Wednesday, November 9, 2011

More Art at the Speed of Bike

In the Sunday New York Times, architecture critic Michael Kimmelman writes about going for a bike ride with Janette Sadik-Khan, transportation commissioner for New York City.
It’s too bad that so many New Yorkers still complain about the bike lanes’ contribution to the inconvenience of urban driving instead of promoting them for their obvious role in helping solve the city’s transportation miseries, and for their aesthetic possibilities. I don’t mean they’re great to look at. I mean that for users they offer a different way of taking in the city, its streets and architecture, the fine-grained fabric of its neighborhoods. Decades ago the architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown wrote about how we see cities differently at different speeds. Las Vegas was their example, and they wrote about driving versus walking (skipping over the bicycle). But the point stands. On a bike time bends. Space expands and contracts.
Here in Salem policy and planning talk is a little wearisome just now. So with the short days and dark, it seemed nice to turn to something light. I wonder how biking changes the texture of your experience. It certainly changes mine.

Without B on B, I'm not sure I'd ever have a reason to visit the North Mall Office Building. Its foyer offers two of my favorite pieces of public art in Salem, and I'm happy for the discovery (and the tipster who made sure I turned the corner to see the painting).

Both pieces make me think of time and the ways that biking and walking make my experience of time richer rather than poorer. I cannot get there as quickly, but I experience much, much more.

Friends who know more about art say James Lavadour might be the best painter in Oregon right now. I believe them. I love the way he moves paint, sometimes with a squeegee, sometimes dripping, sometimes doing other misty and layering things I don't understand. The paintings are neither fully abstract nor fully landscape: They inhabit a shimmering middle ground that is both. They are colorful, and offer simple straight-up pleasure that demands no interpretive heavy lifting. But of course the forms are allusive, too, suggesting landforms and geology built up and eroded over thousands and millions of years. They are glacial and tectonic. Sometimes things like human structures appear. You can spend quite a while layering on an interpretation, if you like.

I love that the paintings are mounted on bare concrete rather than the plastered white of a gallery. They are mounted on stone, slower and more permanent than sheetrock.

There's another set of Lavadours, a 3x3 grid of smaller panels, over at the State Capital, but it's on that sheetrock, and ends up for me being more decorative, window dressing for a gallery - the House or Senate I can't remember. Here the panels are an exposed vein of precious metal, a brilliant gash in the grey.

It also helps that the foyer goes up a couple of stories and the panels can rise and be a little monumental. They're grand.

On the north side of the foyer is a glazed wall out to a courtyard. The mullions also form a grid.

And in the courtyard is another monumental piece, this one of wood. It looks like the wreck of one of Captain Cook's ships, exposed after a dig. Or maybe a giant sun dial or astrolabe, built by pioneers before Oregon was a state. It's definitely got a vintage nautical thing going. (The artist says something about the Kalevala and a mill, but if it's a waterwheel, it's not in the water!)

Of course the metal work is modern, and it is obviously of no such antiquity. But it is big and the near-wheel inside it makes you sure it will rotate. Again, it's not what it seems like it should be: It doesn't actually move, but nevertheless it says "slow" rather than "still." It plays a game of contrast with the fixity of the grid. And if the paintings point to the land, the sculpture points to the forest and our use of it.

In a way that may be accidental, I find the two pieces a deeply satisfying ensemble, playing off of each other and off the building, sensitive to site. They would make much less sense to me apart, or in another place.

And both make me think of bike time. That time is slower, but richer, than car time. Kimmelman again on his ride:
New York unspooled as a series of surprises. Great cities offer up as one of their distinguishing virtues this combination of serendipity and complexity.
Nothing in Salem makes me think of that more than discovering Broadway Commons and the coffeeshop on bike.

There are other unspooling surprises nearby. By car, you'd also never see the Phillips House, a Greek Revival house from 1853, one of the earliest homes around still in its original location. It's tucked in a bend, back from the road, and you have to be slow to see it.

At Champoeg, the northern end of the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway, there is no better way to learn Oregon history than by bike. The 1861 flood wiped out the town, but the old street grid is still marked by posts, too delicate and too far from the road to notice by car.

Maybe not every day, but certainly every week, I see something new. What are your favorite sights and places and coincidences of serendipity and complexity when you ride in Salem?


Missy said...

Michael and I have this same conversation - the things you see while biking or walking are treasures. We always laugh at ourselves when, out on our usual neighborhood walk that we have done hundreds of times, we see something we've never noticed before!

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

And slowing down sometimes emphasizes loss rather than treasure: Reading about the housefire on Statesman street today was sad. Earlier in the year there was one on 21st Street between Chemeketa and Center. Even when they aren't showpieces, and maybe even are rentals, a little rough around the edges, it's sad to see the old houses burn and then get demolished. And even sadder to think of the residents' own losses and sometimes injury or death. Encountering treasure or loss, slowing down takes us out of our cocoons and bubbles.