“Who has access to space, both public and private?” Liz Glynn says she wants to ask with “Open House,” her public artwork on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue Mall. “What kind of city do we want to live in in the future?”
The artwork, on view between Kenmore Square and Charlesgate through Nov. 4, places a group of cast-concrete copies of luxurious Louis the XIV sofas, footstools, chairs and arches into the plaza. The sculptural grouping can feel like a monument or a mausoleum. Or like the wealthy denizens of Wall Street have occupied the public promenade.
In fact, they’re Glynn’s recreation of the furnishings of the opulent end of the 19th century ballroom in the Manhattan mansion of William C. Whitney (1841-1904), a New York real estate developer, financier, and coal and steel magnate who served as Secretary of the Navy under President Grover Cleveland. “Judged by any of the tests applicable to a human career, William C. Whitney must be considered one of the most remarkable men the country has ever produced,” The New York Times gushed when he died.
The ballroom (which was demolished with the rest of the Fifth Avenue mansion in the 1940s) was designed by the architect Stanford White, who, Glynn notes, designed half a dozen residences in this Back Bay neighborhood as well as the Hotel Buckminster in Kenmore Square.
For Glynn, Whitney’s ballroom epitomizes the opulence and “cut-throat” social world of the late 19th century Gilded Age. She aims to transform it into a “public living room” in concrete, which she calls “a material of the people. It’s a poor material. It’s a material that was used in utopian public housing projects at the turn of the last century.”
“The piece is challenging the city in some ways,” Glynn says, to look for ways of “making a more equitable future.”
“Open House” was originally commissioned by New York’s Public Art Fund and debuted outdoors at the southeast corner of Manhattan’s Central Park from March 1 through Sept. 24, 2016. It was brought here by the Boston independent public art curators Now + There, led by executive director Kate Gilbert.
“It’s a really different space,” Glynn says of this Boston presentation. In New York, the art was displayed at one of the entrances to Central Park, “a pass-through” space. The Commonwealth Avenue Mall is a “much more intimate site. … It feels more room-like.”
Glynn grew up in Braintree, Massachusetts, studied at Harvard University, moved to New York in 2003, then to Los Angeles in 2006 to attend graduate school at CalArts, and still lives in L.A.
Her breakout piece was “24 Hour Roman Reconstruction Project, or, Building Rome in a Day” in the 2009 group exhibition “The Generational: Younger Than Jesus” at New York’s New Museum. In the museum’s lobby, she and friends built a model of the ancient city from cardboard and the like and then destroyed it.
She’s since made pyramids of wooden shipping palettes, evocations of classical vases, a wrecked wooden ship, wooden obelisques, and an installation ruminating on the passions and fights between the Spanish and Incas for gold. Her art often evokes archaeology, ruins, reproductions, hundreds of years gone by. At the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Massachusetts, through Labor Day, she’s filled the museum’s gargantuan Building 5 with “The Archaeology of Another Possible Future,” which the museum touts as “her largest and most ambitious project to date.” It offers installations of scrap metal, shipping containers, reclaimed cast-iron columns, and pyramids built from stacked shipping palettes.
When she began making “Open House” for New York, she says, “I started looking at the history of Central Park.” Much focuses on Frederick Law Olmsted’s landmark design. But in the 1980s, she found commentary that “the people using the park were a problem, people were like vermin. …. I always thought that public parks were for everyone.”
“We’ve reached the type of economic inequality not seen since the Gilded Age and the economic thinking suggests the [income] gap is only going to grow greater,” Glynn says. “I’m not a policy-maker. I’m just an artist. It’s creating a space for everyone to ask these questions, like what kind of city does Boston want to be in the future?”
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