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A new installation does justice to the functional beauty of the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge

Great works of the builders' art sometimes are taken for granted in their own hometowns, just like those prophets in the gospel of Matthew who are given appropriate respect except in their own quarters.

Such is the case with the old Chain of Rocks Bridge, that grand old dogleg spanning the Mississippi River off Riverview Drive just inside the St. Louis city limits. Although known and admired by visitors from afar, such as the squad of motorcyclists from Norway who roared up there the other day, folks in this region — other than birdwatchers, bicyclists and hikers — seem to avoid it, despite the fact that it takes only the proverbial twenty St. Louis minutes to get there, and once you are there, you feel as if you've landed somewhere exotic and even a bit unreal.

The narrow, two-lane Chain of Rocks Bridge was built in 1929 and once carried the myth-rich mother of American highways, Route 66, across the Father of Waters. Originally painted a bright industrial red, it was repainted green during World War II to be less obvious to the enemy should he besiege the heartland. In 1967 a new, wider bridge opened just to the north and the old bridge was closed, consigned to adventurers, thrill seekers and criminals. Many who came marked the bridge to show they'd been there, and their graffiti endures. As one story goes, the bridge would have been taken down for scrap, had the market been more lucrative at the time its destruction was proposed.

Perhaps because of economic vagary, perhaps because of indifference or lassitude, the old bridge survived and was rescued by a coalition of outdoors enthusiasts in the late twentieth century, led by Trailnet Inc., the nationally recognized regional proponent of pedestrian and bicycle transportation and recreation. The bridge, managed by Trailnet through an agreement with its owner, the city of Madison, Illinois, is 5,353 feet long. It connects the system of recreational pathways of the St. Louis Riverfront Trail in Missouri and the Madison County Confluence Trail in Illinois.

Who knew? Apparently too few. Although a destination for Norwegians and others from distant places, for many in the region the bridge might as well cross the Glooma at Fredrikstad.

A couple of years ago, Trailnet initiated a plan to remedy that situation by installing a work of art on the bridge. The hope was to raise the profile of the Chain of Rocks Bridge, to improve its image and to generate some talk in the region. A competition was announced. A 48-year-old Kansas City artist, James Woodfill, won. Now the work, a permanent installation, is complete.

Woodfill grew up in Nevada, Missouri. He studied at the University of Missouri, finished up at the Kansas City Art Institute and has remained in Kansas City. As an art student almost 30 years ago, he worked as a security guard for a project called "Wrapped Walk Ways," executed by the now-legendary wrapper-artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude in Kansas City's Loose Park. Behind the badge of watchman/curator, Woodfill absorbed some ideas about making art tough enough to duke it out with the elements yet delicate enough, and affecting enough, to transcend those elements, and to tackle bigger issues like beauty, ephemerality, scale, space and time.

Although he has other public-art projects to his credit, the Chain of Rocks work, with a budget of $40,000, is Woodfill's first large-scale installation. Support for the work, titled Ultragate, came from the Gateway Foundation of St. Louis, the Missouri Department of Transportation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Regional Arts Commission. The City of Madison Public Works assisted with the installation.

On a recent afternoon, walking in tandem with Trailnet's director for project development, Peter Clarkson, Woodfill led a tour and talked about his intentions. He says he regards the bridge as a gigantic found object, and like the Dadaists who put "found object" in the artist's lexicon, he was determined not to leave the bridge alone but to apply his talents to it and to find subtle ways to transform it visually. To some degree he followed the old notion of how to make art: "Take an object, do something with it and do something else with it."

Bound by budget but also by design, Ultragate is minimal in form and intention. The structure was not altered or harmed. Lengths of yellow, red and silver heavy-duty mesh, which Woodfill calls jackets, clothe portions of superstructure, secured with ratchet straps. Other, larger panels are stretched from side to side across the bridge. From afar, all of this appears to float through the bridge's intricate geometries. Seen up close, the bands of color perform ceremonial work as signals and archways, indications of experiences to come.

The faded-green bridge, a giant's Erector Set creation, does not call attention to itself particularly. No-nonsense, a-aesthetical engineering types probably regard that as a good thing. In any event, this bridge has plenty of visual competition from all sides, above and below. First of all, it's as good a place as any to look at the river, which at this point is two rivers betrothed but not quite hitched, and about to tryst over the chain of rocks below. There are birds to watch — egrets now, and bald eagles in wintertime, along with seagulls that hitchhike up the Mississippi on barges. Flotsam and junk, ubiquitous travelers in the stream, invite attention.

Two water intake towers, one from 1894, the other from 1915, look for all the world like tiny palaces plucked from Portland Place and plunked into the river. Beyond the towers and the adjacent wildnesses and broad beaches of the Chouteau Island complex, downtown St. Louis is a shimmering mirage crowned with an Arch.

Because of all this, a visitor is forgiven if he misses out on seeing the old Chain of Rocks Bridge as bridge. But in fact it is extraordinary, a span constructed of much more than myth and nostalgia: magnificent, intricate, constructed of thousands of parts and author of as many images and patterns splashed onto its deck and into the river below. For pontophiles, it is notable for its eccentric dogleg, a 22-degree turn on the Missouri side of the river. For romantics, its evocations of a near-past America that seems less frightening, more innocent, offer momentary solace.

There are three distinct physical sections of the bridge, and Woodfill concentrated his markings on the sections closer to the riverbanks. The center section was left untreated. But as you make your way from either shore across the bridge toward the middle, Woodfill's patterns of colors call attention to themselves and to the structure, and your eyes are drawn up to see what's going on. And once you're on the center section, your attention continues to be directed up into the superstructure. What you see and experience there is a soaring majesty such as that of the great English cathedral at Ely, in which the width of the nave is narrow but in which as well a triumphant architectural drama is performed, soaring up, up, up into the heavens, and conducting a visitor emotionally and spiritually aloft as well.

A work of art can be self-contained and self-sufficient. It can also operate in association with the natural world or in collaboration with or in contrast to an existing person-produced structure such as a wall or a corner, on a floor, on a pedestal — or on a bridge. In conjoinings such as these, the art retains its physical independence while acquiring strength and meaning by pushing into or pulling away from the whatever object or surface with which it's allied. Much of the great minimalist works of art of our time have done just that. The results are as refined as they are emphatic.

Some of that work is so cerebral and subtle it requires an aesthetic leap of faith, not to mention some hard work, on the part of the viewer to appreciate its vigor and intricacy. No such barriers to appreciation exist in Woodfill's installation at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge. Although a model of restraint, its visual rhythms and signals and punctuations are grasped at once: Follow. Look up into the maze of metal and see what you see. Woodfill's is minimalism set loose from the gallery to do its work in all weather, suspended above the river.

It can do its job for Trailnet in this free and open setting and attract a wider audience to the bridge. It has the potential of performing other noble work also: to tease and educate the mind's eye and to elevate the viewer's spirit.

The dedication ceremony for James Woodfill's Ultragate takes place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, October 20, at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge. At noon that same day, Woodfill speaks at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (3750 Washington Boulevard). Both events are open to the public.

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