Archive for San Francisco Civic Center

San Francisco’s Upper Crust

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Public Art, Sculpture, Site Work with tags , , , , on February 18, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2009. All Rights Reserved

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All photos in this post—Patrick Dougherty, Upper Crust, 2009, willow branches, Joseph L. Alioto Performing Arts Piazza, San Francisco (photos ©Liz Hager).

In the dead of a West Coast winter, when violent squalls relentlessly pummel us for days on end, any hint of gentler spring is a welcome thing. Thanks to the San Francisco Arts Commission and artist Patrick Dougherty, the sycamore trees at the Joseph L. Alioto Performing Arts Piazza (between City Hall and the Library) are already bursting with new growth. Through the magic of arboreal hair extensions, Dougherty has enhanced the pollarded trees with glorious crowns of willow saplings woven into fanciful swirling shapes. Huge hats, as the title of the piece—Upper Crust—suggests. The finished piece is a site-specific sculpture that runs roughly 150 long and eight feet high. It is such a convincingly natural integration that a pedestrian passing the installation work last Friday asked this VR contributor whether the trees grew this way. If only!

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The sapling weave is Dougherty’s signature style. In the case of Upper Crust, the finger- to wrist-sized willow saplings (supplied by Pescadero Farm) were assembled in a process not unlike the one described by the artist about a previous work:

The first phase is to harvest some bigger saplings which I put firmly into the ground to serve as a structural base. Next I imagine my sticks as lines with which to draw, and I pull piles of young saplings through these structural supports. This builds up a beautiful surface which looks much like a line drawing on a sheet of paper. Finally I “erase” or hide the blemishes with flourishes of very small sticks.

Actually, beyond the artist these large pieces require a small crew (often local volunteers) to execute. SFAC first presented Dougherty with a bunker-style building on Chrissy Field. The artist saw too many serious logistical problems with that site, and the project relocated to Alioto Piazza. Actually, the city may have benefited from the move. In 2006, Dougherty executed an ambitious and fanciful facade for the Max Azria boutique in LA. It’s difficult to imagine topping that in another venue, so perhaps San Francisco ended up with a really special Dougherty. Additionally, a striking and unusual “conversation piece” is good news for the underutilized Alioto Piazza.

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Upper Crust evokes natural objects—bird nests, hay stacks, cocoons, and beehives. But it also reminds us of man-made objects including unruly baskets, gnome hats, African huts, Hobbit houses, crone cottages, and even the Marie Antoinette (or Marge Simpson for that matter) coif. It cannot be coincidence that so many of the associations in Dougherty’s artwork hark back to childhood, as this is when the artist discovered his muse material: “Picking up a stick back then {i.e. in his childhood} and bending it seemed to give me big ideas, and I was able to capitalize on those childhood urges from long ago.”

Dougherty began his career making pedestal-size sculptures from sticks but his work quickly evolved to monumental scale. In part because they both fashion wood into natural forms, there will be the inevitable comparison of Dougherty to Andy Goldsworthy.  It would seem that wood is the only point on which the two converge. First, Goldsworthy works with a broad array of materials, while Dougherty works only with wood saplings. Further, Goldsworthy’s site works are all about impermanence. Even with his longer lasting structures—Spire in the Presidio or Stone River for example—the point is still the gradual decay (disappearance) of the piece, albeit centuries for certain materials.

Dougherty’s work is paradoxical. On the one hand, Upper Crust, like the shelter structures it conjures up, is a deliberate and methodical construction. On the other hand, it’s dynamic, all about movement.  A frenetic energy courses through Upper Crust. It’s as if a tornado had whisked through the allée, whipping the tree branches into disheveled peaks.  In this chaotic state, the work exudes agitation.

As a site-specific piece made from natural materials, Upper Crust is a unique in the world of public artwork.  It enlivens and invigorates what is for all intent an invisible public space.  One hopes that citizens will pause a few moments from their normal rush through (or around) Alioto Piazza to contemplate Dougherty’s work. . .  allow their imaginations, like those absent birds, to take flight.

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Upper Crust is one of a series of artworks in SFAC’s ongoing program for the plaza. The artwork will be in situ until November 2009.

Patrick Dougherty will talk about the work on Monday, February 23rd at 6:30 PM to 8:00 PM in City Hall (public welcome).

Wider Connections

Patrick Dougherty’s website

More Dougherty images

Out of the Cellar (video), Brittany

Arrival of materials truck

Manolo Valdés at Alioto Piazza

Venetian Red on Andy Goldsworthy

Childhood Dreams, the process of constructing a Patrick Dougherty

San Francisco Arts Commission

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