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Chicago's Big Shoulders Get an Eyeball to Match

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Public art gets a bad rap, often with good reason. In parks, medians, and open spaces across the country, sculptures are plopped down seemingly overnight with neither "public" input nor consent. In some miraculous cases, they become beloved local icons or, better yet, tourist magnets. In the worst scenarios, they're resented, maligned, and even removed if the public carping becomes especially harsh. Still, most public art is sandwiched between these two extremes. It's the dismal visual equivalent of background noise, largely ignored, adding precisely zilch to our everyday experience other than cluttering up space.

But on July 7th, when Chicago-based artist Tony Tasset unveils his two public commissions on State Street for the Chicago Loop Alliance, viewers will be anything but neutral.

Consider project #1: a three-story high, uber-realistic fiberglass eyeball perched, as though tumbled from Olympus, in the Pritzker Park at the State and Van Buren.

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The colossal Eye - with flecked blue iris and spidery red veins - replicates one of Tasset's. Meanwhile, project #2 consists of 156 brightly-colored banners mounted in a flipbook-like procession from Congress to Wacker Drive: Cardinal presents a scarlet, and determined -looking native bird flapping against a sparkling blue sky. Seen together, the two installations will conjure a visual and psychological spectacle on State Street through October, when their tour of duty ends. By then the public will have weighed in on these quirky latest additions to Chicago's metropolitan landscape.

Tasset, himself a Midwestern product, was born in Cincinnati, received an MFA from the Chicago Art Institute, and at age forty-nine, is a popular professor at UIC. Anyone following his career for the past several decades has witnessed an ascending arc: representation by top galleries, exhibitions both local and international, a bouquet of impressive awards, commissions, and collectors. Always a meticulous craftsman devoted to flawless surfaces, Tasset has worked with a stunning variety of materials, including wood, cardboard, bronze, photography, video, and more recently, wax, fake snow, resin, and fiberglass. Increasingly, his output has been suffused with a dark wit (a miserable snowman; a skeleton chandelier; painted rocks resembling candy; a rotting jack-o-lantern) with themes plucked from pop culture, art-historical precursors, music, his personal life, and all points in between.

2010-06-26-LIsculpartchicago106b.jpgBut Tasset is a playful prankster of sorts, favoring unexpected contexts that recall Surrealists like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte, while his focus on prosaic objects and images invoke Dada ringmaster Marcel Duchamp.

Given Chicago's dual devotion to Surrealism and to big pieces of public art (within spitting distance of the State Street installations are urban "classics" that include Picasso, Calder, Miro, and Oldenburg, along with more recent additions such as Kapoor, Abakanowicz, and Plensa), selecting Tony Tasset for the Chicago Loop Alliance's inaugural Art Loop 2010 was an inspired move. After all, the artist's portfolio in the last decade has included a roster of public works, some of which are super-sized: the weary, stooped Paul (Bunyan) at the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park --

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the colorful Blob Monster originally deployed outside this year's Art Chicago--

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the double-take inducing Snow Sculpture for Chicago that inhabits a former Goldblatt's window--

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and the mesmerizing Magnolias for Pittsburgh enhancing that city's downtown.

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"We wanted to work with an artist who really understands art in public spaces," explained James Rondeau, one of the C.L.A. jury members and chair of the Art Institute of Chicago's Department of Contemporary Art. "Tony has an ability to make visually arresting art that is both complex and accessible. And, importantly, he does this with humor."

Prior to the very public kick-off on July 7th, I corralled the artist into talking about his work.

What's the link between Eye and Cardinal?

They're completely independent. Cardinal was commissioned first, after I was invited by the Chicago Loop Alliance to propose a project that addressed State Street from Congress to Wacker Drive. That's nine city blocks, which is challenging. But honestly, the banners came in so under budget that the C.L.A. folks basically said, "Hey, we also have this space available at the corner of Van Buren if you want to put something else there..." And that's how Eye happened. Both are linked by the backdrop of the city, by their color palette, by creating a grand, surreal experience, but that's all.

They also seem linked by some dark undercurrent. A gargantuan eyeball is awfully confrontational, and that deceptively pretty bird appears threatening in a Hitchcockian way.

Yep, that's true. For Cardinal, I was trying to figure out how to encompass such a long space, and hooked into the idea of banners. But I wanted to make something different from the ordinary experience of the kind used for advertising, and a flip-book is such a simple, fun thing, with an image that changes slowly. The cardinal is the state bird, the piece is on State Street, and at first I thought that was kind of corny and sweet. But along the way, the images became big enough that the bird got more powerful and menacing, like it's taking revenge. Even if viewers don't get the entire effect of all hundred and fifty of them, they'll still notice something going on and hopefully be drawn further down the street. And Eye...certainly, at that scale, it is monstrous.

This is actually the third and largest incarnation of a giant eye sculpture you've created.

Yes, but in a way, the very first version was a photograph of my son Henry's eye when he was nine years old, so it's been a theme in my work since 2000. The first Eye sculpture (2001) was only five feet in diameter, and the next one (at St. Louis' Laumeier Sculpture Park) is twelve feet, so this one is a really big jump. I couldn't have done it on this scale without going through the earlier versions.

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Hmm...how big is Eye in your fantasies?

I joke that I'd like to create one a hundred feet high. Maybe for Dubai?

The fabricators, F.A.S.T Corporation in Sparta, Wisconsin, have worked with you before. Forgive me, but did they even "bat an eye" at this commission?

Don't worry about the puns, this artwork sucks them out of everyone, I do it myself...As for the fabricators, they're fantastic, the best at what they do, which is mainly creating huge fiberglass figures for amusement parks, swimming pools, movies and things like that. The first time I went there to create the twelve-foot Eye, I thought, "Wow, wait till they see this!" But when it was finished, there was a twenty-foot cow next to it, which completely trumped my piece. I mean, they have giant bugs and dinosaurs and ice-cream cones standing around, so a thirty-foot eyeball? No big deal.

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Ok, while we're on the subject, some overheard puns: Chicago's Eye-Con, a new Eye-Full Tower, the Eye-Ronic...someone's called it the Eye-Sore. By October this will get old. But could you have named the piece simply I? It is, after all, a self-portrait...

Sure, but as a self-portrait, it's not very revealing, although it's definitely important that my eye is the model. An eye is like an individual fingerprint, and so much of my work is at that weird intersection of what's very personal, and also populist and entertaining. But people have many other references for eyes, our reaction to them is hardwired, whether it's the surveillance/ Big Brother thing, the Egyptian eye, the Masonic eye, the Third Eye, campy pop culture eyes from tattoos to music posters - it's such a powerful symbol, there are endless references, and I don't want to limit anyone's interpretation. Even if I'm not happy about all of them.

"Artwork" and "entertaining" don't necessarily go hand in hand, but your work is often laugh-out-loud funny. Are you ever worried about pieces being read as one-liners and not penetrate any deeper? Does it matter?

My work does operate on a very quick level, and for some people it ends there. But I hope that for at least some viewers the work will have more complex meanings. Many of my favorite artists - Duchamp and Warhol, for instance - could be accused of producing one-liners, but obviously their work is also extremely complex. Lately, I've also been inspired but American "voices" like Walt Disney, Normal Rockwell, Mark Twain and Bob Dylan. They all created readable, sometimes ironic, and often funny imagery too. But I'm also a ham, and I want to draw in an audience, so I'm constantly balancing between being likable and being off-putting.

Not too long ago you stated that "most public art is crap." How so?

That was a pretty arrogant thing to say, wasn't it? What I meant was that so much public art fails to connect with the audience, and I've wondered if it's possible to make what I think is good art, but which speaks to a larger group than the "insider" art-world I've been used to communicating with. I first tried this with Cherry Tree (1999): it was beautiful and highly crafted but also spoke to a broad audience. And Eye is certainly connecting with people, creating a lively dialogue even before it's installed. I don't think everyone is going to love it, it'll be creepier and weirder and not as overtly beautiful as Magnolias for Pittsburgh but it will make an impression.

Meanwhile, there's a show of your work at Kavi Gupta Gallery until July 17th , a bunch of pieces on view through September at the Museum of Contemporary Art , another at the Art Institute. With all these other sculptures around Chicago, it feels a little like the Summer of Tasset.

Absolutely. It's great. And it's all downhill after this. This is as good as it gets.

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