This review would not have been possible without the contributions of Tessa Heck of Pacific Lutheran University.
Nestled in downtown Tacoma you can find the historic Woolworth Building at 11th Street Broadway and Commerce. The windows of Woolworth have consistently hosted large public art installations since 2001 and are currently affiliated with the Spaceworks Tacoma Artscapes program.
Inspired by the Woolworth Windows now iconic role in presenting public art in Tacoma, we turned a critical eye to one current installation.
Work by artist Amy Bay is exhibited in the most prominent of the Woolworth windows — the space on the corner of 11th Street and Broadway — through October 31, 2011. Her piece, Bramble c. 2011, is formed from green molding clay and depicts blackberry brambles creeping up the white uniform walls. The brambles snake around the south and east facing walls, enabling the viewer to have multiple angles on her work.
“These brambles are intended to have a cartoon-like, artificial quality, reminiscent of toys, faux nature in theme parks, miniature golf courses, and even decorative wall coverings, emitting a playful and nostalgic feeling while adding a dimension of discomfort because of the invasive nature of the plant.” -Amy Bay, artist statement
Bay’s purpose for Bramble is to relate a pervasive local plant to the urban landscape of downtown Tacoma, playing – in what can only be a deliberately naive way – with the naturally aggressive nature of the blackberry bramble and the sterility of the Woolworth windows installation space.
Although Bay’s explanation for the work rings true with the installation, leaving little question of her intent, it is in the questionable execution where I find myself struggling to see the success in expression.
Bay attempts to connect nature with civilization by molding clay into a pesky bramble bush, whose natural tendency is to keep growing and latching onto whatever it can. A closer look reveals a crude construction level with uncomplicated, rough-edged brambles and visible thumbprints; neutered of blossoms or berries, these representational brambles also lack thorns, rendering them neither alluring or threatening.
Though her artist statement suggests that Bay uses cheap materials as a means of referencing common caricatured aspects of nature, I remain unconvinced that the sloppy result is justified.
The molding clay itself looks inexpensive and perhaps blatantly temporary as in some areas it appears forcefully mashed into the white wall and in other places, barely clinging. It seems that at any moment, elements of the construction could slide gracelessly off the wall while others could crack and crumble, leaving behind a mess.
I can imbue this instability with all kinds of purpose and intent but unfortunately, it doesn’t at all reflect the intent outlined in the artist statement and ultimately, these thoughts are overpowered by the frustrating lack of skill in execution.
I don’t know what Bay’s true capacities are when it comes to sculpting and installation as this work seems more like an exercise in naughty mess-making than a manifestation of creative vision.
Curious to see if this lack of execution is purposeful, I carried out further investigation by looking through her portfolio. Bay’s outdoor paper and staple installations attached on telephone poles, such as Little Chickweed and Big Chickweed (2011), seemed to much more successfully investigate the civilized world’s relationship with the natural world.
Were I to come upon these installations on the street, I most certainly would stop and wonder. Here, the unpolished, chaotic constructions have a delicacy and rough beauty that speaks to the nature of weeds yet instills it with rarity and value.
Each leaf and stem is stapled almost violently against the pocked surface of a telephone pole, relaying a sense of infestation and jarringly, a kind of crucifixion: a curiously powerful play on our relationship with the pesky weed.
Much of Bay’s other work featured in her portfolio also attains a more complex means of communicating the interplay between humans, the facades we craft, and the unapologetic natural world that crashes against it, be it flora or weather, than can be uncovered in the Woolworth installation.
I was left perplexed as to why Bay didn’t bring the same kind of curiosity, exploration and fearlessness to Bramble. Instead of the instability inherent in the finished piece feeling like a challenge, an infestation, to the sterility of the Woolworth window as stage and canvas, it feels instead like the sterility won.
Bramble couldn’t stand up to the setting, rendering what could have been the luxuriant and riotous nature of the brambles ultimately fruitless and futile.
Although Bay’s desire to convey the link between civilization and nature is quite apparent, the audience is left to conclude for themselves whether the artist is serious about creating an air of professionalism towards her practice through the use of medium/skill level.
Perhaps Bay’s installation could have been worthy of the Woolworth windows had she pushed herself as well as her audience to think not only on the ungovernable complexity of nature as it runs up against the strained conventions of civilization, but also to consider what impact the natural world has on the ultimate ruin of edifice.
In considering three aspects when developing an installation (nature, civilization and the relationship the two have on each other in the physical world), instead of two, the setting of the piece suddenly becomes an essential consideration. In resolving concept with setting and construction, the depth and exploration found in her other installations could have resonated in the Woolworth window as well.
Although ultimately Bramble didn’t succeed as a large-scale installation, Amy Bay’s vision, curiosity and developing talent make her a Northwest artist to watch. I look forward to her next installations and hope to come across one soon.