Art Reviewer Weighs in on “Threshold”

As someone with an extensive professional background in the arts, and especially in the visual arts (having started working in the gallery business in Santa Fe some 20 years ago, and still to this day in art and design) it falls to me to follow the directive of my editor and give a critique on “Threshold,” the public art installation that has recently been installed conspicuously at the center of the island located between the Ashland Public Library and Fire Station No. 1. Designed and executed by Seattle-based artist Susan Zoccola, the piece is, reportedly, inspired by the artist’s first visit to Ashland.

Unfortunately for us, while the artist and her inspiration may have only stayed in town for a short while, the evidence of her creative impulses will be sticking around.

Since the area around the sculpture has not yet been landscaped, it’s fair to say that some appropriate (and likely expensive, and definitely taxpayer funded) grass and shrubbery, combined with a little intelligent design by a competent landscape architect, may rescue the situation somewhat. Let’s hope the city gets on that soon, because as “Threshold” currently stands, the approach from any angle is reminiscent of some Cervantes-inspired hallucination, a deceased and dilapidated $100,000 windmill.

The piece, a beige concoction with all the color differentiation of a Sri Lankan frogmouth, is completely forgettable. With the exception of the scale of the work — 22 feet in height — there is nothing to set it apart from the surrounding trees. The top end of the structure looks like a pile of multiple discarded and useless intertwined bicycle wheels — some rusty brown, others with hints of mediocre matte silver, all resting uncomfortably above a sullen clutch of large, chocolate colored stakes that look as though they might be left over from a tent revival gone horribly wrong.

Dimensions are problematic, to say the least, with each of the circular components of the structure seeming to collapse into one another, and not in a symbiotically pleasing manner. Rather, these kooky spheres appear to compete in a lopsided quest for dominance. Imagine the Eye of Sauron after it had been dilated and poked at during a visit to the optometrist, then multiply by seven and take away some of the inherent dramatic impact. That’s what the city’s transient occupancy tax is paying for these days.

One wonders how this could have happened. Ms. Zoccola’s first attempt, the ill-fated “Gather,” was shot down following public outcry. “Threshold” is no improvement.

In a day and age when $100,000 could buy you an absolutely gorgeous modernist sculpture (one of appropriate dimension for the Gateway Island if properly lit and staged) by the likes of Herbert Bayer or Bill Barrett, or if you’re more traditional, might easily induce an established international artist in bronze — such as J. Seward Johnson — to part with some time in his late career and create a gorgeous single-edition traditional bronze of one William Shakespeare, the Ashland Public Art Commission, in its wisdom, has instead decided to signal to visiting tourists that their lodging tax will be spent on what amounts to a glorified wind sculpture, and a static one, at that.

The piece communicates exactly nothing about Ashland, except perhaps for the fact that we seem to reliably assign large amounts of money to the wrong things — government salaries and terrible art — while neglecting those things that most exemplify tight knit community — egalitarianism in the form of housing and reasonable conditions for workers, functioning senior centers, and the like.

“Threshold” is a perfect and probably permanent reminder of what happens when things are designed by committee. And while expensive mediocrity may be appealing to some, as far as I’m concerned, this hunched and disorienting pile of scrap isn’t fit to be called art. Indeed, when it comes to aesthetic pain, “Threshold” sets the bar.

—Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him