What’s In Your Yard?
This is the second of three features on stuff we stick in our yards. Read the first here.—Ed.
“Dogs. If I could just get more dogs!”
So says Doug McDonald, the affable manager of the Garden Room, located at 2107 E. Capitol Drive. The Fidos of which he speaks are cast in various materials (for example, concrete). They stand in various local yards and do not require pooper-scoopers.
I wandered onto the Garden Room’s website on a day in May, bound to click a few jpegs of statuary and glean some wisdom about what’s hot in the world of lawn ornaments. Also, I wanted the manager’s input on why people decorate their yards (and apartment/condo balconies) with stuff. McDonald is surrounded by stuff, enough to satisfy almost every yen, though alas! No pink flamingos, which he deems “too kitschy.”
I did find faux dogs huddled together in a corner, specifically two: a wiener dog and a Scottie doggie, and later on I came upon a statuary pooch resting on a statuary rug near what appeared to be a slender-snouted concrete whippet. “Animals are by far my best sellers,” McDonald says. “Rabbits, squirrels, birds, frogs, hedgehogs, etc., but dogs outsell all other animals.” Problem is, he can’t seem to find enough (miniature poodles in particular) to fill the demand. Poodles were uber-fashionable in the late 60s & 70s, so maybe the quest for faux ones is to memorialize mammalian pets that tanked of natural causes in decades past.
McDonald acknowledges the Brits have an edge on the figurative stuff, much of it made in a town near Birmingham, England. Known as the “Classic” look, they’re hot in our own North Shore area. People come in to his store not knowing for sure which “look” suits them best, and the affable McDonald helps customers decide between fat Buddhas, burbling fountains, carved garden benches, dainty birdhouses and more. Note to aspiring entrepreneurs: people do pay attention to what’s in their wallet, and most garden ornament shoppers are unlikely to peel off mega dollars for yard embellishments. If they’re going to drop serious cash, they shop for a major sculpture from a major art gallery.
McDonald tours me around the first floor while I snap photos of gnomes, mushrooms, and fragile arrangements of gazing globes. A creature resembling a Beastie catches my eye, but it’s not the real McCoy: it’s a version made in Italy and you can see it in the background shots of Korean Air television commercials.
On floor two is a roof garden awash with pots of all sizes and shapes intermingled with a heron fashioned from wire, an assortment of welded animal sculptures, a stately rooster memorialized while crowing, and what’s this?…a statue of Thomas Jefferson, or at least someone who dresses like him, perfect for a lawyer’s yard. Here and there semi-draped nymphs romp in celebration of spring.
A local artist told me a harrowing tale about cleaning out his mom’s house after she died. It was filled, every nook and cranny inside and out, with concrete sculptures. Apparently the lady shopped thrice weekly for things to fill spaces, perhaps as a way of dealing with her “empty nest.” The aforementioned artist divided the mass of stuff into three categories and sold it as “rummage” on three weekends. People came in droves.
Local writer and photographer Tom Bamberger has suggested that many of our spaces (Gordon Park, for example) are best left untouched. Unfortunately Gordon Park got a full dose of “lawn ornamentation” when the awful “Tip” sculpture was lugged in and called “public art.” The overwrought, arty sculpture (some call it a “cage”) plugged into the turf of Catalano Park in the Third Ward is equally numbing, again in the name of public art… Frankly, some of the best stuff to come around in a long time is the clever, upbeat temporary installations recently installed by UW-Milwaukee architecture students.
Anyway, all of this set me wondering: is a modest pink flamingo less or more interesting than one of the gigantic art sculptures visible along N. Lakeshore Drive? You know… the ones that shout “Look! I’m art!” If it’s big you want because you think “bigger is better,” then visit Chicago’s “Flamingo” sculpture by Alexander Calder. I can envision a gigantic gnome in a conical hat standing near Wisconsin Ave., can’t you? If you go to Burns Park on Prospect Avenue, there is a Beverly Pepper sculpture some claim resembles a giant spade. Perfectly sited, it works in the small park and doesn’t seem to obstruct the Frisbees flying through space on any given sunny day.
The ultimate doggie lawn ornament opened to the public on May 10th, not here, but in Greenwich, Conn. Jeff Koons, an artist with wit, has installed a ten-foot “Balloon Dog (Orange).” According to the May 4,2009 issue of The New Yorker magazine, the “knots and puckerings have been exquisitely rendered in steel…” Well, you get the idea….art can be hilarious. The closest Milwaukee has come to a taste of good taste was Dennis Oppenheim’s Blue Shirt sculpture, which yes, was not only fun but a sensational concept meant to be installed at Mitchell International Field. The idea was hung out to dry by misguided politicians. The Bronze Fonz is intended to be fun, but it is bad art at its baddest bad. And yes, you can chuck Gertie The Duck & her Ducklings stuck on the Wisconsin Avenue bridge.
Will anything rewarding and enriching come from the recent panel addressing public art, sponsored by MARN at Bucketworks? It’s doubtful. Trust me, I’ve sat on similar panels over the past two decades. Lots of lips flapping, but no one ever quite agrees on who gets to be boss of all the artsy applesauce. And so it goes…