Context and Public Art: David Middlebrook’s “Tip” at Gordon Park

Art is one of many forms of communication our species has developed to define our culture, our values, and our aspirations. As such, it has varied purposes and levels of complexity and depth. It can be viewed through the lens of diverse critical systems, each revealing a different aspect of even the simplest work of art. In the arena of public art, the challenges of deciphering a work of art are compounded by the relationship to its site. The new sculpture by David Middlebrook, recently installed at the northwest corner of Gordon Park, provides an excellent example of these challenges, and perhaps will inspire a dialogue on the nature of contemporary public art. On many different levels, context is the central theme of “Tip.” The work’s basic approach is derived from the Surrealist tradition of confounding the expectations of the viewer; in this instance, through shifts in scale and context, the inclusion of huge “fingerprints” on the bronze shaft, the teetering anvil shape, and the rippled sod in the wake of the glacier shape. Each of these elements surrounds viewers at the site, pulling them into a dream-like narrative dealing with the geological and cultural history of the location. How important is it that everyone who visits the site “gets” the meaning of Middlebrook’s sculpture? My own life experience as an artist, curator and educator, has given me ample perceptual tools to use when considering a piece of art. Because I was unfamiliar with other works Middlebrook has done and had no first-hand account from him as to the meaning of the piece, I have pretty much come up with my own best guess as to what this work is about. However, an effective art piece should communicate not only to a select few who happen to have expanded perceptual tools, but it should also speak to a wider audience. If an artist produces something too simplistic, it becomes little more than decoration. It’s a challenge for all artists who create public art, but there are many solutions to this challenge, and I feel Middlebrook has found one that works well for this particular project. On the most basic tactile level, “Tip” has aspects aplenty to appeal to users of the park as they become familiar with the sculpture. For instance, the character of the smaller bronze shapes, the fantasy of the anvil, the experience of touching the giant finger prints, the sensation of walking across the ripples in the terrain — all of these can be appreciated and enjoyed by both adults and children. Additionally, because the work spans one of the main walkways into the park, it functions as a “gateway,” and as such, is useful as a wayfinding marker. Its differences make it an effective public work, and our criteria for establishing value should be adjusted accordingly. After all, not all art is viewed through the same lens. When all is said, “Tip” is about multiple perspectives and is best viewed in the context of the public sphere for which it was created. Mark Lawson is a sculptor, teacher, and gallery director at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He is on the board of RAA, the Riverwest Artists Association.

Mark Lawson is a sculptor, teacher, and gallery director at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He is on the board of RAA, the Riverwest Artists Association.