Does private equal public in art?


Skyline's new gallery exhibit, Private = Public, features prominent public work artists and will be open until March 18, 2011. (Robyn Graham)

Does private equal public? Per their dictionary definitions, obviously not. But what about in the art world? Do artists who are commissioned to do murals, for instance, also do murals in their own time?

It seems so for muralist Megan Wilson, one of the six prominently known public artists featured at Skyline’s new gallery, Private = Public. Wilson’s colorful wall painting of swirls and heart shapes splayed across a quarter of the gallery hold the same enigmatic presence as the photographs of her public murals displayed next to it for comparison.

The wall painting is the first thing one sees upon entering the gallery, and its fluid shapes seem to naturally point around the room, first to Jet Martinez’s light reflection paintings and Johanna Poethig’s post-apocalyptic impressions, then to the playful yet serious mixed media of John Wehrle, and then to abstract sculptures created by William Wareham and Robert Orbital. These eventually lead back to Wilson’s wall hearts, titled “Meditation on the Value of Nothing.”

So, is there a difference between private and public work? Paul Bridenbaugh says that commissioned work (public) and studio work (private) are both meant to have an audience, so neither can be truly private. And as artist Robert Orbital explained, the difference is that one is seen by more people than the other.

For example, Orbital’s commissioned work in the Oakland airport is seen by millions of travelers every year, so he had to create a piece that could withstand the heavy foot traffic and stay structurally sound. To achieve this, he placed a glass barrier in front of his work “I am you, he is she…,” a large thumb print (his own) in mirrored Mylar, to protect the delicacy of the finger lines.

Orbital’s private work featured at Skyline lacks the protective barrier, and a viewer can accidentally brush up against his sculpture “Cartographer’s Dilemma: Charting a Sneeze” because of the wires and foam that stick out in all directions. Even with the foot traffic challenges, Orbital says his approach is the same for all his work.

“When I make a public art commission, I try and bring the same amount of questioning and rigor,” Orbital said.

Artist Johanna Poethig noted that foot traffic affected her public work also but not to the point where she felt restricted, saying that public work is site specific: for a particular place and community and with a certain material.

Poethig’s public work is also featured elsewhere at Skyline; the mosaic pillars next to the bookstore reflect the school with words from Skyline’s mission statement. Seeing the pillars next to her paintings of a futuristic society after an apocalypse reveals the most visual difference between public and private art at the exhibit.

“You can go a lot wilder in your private work and be a lot odder and pour through the different recesses of your imagination,” Poethig said.

John Wehrle’s wooden sculptures are also imaginative; in his piece “Rabbit Ears,” there is a bunny being pulled out of a television. His featured studio work shows his reflection on war and media and draws from his army service in Vietnam, where he served as a combat artist documenting the war.

He has made a living creating public artwork for 30 years, and he looks at the difference between private and public from a monetary standpoint.

“It’s a little bit like an architect with a client; you can build any building you want, but someone has to pay for it,” Wehrle said.

Private = Public will be open until March 18. The gallery is located in building 1 next to parking lot E. Gallery hours are: Monday-Tuesday 1-7 p.m., Wednesday 1-5 p.m., Thursday 2-4 p.m., Friday 10 a.m.-12 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and closed on Sunday.