New public sculpture welcomes students to MSU

Over the summer, several new sculptures went up as a result of new construction or renovation on the MSU campus. All of them skirt the postmodern shoals of being too representational and kitschy on the one hand, and too challenging and abstract on the other.

One hidden jewel is well worth seeking out: world-renowned metalsmith Albert Paley’s painted steel gates on the north and south ends of Beal Gardens.

Those who choose to wander under the rare trees and tended rows of MSU’s most venerable gardens must now pass through a heavy, tangled mass of vaguely vegetal spikes and spears. Paley, who lives and works in Rochester, New York, has won awards for nature-inspired art that ranges in size from jewelry to monumental outdoor sculptures. He has a special knack for portals, gates and fences that braid human necessities with natural forms. His Beal Garden gates are stunning in their complexity when viewed up close, but take a few steps away and their dark, flat forms merge with the shadows.

MSU Public Art on Campus Committee, created in 1999, dedicates 0.5 percent of the cost of major renovations on campus — capped at $250,000 per building — to art. So far, over 80 art works of various sizes and styles have been installed all over campus under the program, many of them big and bold.

MSU’s growing stable of sculptures ranges from the sledgehammer whimsy of New York artist Will Ryman’s “The Bird,” an elephant-sized quail made of massive nails installed last year in a courtyard near the Student Services Building, to the so-banal-it’s-compelling statue of former MSU President John Hannah, briefcase in hand, striding to work at the Administration Building. Sculptures commissioned under the Public Art on Campus program have striven largely for mood-enhancing uplift ever since “Funambulist,” an abstract work by New York sculptor John van Alstine near the Snyder-Phillips residence halls, received a hostile reception a decade ago.

The most conspicuous of MSU’s newest sculptures is “Victoria,” a towering accordion of arches by Curtis Pittman, installed two weeks ago next to the Breslin Center along Harrison Road.

MSU is finishing a major renovation of the plaza surrounding the Breslin Center, and “Victoria” is the crowning touch. Pittman, who is based in Portland, Oregon, is both an architect and an artist, and his mastery of both disciplines is evident in the sculpture’s Gothic, ribbed arches and the play of light and color between them. Pittman called “Victoria” a symbolic torch to Sparta, and to “victory in academia.”

Just across the street from “Victoria,” Cliff Garten’s “Junipers,” resembling twin tornadoes of stainless steel, form a gateway to the latest large-scale campus development, 1855 Place, and its new market at the corner of Kalamazoo Street and Harrison Road. Garten’s workshop in Los Angeles spins out delicate-looking but tough, stainless steel webs that festoon parks, bridges, buildings and other public areas around the world. Garten said the sculptures at MSU were inspired by the Eastern Red Cedar trees along the river.

And there is more art to come.

Gavin Kata, an interior design student at MSU, won a competition to design a set of stainless steel, perforated panels that will be installed on the newly refurbished bridge across the Red Cedar River leading to the main library. “River Reflections, Autumn” will be in place this fall.