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Public art review: Peter Shelton's 'sixbeaststwomonkeys'

October 22, 2009 | 10:56 am

Shelton monkey In the annals of art criticism, deriding a sculpture as looking like "some kind of cow splat" is probably not bound for glory.

That was the colorful phrase used by outgoing LAPD Chief William J. Bratton in reaction to "sixbeaststwomonkeys," an ensemble of eight sculptures by Peter Shelton commissioned for the department's new headquarters at First and Spring streets downtown and still being installed as I write. (Dedication is set for Saturday between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.) The rebuke makes for an eye-catching headline. But for reasons I'll get to in a moment, it doesn't even begin to come close to the furor inspired by another benign sculpture commissioned half a century ago for Parker Center, the LAPD's old headquarters a few blocks away.

Neither does Bratton's crack demonstrate that he knows zilch about contemporary sculpture, as one might suspect; it demonstrates instead that he doesn't know much about cow splat. Born and raised in Boston, the chief has lived and worked successfully on police forces there and in New York City and Los Angeles, where encounters with cows are rare. Perhaps he can be forgiven for not knowing what bovine poo actually looks like.

What the sculptural ensemble does look like is a procession of monumental, smartly abstracted animal forms. Some are loosely reminiscent of such brawny beasts as hippos, elephants and bison. Shelton, whose well-known work usually abstracts human body parts, distending them in space in ways that make us supremely self-conscious of our own imperfect, slightly ridiculous assemblages of flesh and bone, has here turned his talents toward powerful animals associated with the untamed wilds of Asia, Africa and the Americas.

Cast in bronze and coated with a rich, black patina, they create a formal promenade along the Spring Street side of the new edifice. Between the sidewalk and the conventional but imposing new building, their mostly rounded shapes soften the hard edges of the street-scape. The corpulent forms are sheltered beneath a freshly planted alley of London plane trees. As it matures, the bower will further cushion the pedestrian space between the busy traffic artery and the swank architecture.

In stark contrast, the procession is flanked at either end by headless creatures atop tall, spindly legs. Their elevated bodies, presumably derived from the monkeys mentioned in the title, twist in space as if scanning their surroundings with bodily sensors rather than eyes. These animated forms begin and end the procession with an image of movement into the central city.

Shelton drawing detail Shelton
Between them, six limestone plinths positioned between stairs that rise a few steps from the concrete sidewalk to an upper pathway of decomposed granite hold the large, dark, smoothly elephantine forms. Half face north, half face south — which is saying something about the artist's gift for abstraction, given that none of these beasts has a face.

One parades. Another huddles. A third seems to amble. One even appears to have rolled onto its side to wallow playfully for a moment in the sunshine. Each has a distinct personality.

In their own deep ancestry the sculptural forms also harbor memories of Henry Moore (1898-1986), albeit without the British Modern artist's rather grandiose affinity for prehistoric bones and punctured shapes that let views of the landscape into the sculpture's interior. Once upon a time it seemed like any new civic building worth its salt would have a monumental Moore out front, indicating a measure of self-conscious cultural pretension. Shelton's playful bronzes tweak that sober tradition.

Shelton kneel Why animals? Partly to put meat on those bones, I suspect.

More importantly, animal sculptures in front of noteworthy civic buildings are also common global fare, whether the imperial lions in front of the New York Public Library or the mythical dragons at entrances to the 9th-century Buddhist temple of Borobudur, nestled in the Indonesian jungle of central Java. In most every culture in most every age, powerful animals have functioned as guardian figures. Finding them now at the site of a police headquarters is hardly a stretch.

Shelton was also smart not to make his procession too literal in its civic symbolism. That error occurred in 1955, when a ludicrous uproar arose over a bronze sculpture commissioned the year before for the then-new police administration building now called Parker Center.

Bernard Rosenthal (1914-2009), the first sculpture professor at UCLA, crafted a 14-foot bronze figural grouping for the facade of the sleek, modern building on N. Los Angeles St., designed by Welton Becket Assoc. and J.E. Stanton. The sculpture, descriptively titled “The Family Protected by the Police,” also abstracts its subjects, here into angular, elongated Cubist forms. (After art school at Cranbrook Academy, Rosenthal trained in Chicago with Ukrainian émigré Alexander Archipenko.) A monumental figure at the rear — the policeman — puts his left arm around a woman holding a child in her arms at his side; meanwhile, his right hand rests on the shoulder of the young man standing slightly in front of him.

Except for their relative sizes, the two male figures are virtually identical. The continuity of a paternal police force composed of citizens is visually conveyed — albeit in limited terms of gender standards common to1950s American society.

Bernard Rosenthal 1 Councilman Harold Harby was furious about the sculpture, although not because of any primal feminist leanings. A notorious Red-baiter and hater of Modern art, Harby was certain that the faceless geometric abstractions were meant to symbolize a “one world” philosophy of uniform, Communist-inspired government. (Think of him as the Glenn Beck of his day.) “It is probably the most scandalous satire and caricature of American people I have ever seen,” Harby fumed to the press, in a diatribe not without racist overtones. The brouhaha raged for months.

Harby's efforts to get the sculpture removed from the off-white ceramic facade failed. Subsequent building around Parker Center has somewhat diminished the light-filled, open-air character of the space, which itself was meant to suggest a degree of transparency in a police department darkly shadowed by a troubled past. Together with the original building, the bronze is now part of a near-perfect midcentury Modern ensemble.

And what became of Bernard Rosenthal, the artist whose 1950s sculptures also graced the old Robinson's department store in Beverly Hills, Bullock's in Westwood and a fountain at UCLA? Better known as Tony, Rosenthal decamped to New York in 1960, where he died at 94 in July. “Alamo,” his revolving 1967 steel sculpture in the traffic island at downtown Manhattan 's Astor Place — balanced on point and commonly referred to as simply  “the cube” — is among that city's most familiar public sculptures.

Bratton, New York City Police Commissioner in the 1990s, probably saw “the cube” countless times. But no, I confess I don't much wonder about what he thought of it.

-- Christopher Knight

Photos: Peter Shelton, "sixbeaststwomonkeys," 2009 (detail), credit: Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times; Peter Shelton, "sixbeaststwomonkeys," drawing (detail), credit: Peter Shelton; Peter Shelton, "sixbeaststwomonkeys," 2009 (detail), credit: Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times; Bernard Rosenthal, "The Family Protected by the Police," 1954-55, credit: Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times

Related stories:

Sculptures at LAPD's new home likened to 'cow splat'

Artistic visions for LAPD's new headquarters

Peter Shelton's whimsy, all in a row, for the L.A. police HQ

Comments () | Archives (37)

Ambiguity means more that one meaning; I fail to see one at all here beyond Whimsy. A word repeatedly used to describe these animals’ forms. Endearing, childlike, playful… is that deep enough for good art? Kitsch to me is intent, it can’t possibly blankly define all representational art any more that people can say all abstract art is bad. Absolute definitions like that are as ignorant as the most rabid Rush Limbaugh heard mentality. Stop the hate.

The work we are discussing "sixbeaststwomonkeys", standing, as it does, at the apex of the downtown gallery district and in front of the Los Angeles Police Department, has, perhaps unwittingly, brought about an amazing gestural coincidence, so essential, it cannot be considered insignificant. The threads of location and timing, along with current artistic, social, and political trends, have brought together the work of Mr. Shelton, well-known for his abstractions of human and animal body parts, with one of the most powerful police institutions in the US. Whether anyone in the L. A. Cultural Affairs Department actually consciously thought "Let's put abstracted body parts in front of the LADP" or not, the realization of this juxtaposition; its horror, it's beauty, it's prescience, should create such a powerful emotional response, that it no longer matters whether the work is appropriate or not.

They look like a row of sterotypical cartoon cops, in dark uniforms, waddling off to a donut shop.

It's not "a powerful emotional response". Its cow splat, just sitting there, kinda dull, unemotional, bloated dead beasts lying about under spindly killer "monkeys". Most will just pass by, look curiously, see nothing worth delaying about, and move on. Especialy when the trees grow. Then will be nice shade with pillars to lean against.

The downtown art "scene" is dead, stillborn. No one goes except art school grads in hopes of getting gallery rep. Which is how the whole ponzi scheme works, Graduate enough rich kids, some of whom will beocme writers, other curators, others investors from dads fortune. It builds a consumer base, not going out and relating to humanity, its true subject and audience.

This is simply inappropriate, and wasteful. Not really offensive, not powerful enough for that. Kinda bloated bags of decay. Just like dogs, art often resembles its owner-creator.

art collegia delenda est

Steve Lopez reports in his article that "A live orange tree was proposed as well, but police rejected the idea, fearing that citizens would pelt the building with low-hanging fruit."

When the London plane trees mature, plenty of bird splat will cover Peter Shelton's "cow splat." I suspect that "pony-tailed man with a caulking gun" has a beautiful sense of humor and artfully hit his mark.

Christopher Knight's article is way off base - but a good attempt at trying to save something that should be de-installed and shelved. Since one of the pieces looks like a dismembered pig, the work is offensive and therefore a complete failure, despite whether or not it has "artistic quality."

This exhibit is a waste of money and community goodwill. The question isn't whether or not it will be taken down, but when.

Money seems short.. the city hasn't enough... Art is a luxury. Half a million dollars that could have been far better spent on necessities now...

The city needs a sense of priorities.

I actually think the sculpture in the photo above looks like something out of the movie Pink Floyd's The Wall. The fact that the city would pay $500,000 for these sculptures that do look like cow splats cracks me up.

Love the split reaction these pieces have gotten. That in and of itself means it's doing its job. Personally, I love the playful forms. Does it have to represent anything about LAPD? No. Does it have to be a social commentary on the current state of our police force? Not at all. Congratulations for a job well done.

Well, after having read the story of the LAPD art controversy, I decided to go see it myself. I don't get it, it's ugly, it doesn't represent the LAPD or the City of Los Angeles... and the citizens of LA just got taken for $500,000. With all the talk of budget crisis the City is experiencing, I'm wondering who got paid under the table for this mess.

Oh yes, forgot to mention in the previous post.. the two "things" at the end of the "sculptures" look like the Star Wars AT-AT that my 4 year old nephew attempted to draw. It was cute when he did it, but not by a grown "artist."

Contemporary art, yeah..... Chief Bratton is right. Cow Splat it is.

I think the Chief gave this installation too little credit, but you gave it too much.

I jog on Spring Street often, sometimes circling the new HQ before heading back down to my apartment, and although it is a little embarrassing to admit, I jogged by this artwork at least a half-dozen times before I even recognized that them as sculptures. Until I read the article about Bratton's comments, I thought these were a poor attempt to stylize some massive crash barriers, to prevent truck bombs and such from getting too close to the building wall.

And you mention a start contrast between the blobs and the tall pieces at the end? How is there contrast when you can't even see the tall pieces, as they're hidden behind trees, which are only going to get bigger and leafier. I know this isn't the fault of the artist, but still, I had stop stop and take a long look just too find the end pieces, and even then I thought, at first, they they were some kind of support structures to help keep the trees upright.

I love downtown LA's public art. This installation isn't even going to make the top 10. It is lost up against the massive facade of a new, architecturally attractive building, where there probably really should be crash barriers. And it's the dark side of the building.

This would probably look much better in the median of a broad avenue, or in a greenbelt or park, without trees to obscure it.

I am fascinated by this type of art work. I can't wait to see them face to face. The tall one creeps me out a little bi though...

Thank you for your intelligent comments. The previous column (and Bratton's comments) about this project were so juvenile, I was ashamed for our city. Like the sculpture or not, it is a thought, it has a precedent, and it has a reason for being. Have a conversation, don't throw cow poop.

It is really waste of money.

I don't see the relevance in the complaints regarding the spending of budgets. Budgets are allocations of resources to an organization, so it's not like it's being directly taken away from another. Who's to say that today's reviled art won't be appreciated later on?

I find it humorous that none of the detractors who commented here have anything really bad to say about "The Family" sculpture which by today's standards would probably not evoke Harby's opinion of it being 'raceless'. In fact, it may appeal to many of those who yearn for the United States of the 'Leave it to Beaver' era.

Ironically, enough, Harold Harby's brother is a career artist.

Actually, I did. It is a mediocre semi cubist work, not terrible but boring. A bit of propaganda, but that is to be expected, not giant bird guano.

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