employment of a wooden manikin as armature limited the artist's ability to attain an appealing sculptural form. Artist Connie King has managed to design a manikin that wouldn't be allowed on the retail floor of the most down-in-the-dumps dress shop.

Connie Mielke’s “Summer Daze” is an act of public-art vandalism on unsuspecting O’Fallon, Ill.
Jennifer Silverberg
Connie Mielke’s “Summer Daze” is an act of public-art vandalism on unsuspecting O’Fallon, Ill.

Near that train depot, seated on a bench, is a green scaly woman sunbathing, a purple lizard luridly attached to her inner thigh, another purple reptile oozing from her rib cage. Connie Mielke's "Summer Daze" is an act of public-art vandalism on unsuspecting O'Fallon. If there's anything good to come of this, maybe people will learn to appreciate Richard Serra more.

"RACEMAN" is a sports car and driver held perpendicular to the ground a few steps from "Summer Daze." Built by Kevin Trobaugh and sponsored by the St. Clair Auto Mall, "RACEMAN" would be entirely ineffectual if not for the title. In civil-rights history, a "race man" was one involved in the movement, one who was known and recognized for taking a stand against the racial injustices of the time. The perpetrators of the People Project would sooner have the public forget history. They would sooner the public accept that these forms couldn't possibly refer to anything else -- to matters of substance, for example, or gravity, within a larger context that might provide meaning. Rather, the People Project is -- the public is reminded insistently -- about "fun."

Just ask Jill McGuire, the one and only executive director of RAC in its 17-year history. "RACEMAN" is "a car with a figure in it. It is not flippant. There's no double meaning there." Nor does the sculpture in Grandel Square, "Undercover," a figure opening wide its yellow raincoat to expose books hidden underneath, refer in any way to being a flasher for literacy. "I'm sorry, I don't agree with that," McGuire says. "I don't know what you're talking about. It is a figure that is talking about reading."

McGuire takes particular umbrage at the idea that visitors to the Old Court House, opposite Kiener Plaza -- the scene where the momentous Dred Scott decision was argued -- might find their sober contemplation of history demeaned by seeing the brazen pop-art colors of Charles Houska's "Big Fishbowl Head" as they walk out the door.

"I think that's absurd to put that kind of meaning into figures that are fun and enjoyable and temporary," McGuire argues.

She's more right about that than she suspects. It is absurd to put meaning into these figures, because they lack the conceptual foundation to contain meaning. These objects de-mean the historical, sociological, political and environmental landscapes that surround them. When these figures received their grand media unveiling in April, the Post-Dispatch gave front-page multicolumn coverage in the Sunday edition. The piece, co-written by Jeff Daniel and Ellen Futterman, read -- at best -- as halfhearted in its praise (the next week, Daniel followed with a kind of critical mea culpa, questioning the lack of curatorial judgement exhibited by the People Project) and made no mention of the fact that the P-D and STLtoday.com were on the booster bandwagon, having sponsored eight figures in an investment of roughly $40,000 (Daniel says he didn't know).

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