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Airline. Travel.

These two words together have come to exude a sigh; a sigh representing our collective foreknowledge of inevitable setbacks, inconveniences, and humiliations. Despite security and fuel surcharges, and the double disgrace of having to remove not only your belt but also your shoes in public (!), it generally remains the fastest and cheapest method of travel. I would guess that this would continue to be true, especially as the busy summer travel season approaches. Expect delays.

Fortunately, along with improving eateries, and amenities such as massages and gyms becoming standard, delays in airports can increasingly be filled with rewarding art-viewing as well. In a bit of a pre-summer airline experience I was one of those layover passengers and I was actually surprised and impressed (with one airport being a glaring exception) with both the quantity and quality of artwork.

My travels began out of the Philadelphia Airport. I have been through here enough to know that there is an art program here, but as my home port of call I generally am heading in and out so quickly I rarely see much of it. Heading into my gate I ran across two artists’ exhibitions that were astoundingly good and put me in just the right mood for an early morning flight. Stimulating my intellectual side were the two large sculptures of Philadelphia based Lee Stoetzel. His Shell Motorcycle is what it purports to be – a Suzuki racing motorcycle that has been entirely encrusted with shells. The piece is interesting but flirts a bit close to an endorsement of brand-identity re-greening despite Stoetzel’s ambitions otherwise. Oppositely, the twice life size Track Bike seamlessly, both figuratively and literally, reinforces its own making and themes. Track Bike is built entirely of Pecky Cypress wood, so seamlessly crafted that it looks as if an oversized eco-minded bike messenger left it parked there. About to board the form of travel that is the most carbon unfriendly I could not help but give pause to the exhibition title’s - Natural Cycle - implication of travels’ relationship to the environment.

Adjacent to Stoetzel’s show was a collection of oversize vessels by ceramicist Chris Gustin. Resembling mugs and vases, these vessels’ simplified indications of body forms seemed more effective than Gustin’s well-known complex biomorphic works. Each approximately three foot tall work elegantly combines buttery matte glazes that provide just enough contrast for shadows to play across them as they would a plump rump or belly. I boarded the friendly skies feeling very satisfied.

Other interesting works at the Philadelphia Airport: Flying Floors, Acconci Studios – Terminal C Ticketing; Impulse, Ralph Helmick and Stuart Schechter – Terminal A West Ticketing / Gates.

Later that afternoon I had a few hours to digest in the sprawling but traveler friendly Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. To begin with I was mainly interested in riding the new Skylink rail that links each of the terminals (a great way to get everywhere and not have to go through a security re-screening). As I rode high above the ground taking in the expansive Texas landscape I realized that at each station the floors are huge terrazzo artworks by many local artists. The best of these is Brad Goldberg’s Over the High Plains of Texas. Goldberg replicates the view of the landscape as seen from the sky. Standing on it the irrigation circles and divided farmlands become simple abstract shapes and one can saunter along with the wavy creek-bed as it winds its way through the imposed grid.

The destination with the most art per square foot is the recently completed International Terminal D. Again, most of what you find is a continuation of the walkway decoration, here in the form of a dozen stone medallions scattered throughout the terminal. On the whole they consist of compositions reflecting generic themes on travel, landscape, and non-offensive geometric design.

Patently inoffensive art abounds in these social spaces and many times the results can be diluted or so oblique that they are uninspiring. Yet, as a mild sedative to the haggard traveler, I think that much of art that fills the architecture of what have become “travel fortresses” is a much-needed visual respite. A gentle reminder of the place that we have left and the place we are headed toward. Ed and Linda Blackburn’s Louise is a notable example from the medallions. Drawing on film noir (specifically ‘Casablanca’), and a collective nostalgia for more romantic days of travel Louisa succeeds in momentarily reminding one of the reasons for flying: adventure, glamour, love.

The only unfortunate aspect to the Blackburn’s work is that it is literally overshadowed by Dennis Oppenheim’s Crystal Mountain, one of two large commissions in the terminal that deal directly with the movement of the traveler through space. Crystal Mountain’s cacophony of aluminum buildings juts out at crazy angles above a tunnel that the traveler can walk through. The scale, setting and structure suggest a refined playground atmosphere, directly in contrast to Christopher Janney’s Circling. Three circumferences of curved blue shaded curved-glass walls create paths where the traveler is supposed to follow, in a game like fashion, interactive sound and lights along the ‘labyrinth’ paths. I very much enjoyed the work, although Janney overreaches in describing the work as a labyrinth, and even the small amount of ambient noise washed out the audio component, but it did have a relaxing quality that resonated with me.

Other big names on the docket at DFW are Peter Halley, Sol Lewitt, and Mark di Suvero as well as several better-known Texas artists but most of these are in ticketing areas or even outdoors.

Unfortunately, my return trip was a disappointing day at Miami International Airport. There was hardly a decent meal to be had much less any pleasurable art to see. Granted, they seemed to be going through quite an expansion and there was an actual gallery space (which was closed), so I would expect better things from here in the future but as of now, bring a good book.

Besides the art, another phenomenon I noticed while pausing to look at work, was that no one else was. In fact more people were looking at me looking! After all of the effort and consideration by curators and committees to aesthetically enhance the travel experience, most potential viewers simply hurried past or actively avoided areas in which they were supposed to be drawn (this was most evident with Janney’s Circling). Perhaps the failing overall of this odd attempt by institutions to insert art into an arena where it is unexpected is that there is no inherent permission given to the viewer; all the more pronounced in a place as security conscious as an airport. While considering issues related to local pride, promotion of regions, artists, and even galleries the issue of context seems to have been ignored. Relegating art to fill unused space leads to art that is also ignored, regardless of quality. Compared to a traditional gallery or museum setting, most of this artwork operates completely differently within the atypical transient public space of airports. Hallways are generally not the space one relaxes or contemplates weightier issues in.

If traveling this summer, hopefully you will end up in an airport that has dedicated itself to showing interesting artwork that is not entirely there to fill the space between gates. However inoffensive and saccharine the art can be there are also interesting surprises to be had. Do yourself a favor. Walk around and have a look rather than incessantly watching the flight board or the bumbling couple that just barely managed to get through security. Your formally ire inducing wait at the gate will fade away much like the contrails of a high flying airplane.

Philadelphia International Airport Exhibitions
DFW Airport Art Program:
Miami International Airport Art Exhibitions

All images are courtesy of the author, respective venues, and artists.

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