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Highly Hospitable to Art

In addition to checking out a book this month, check out the world-class public art at the new Central Library downtown

The new San Diego Central Library

All nine floors of the new Central Library have art on the walls, and occasionally on the floor. Commissioned works, large and small, have been smoothly integrated into its interior. Architect Rob Quigley has designed a public destination that is decisively hospitable to art.

The Art Gallery resides on the ninth floor. The inaugural show is Renewed: A Short Story About the San Diego Public Library’s Visual Arts Program (through March 29) and it was organized by Kathryn Kanjo, Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. The show pays tribute to this program, established by librarian and former art critic Mark-Elliott Lugo in 1997 and developed by him with great success through 2012, when he retired.

The gallery is handsome and well suited to the small and medium scale works on view. Kanjo has included some of San Diego’s better-known artists, eight in all. Gail Roberts’ seductive paintings depict magnified versions of bird nests superimposed on pages from classic literary texts that speak of feathered creatures. Photography is particularly strong: Philipp Scholz Rittermann’s tightly composed landscapes and Suda House’s sensuous compositions featuring fabric both make beautiful use of line and form. A pair of Jeff Irwin’s masterful sculptures in glazed earthenware depicts animal heads in the manner of grotesque hunters’ trophies.

Unfortunately, though, Kanjo’s concept for the show feels like a half-hearted tribute to Lugo’s program. The only connection between what he achieved and what she chose is this: the exhibited artists also appeared in one or another of Lugo’s exhibitions at the Pacific Beach branch. Surely some of the history of what he exhibited, during his 15-year run, could have been integrated into the works selected.

The gallery and the spaces outside its doors are united by the presence of Kenneth Capps’ sculptures. There is a judicious sampling of them: slender vertical works in his zinc on steel Prism series are one of the highlights, alternating closed and open space with grace and elegance. It was Lugo’s desire to exhibit Capps’ work when the library opened, a wish that was wisely fulfilled.

Lugo had accumulated some 150 works that are now part of the Civic Art Collection. Many examples, supplemented by other gifts to the collection, can be found on every floor. Dana Springs, longtime public art program manager of the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture as well as it current interim executive director, worked with consultant Christine Jones—and together they created a deft installation of them throughout the library. 

The eclectic mix is accessible, but a few works will stretch some visitors’ assumptions about art. Lugo championed one of San Diego’s homegrown conceptual artists, the late Russell Baldwin—some acquired were examples; others were gifted from a collection. There are 13 Baldwins in all, at various locales. At their best, they are beautiful objects that double as little philosophical essays about art and life. The installation of a pair of them, near the elevator bay on the second floor, is particularly inspired.

The central elevator bay is sure to attract attention for another reason: the immensely gifted brothers Einar and Jamex de la Torre have created a large-scale permanent work, Corpus Callosum, which mostly resides within it. They funnel their virtuosic cut- and blown-glass techniques into the creation of grotesque, cartoonish figures that populate intricate hallucinatory dioramas.

The de la Torre brothers, who split their time between San Diego and Ensenada, aren’t the only widely recognized locals with a major commission in the Central Library. There is also Roy McMakin’s Recreations of Furniture Found Discarded in Alleys and on Curbs While Driving Around San Diego Several Bright Summer Afternoons with David.  Take the artist at his word(s). These objects, in a festive blue located on the eighth floor, are only the latest of his brilliant “recycling” projects.

Two more excellent public commissions underscore the success of art within the Central Library. New York-based Donald Lipski, widely known for public commissions, made 2,000 books into a cross between a sculptural relief and a found form mural. Hiding My Candy is in the library’s auditorium and it has a serendipitous function—as a sound dampener. Seattle artist Gary Hill, justly celebrated for his visually arresting video installations with highly philosophical scripts, has created a multi-screen mediation on mortality that bears repeated viewing.

A bit of advice for the dedicated art seeker: travel to all corners of some floors. It is part of the charm of this exemplary new civic space that art sometimes appears where you don’t expect to find it.

 
—ROBERT L. PINCUS, our resident art critic, reviewed the paintings, sculptures, and installations
on all nine floors of the new Central Library.
 

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