So I took a walk last Friday evening. Like most of my walks, there wasn’t any real plan or itinerary. I just start in a direction and wander. Sometimes I see interesting things; sometimes I don’t. I try not to expect too much, but I generally assume I’ll notice something intriguing along the way. And if I don’t, pffft. I had a nice walk anyway.
This walk led me first to the Pappajohn sculpture garden. This used to be a scruffy neighborhood filled with tire warehouses and muffler dealers and small sewing machine repair shops. Now it’s a four and a half acre park — not quite in the heart of downtown Des Moines, but close. Call it the left subclavian artery of downtown Des Moines.
At the bottom of the frame in the photograph above you can see Spider by Louise Bourgeois, which I’m told is a portrait of her mother. Go figure sculptors.
I like modern art. Usually when you hear somebody say ‘I like modern art’ you can count on those four words being followed with a fifth: but. And that’s true this time. I like modern art, but I’m not always impressed by collections of modern art unless there’s some coherence to the collection. And that’s my problem with the Pappajohn sculpture park.
There’s a lot of wonderful work here. There’s an interesting De Kooning, a wonderfully weird pair of malformed heads by Ugo Rondinone, a couple of elegant and graceful bronze horses by Deborah Butterfield, and a cheerfully goofy latticework humanoind form by Jaume Plensa. A lot of good work. But there doesn’t seem to be anything to connect the sculptures thematically except that they’re modern.
It feels random, tossed together, aimless. Don’t get me wrong; I like the sculpture park. It just feels like a tax dodge.
A block or so away from the Pappajohn sculpture garden you can find the sort of businesses that used to inhabit that area. Small businesses surrounded by chain link fences topped with barbed wire, maybe patrolled by a beefy dog. Places like this auto-body shop. It’s not as pretty as the sculpture park, to be sure, but it’s a lot more consistent and internally coherent. Everything here feels like it belongs; the sculpture garden feels like it was placed there.
Give it another thirty or forty years and the Pappajohn garden will probably feel more organic. Probably. Maybe.
The walk ended near St. Ambrose Cathedral, where they were holding evening services. The only thing the cathedral has in common with the body shop is that they both feel natural and authentic where they are. St. Ambrose has been around for more than a century and a half. It began as a log hut, dedicated to St. Ambrose because of his tireless work against the Arian heresy (and our boy Ambrose must have been pretty effective because I doubt if many people have ever heard of the Arian heresy these days).
It was a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. I was determined to learn what I could about the Arian heresy when I got home. But after about fifteen minutes of reading about the internecine squabbles of 4th century Christians over whether or not Jesus had an existence before he was born, I decided to have a beer and watch television.