Public art is a standard feature in most large cities across the U.S. and in much of the world. Art that is made freely available for everyone to enjoy in public places takes many forms: painting, photography, architecture, sculpture, graffiti, and even performance. Like many tourists, I tend to take photographs of public art when I am visiting cities, and I have collected images from New York, San Francisco, Phoenix, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Rome, and London to name a few. One of the more interesting pieces I found may not be so well known, although the artist is rather prolific. One evening in 2011 when my wife and I were walking the streets of Chicago headed out for dinner, we wondered through a section of the city known as Streeterville, a neighborhood roughly east of the Magnificent Mile that serves as the gateway to the Navy Pier. I was struck by a piece of bronze sculpture we saw at the northern end of Streeterville, at E. Chestnut Street next to the landmark Hancock Center.
When I first saw Jaume Plensa’s “Self Portrait with Tree” on the sidewalk, my first thought was to make a joke, an annoying habit of mine. I turned to my wife and said, “Now that is truly a man of letters.” My apologies — please keep reading. Plensa is one of the featured artists of the Richard Gray Gallery. With its main location on North Michigan Avenue and another on Madison Avenue in New York, Richard Gray Gallery is mostly a collector’s gallery and focuses its attention on attracting buyers. According to the gallery’s website, Plensa is one of the world’s foremost sculptors working in the public space, with over 30 projects spanning the globe in such cities as Chicago, Dubai, London, Liverpool, Nice, Tokyo, Toronto, and Vancouver. He was born in 1955 in Barcelona, where he studied at the Llotja School of Art and Design and at the Sant Jordi School of Fine Art. A significant part of Plensa’s work is in the field of sculpture in the public space. Installed in cities in Spain, France, Japan, England, Korea, Germany, Canada, USA, etc., these pieces have won many prizes and citations, including the Mash Award for Excellence in Public Sculpture.
Plensa has used the theme of the seated figure for many installments, and he has repeated the tree-hugging sculpture in various locations around the world. Some of the pieces are colossal. Another thread running through Plensa’s work is the use of letters and symbols to fabricate the figure. For these particular pieces, he works in an assortment of materials including bronze, stainless steel, and stone. The Self Portrait in Streeterville is especially interesting because of the letters in full relief on the seated figure’s body, like the type hammers of an old manual typewriter. The technique lends a bit of nostalgia to the piece. You can learn more about the work of Jaume Plensa at his website at http://www.jaumeplensa.com/.