Older European cities like Rome or Paris are famed for their seamless integration of walkable streets, public art and human-scaled, lushly detailed architecture. Such a rich urban matrix, built up by deep-pocketed popes and spendthrift royals over the centuries, has been hard for modern cities to emulate, or even approach.
Credit the good folks of Bellevue for trying. Unusual in the region for the number of permanent public artworks in the city core (upward of 120), the city authorities also sponsor a major, every-other-year summer sculpture exhibition, with this year’s edition installed in two high-profile locations downtown. This way, the “Bellwether 2014” exhibition brings art into a realm otherwise dominated by huge corporate headquarters and busy streets that do not encourage looking and lingering.
The 33-odd pieces in the show, created by several dozen artists mostly (but not entirely) from the area, are best visited by using the art commission’s map to navigate the six blocks between city hall, at 110th Avenue Northeast, the location of the indoor art, and the Downtown Park, where most of the outdoor works are found. Both venues offer a variety of visual rewards and surprises, as well as a scattering of works that are awkward or underwhelming.
The Downtown Park — basically a 20-acre open space with a water feature and ringed by paths — presents a particular challenge to artists, as smaller or fussier pieces can easily be overwhelmed. Big and bold, on the other hand, is a suitable description for Allan Packer’s 20-foot robotic-looking coyote head, its vertical snout topped by a solar-powered beacon, and its plywood sides surfaced to resemble — convincingly — rusted iron. The animal-head association is far from obvious — steam-punk lighthouse is more like it — but once we decipher eyes, ears and nose, the wit of Packer’s hiding his coyote in plain sight makes it all work.
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I wasn’t so impressed by several nearby works, without such a strong, original concept and successful integration of idea and materials. A white, bulblike construction of steel rod and mesh by Mary Coss was both vague in form and unrelated to its pond and waterfall surroundings. A large, many-armed mobile with wind-powered wooden drones by Mike Rathbun suggested an amusement-park ride more than an artistically compelling statement.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself, on the other hand, in the jewel box of a glass pavilion a few blocks away at the far end of the City Hall Plaza. The curators have wisely contrasted two terrifically well-crafted installations, by two vastly different artists, in this perfectly scaled space for medium-sized works.
I am a big fan of Julia Haack’s lively cluster of highly animated wooden arches, which suggest a group of dancers or athletes doing calisthenics, not to mention the odd bunny head, all clad in bold geometric stripes inspired by those of the medieval cathedral in Siena.
Alongside is what looks like the storage room of a fisherman, with white nets hanging from the ceiling all tangled up with red floats of various sizes and stages of repair. This ambitious arrangement by Connie Sabo is not at all what it seems; the entire array is crafted from recycled newspaper, which, once we catch on, raises a host of interesting issues about language, networks and the transformation of the familiar.
Many of the smaller works inside the city hall proper failed to hold up to their setting nearly as well. My suggestion to the exhibition organizers: Raise the bar by exhibiting fewer works and being more selective, with financial incentives for pieces whose size and ambition can better compete with the SUVs, sushi bars and smartphones of bustling — and very non-European — downtown Bellevue.
Gary Faigin is an artist, author, critic and co-founder/artistic director of the Gage Academy of Art.