Artist Arlene Shechet has been commissioned by Madison Square Park Conservancy to create a new site-specific installation for the Park, on view from September 25, 2018, through April 28, 2019. Marking the Conservancy’s thirty-seventh exhibition and the artist’s first major public art project, Full Steam Ahead features a series of new sculptures in porcelain, wood, steel, and cast iron installed around and within the emptied circular reflecting pool in the north of Madison Square Park.
“Arlene Shechet may be best known for her work in ceramic, but she is also established as a risk taker, an artist who pushes and advances materials and content to the edge and into humor,” said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, exhibition curator and Deputy Director and Martin Friedman Senior Curator of Mad. Sq. Art. “In Full Steam Ahead, Arlene extends the possibilities of ceramic in terms of form and scale, uniting a traditionally interior vocabulary with new materials and within the Park’s changing landscape. By disputing long-held expectations for materials, for sites, and for assumed behavior, Shechet is charting new possibilities for outdoor public sculpture.”
For Full Steam Ahead, Shechet reconfigures the Park’s emptied circular reflecting pool with a series of sculptures, designing the space as an outdoor room or what Shechet calls “a manufactured version of nature.” Her installation straddles function and art by including seating for conversation, fostering interaction within the Park’s teeming urban site. Initially inspired by memories of the sunken living room in her grandparents’ apartment, she encourages visitors to step into the reflecting pool to linger and reflect.
Along the pathways and perimeter of the reflecting pool, Shechet has chosen to realize human-scale sculpture to relate to the physical presence of traversing visitors, utilizing forms that reflect her interest in historical decorative arts and are suggestive of flora and fauna: the outsized remnants of a lion’s head and paw; remains of a bird’s colossal feather displayed high on a pedestal as an ominous trophy; and tree-like sculptures and branches in cast iron. As visitors walk around the installation, they will discern deliberate contradiction in Shechet’s work: figuration and abstraction, humor and narrative, mass and immateriality, innovation and extinction.
Arlene Shechet said: “My hope has been to reimagine the hardscape of the Park with delight and surprise. New Yorkers rely on the sidewalks, the pavement, and the street as the core of their urban lives. Full Steam Ahead becomes a lively and human amphitheater, softening the hardscape through sculptural intervention evocative of 18th-century garden landscapes.”
Shechet is best known for her work in ceramic and porcelain, materials considered fragile and precious. In Full Steam Ahead, she uproots that perception with breakout examples of porcelain bringing the material to a new level in terms of scale and form. Recent residencies at the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory in Saxony and at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan reflect the artist’s fascination with two previously unconnected sites for porcelain fabrication and her interest in the delight and discovery of eighteenth-century decorative arts and twenty-first century industrial production of sinks and bathtubs. The project also includes work in Krion, cast iron, steel, brass, concrete and wood.
The title Full Steam Ahead takes inspiration from the distinguished 1880 bronze monument to Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, the collaboration of architect Stanford White and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Admiral Farragut is best-known for his naval victory against the Confederacy at the Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War when he commanded: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” Shechet acknowledges and critiques the centrality of historic nineteenth-century monuments devoted to male statesmen and heroes by placing a hand-carved wood sculpture of a female figure on the monument’s steps adjacent to the carved base of two typological reliefs of women named Loyalty and Courage.
The Conservancy’s Executive Director Keats Myer said: “We are greatly anticipating Arlene Shechet’s Full Steam Ahead in the Park this fall and into the winter and springtime. She is creating a magical installation in the emptied basin of our reflecting pool, encouraging visitors to engage with the sculpture and with each other within the shifts across the seasons.”
Full Steam Ahead is organized by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Deputy Director and Martin Friedman Senior Curator of Mad. Sq. Art, Julia Friedman, Senior Curatorial Manager, Tom Reidy, Senior Project Manager, and Tessa Ferreyros, Curatorial Manager.