onuments are old stomping grounds for artists. Whether they are erected as straightforward commissions or co-opted to say something cheeky about authority, the practice of lending physical permanence to transitional power will always be a part of the artistic landscape as long as it is a part of the political one. “Who is in charge here?” is a question we will never get tired of asking.
When I was married, when I lived in a big house, there was (still is) a smallish, boxy, columned monument at the entrance of my neighborhood in honor of Francis Griffith Newlands, a former Nevada Senator. My daughter and I would walk by it on the way to the “new new dog park” each week—just another stone-faced historic structure in a row of stone-faced historic houses. I must have passed by it a hundred times, but never gave it a second thought until a few months ago when Jared Stanley came out with Shall, his latest art/poetry book, whose subject is the Newlands object.
In it, Stanley scrambles the original text on the face of the monument—a riff of Isaiah 35—to rethink both the intended legacy of the senator (he helped create the U.S. Bureau of Land Reclamation, which brought industrial agriculture to the Western United States) and the actual legacy of the senator (he pioneered a model of racist land development that would eventually lead to the practice of red-lining in African American communities).
The original inscription on the monument reads:
In the wilderness shall
waters break out and
streams in the desert
the desert shall rejoice
and blossom as the rose
mountains and hills shall
break forth before you
into singing and a highway
shall be there and a way
for wayfaring men the
people shall dwell in
quiet and assurance
An excerpt from Stanley’s version:
Break the shall
The people shall desert
The blossom desert quiet
Desert the wayfaring
Roses and hills and
Waters and singing and
Highways and mountains
And streams and no
Stanley’s re-ordered text (which he puts together in a series of bound paper rubbings) retains the cadence of religious command while perverting Newlands’ version of domesticated wilderness to “bewilderness forever.” Newlands’ dream of greening the desert is replaced by an anarchic dream of the desert while “shall” is stripped of its imperative and never replaced. Or maybe it’s just reinstated with a lack of intention, a void where only uncertainty can stand next to words like “forever.”
It seems fitting, too, that the disassembly of this monument is temporary—printed on paper instead of etched in stone.
A mile east of the Newlands sculpture, Edi Rama, the prime minister of Albania, also uses paper to subvert the powers that be. In his first solo museum exhibition in the United States, Rama, a former painting professor, transforms the Casazza Gallery in the Nevada Museum of Art into WORK—a replica installation of Rama’s prime ministerial office, a space whose walls are papered with the artist’s own colorful, serialized drawings, occasionally interrupted by 3-dimensional ceramic sculptures.
Usually a place imbued with a sense of dignity and importance, a government office is designed to look reserved and traditional, formal, but not too flashy. Stodgy, like the Newlands monument. If it has artwork, it’s forgettable. If it has wallpaper, it’s paisley or French toile. Rama’s doodle-wallpaper might resemble the size and rotating pattern of large paisleys, but instead of muted burgundies and tepid greens fading into the background, his bright, bold colors stand in sharp contrast to the white walls.
If you get closer you’ll notice that the drawings also cover up documents. Printed memos, agendas, official state correspondence, and Post-its—all masked by doodles that range from animal and botanical shapes to landscape design-like maps and non-figurative viscera of color.
Like Stanley’s Shall, the strength of the work comes from its opposing relationship to the white-knuckling power structures that precede it. Albanian communism and its censorship? Yes. American patriarchy and its erasure? For sure. But more broadly, I think both artists are concerned with the illusion that words etched in stone and printed on watermarked documents mean more than poems and pictures do. The myth that reading something will lead a person to a place of greater understanding when they get to the end of a sentence, a paragraph, a page.
Words don’t always win out. Government documents—with their deliberately neutered language—are often written to be as ambiguous as possible, leaving less room for outrage and more room for interpretation or just plain disregard. Rama’s drawings further obfuscate any meaning hidden in the text with lines and color. One doodle redacts information about the economic impact of digital payment systems with the likeness of a bird, blue and purple evil eye mutations, and fiery blotches of yellow. Another superimposes what looks like an island (or maybe it’s a heart) with mountains and lakes (or colorful chambers) over a parliamentary agenda. Unlike words on a page, all can be understood in different ways and all at once, as gestalt instead of linear comprehension.
And since Rama famously creates his drawings during actual meetings, the title WORK has added effect—highlighting both the contradictory impulse to let your mind wander in order to focus as well as the prime minister’s larger pattern of mixing art and politics.
As a lasting monument, WORK is an extension of Rama’s unconventional approach to the major infrastructure problems he dealt with in the capital city of Tirana, where he served as mayor from 2000-2011. Confronted with grey and crumbling communist-era buildings, a 4% tax collection rate, a total of 78 functioning streetlights in the entire city, and very little money to work with, Rama opted to paint the facades of downtown buildings with bright colors and patterns as a kind of signal to residents that transformation was coming.
The response was overwhelmingly positive. In the years that followed, the tax collection rate went from 4% to 100%, greenspace cropped up where illegal buildings were torn down, and the capital turned into what Rama often refers to as a “city of choice” rather than a city of circumstance. Unsurprisingly, Rama was reelected for two more terms as mayor before going onto become prime minister.
Here’s what happens when your mayor is an artist.
Next to Rama’s installation is the Small Works Gallery, where a short film on Reno public art runs on a loop. It features interviews with public art facilitators and video of well known downtown sculptures such as the Space Whale, the Believe sculpture, and perhaps the widest-reaching public art initiative in Reno—the “Art Signals” project, where local artists are commissioned to paint traffic signal boxes across the city, funded by the 2% for Public Art Program.
Three blocks east of the museum, one of these signal boxes is painted to look like an aspen grove. The artist, Clairissa Stephens, a former MFA student at the University of Nevada-Reno, is one of about 50 artists who were commissioned to recast to these normally grey, formerly graffiti-targeted mini monuments.
Six blocks north of the museum, another box is painted to look like a wooden fort. Although it was created by local artist Mike Lucido, the cartoon boards seem to be the (poor) handiwork of Rad Raccoon, Lucido’s familiar flagship character. On two sides of the box, Rad Raccoon can be seen enjoying pizza and dangling an old fish bone out a window.
What exactly do these boxes exalt? Beautiful forests? Pizza? Being a rascal? At the very least, the city is injecting the idea of public art with the weight of one very overfed raccoon. But as commemorative structures, monuments have a second purpose of acting as linking objects for things we’ve lost—people, places, and whole eras.
Based on the theory of transitional object attachment—which refers to the comfort objects we have as children which move us from mother to genuine object relationships—monuments can be seen as a mediating presence to help us reconcile our inner reality with external life. For events we ourselves did not experience, monuments serve the purpose of helping us imagine and often idealize or romanticize certain moments in time.
The Francis G. Newlands monument will always be a memorial to its namesake, but given its neoclassical columns and font, it can also be interpreted as a double nod to both the Age of Enlightenment and the virtues of the ancient Greeks and Romans that Age of Enlightenment artists sought to recapture. Rama’s citywide beautification initiative was dubbed “the renaissance” to hearken back images of both the golden ages of the European and Albanian Renaissances. The traffic signal boxes are separate commemorations —with each artist choosing what they want to mourn. The loss of trees, the age of Saturday morning cartoons. The end of graffiti. The end of drawing just to draw.
Edi Rama’s WORK is at the Nevada Museum of Art through April 12.
On March 6, Vivian Zavataro and Megan Berner will give a related lunchtime talk at the Nevada Museum of art titled “Public Art and Urban Redevelopment.”
Poet Jared Stanley will give a talk and sound performance at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village on Jan. 9. Shall, his limited-edition, hand-bound poetry book, is available from Black Rock Press.
Learn more about the City of Reno’s “Art Signals” project here.