Eye of the beholder

We love to trash public art.

Consider English playwright Noel Coward's unflattering assessment of one of the world's most famous paintings: "Mona Lisa looks as if she has just been sick, or is about to be."

So maybe it's no wonder Medford is scratching its head over "Three Rogue Columns," the abstract three-piece aluminum sculpture now holding court in front of City Hall.

Do the 12-foot-tall forms represent tree stumps? people seeing it for the first time asked in a recent Mail Tribune story. Ductwork? Logs?

The cardboard tubes inside rolls of paper towels, perhaps?

Well, no. But despite an iffy start with the community, the columns also don't necessarily represent a waste of public money, even if Medford's universal reaction eventually boils down to a giant "Ick!"

Art serves a purpose in a city. It adds interest, evokes reaction and says to the world that we as a community are about something more than streets and buildings.

And it seems early to write off the columns, which were sculpted by a Colorado artist who has completed similar work for cities much larger than this one.

To be fair, the sculpture is far more interesting at close range than it is from the street. Sculptor Bill Vielehr has covered the tubes, open on one side, with what appears at a glance to be graffiti but turns out to be a map of textured words, letters and numbers representing Southern Oregon: Barnett, Britt, Medford. The texture flows across much of each piece but is interspersed with polished sections that reflect the colors nearby. The tubes are visually engaging, and their textures invite touch.

In some ways this sculpture, which arts commission members said they chose because it represents the area well and has a timeless quality, seems to mark a forward step for Medford. Our public art often has been straightforward: the much-loved chess player at Vogel Plaza, for example, or the miniature Statue of Liberty that sits on the lawn across from City Hall. This, in contrast, is open to interpretation.

At the same time, what a shame it would be for Medford if the interpretation was always negative.

Arts commission meetings already are open to the public, but there's opportunity here for advocates to reach out and involve residents more than they do now. The city could push to actively involve a large group in choosing art. It could post finalists for placement on its Web site and seek comments and votes. It could talk more about why Medford wants public art and how it is paid for (the city maintains a dedicated fund).

About the paying part: "Three Rogue Columns" cost taxpayers almost $48,000. Some have called that wasted money. We don't consider money spent on art a waste. But it seems the city might be wasting an opportunity to talk about art in a way that helps the public embrace it.

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