Mark Reigelman is an artist for the people; a creator of public art. One might even call his art psycho-social for its potential to change how we interact with each other.
If you were to ask him about his art, he’ll just tell you that it’s awesome. “MARK REIGELMAN IS AWESOME” is the introductory motto that greets you upon visiting his website, caps and all, “awesome” highlighted in yellow. This opening line might imply that he is just a tad cheeky, maybe even arrogant, but considering his artistic feats achieved across the country, and considering that which his art has either given back to the public or provoked from the public, yeah, he just might be that awesome.
His current piece of public art, Manifest Destiny!, is on display in San Francisco, a collaboration with Jenny Chapman. It is a commentary on the 19th-century ideology that fostered Americans’ “divine right” to settle all native territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast.
Take a walk in downtown San Francisco on Bush Street to Hotel des Art. Fixed to the bare side of the edifice is a wooden cabin, rustic in its historically referenced look. In the spirit of Manifest Destiny, Reigelman and Chapman have re-imagined the idea of claiming “territory” by exploring areas of unoccupied spaces for establishing a new home front in the remaining voids of San Francisco, California. Floating high above a restaurant, with an exterior finished with 100 year-old reclaimed barn board from Ohio, the installation is not only meant as a commentary on the arrogance of western expansion but also to provoke a new way of thinking about space and how we can claim and use it. These questions are common themes in Reigelman’s work.
Much of Reigelman’s public art has been installed in Cleveland, Ohio, his hometown. A good example of how his work can go beyond just commenting on the world we live in is the installation he created at a bus stop there. The austere design of most bus shelters doesn’t encourage social interaction. Most of us wait for our bus to arrive, ignoring the presence of the others. To encourage conversation, Reigelman redesigned the physical space of one shelter as a small sitting room complete with dainty white chairs, a roundtable in red-checkered cloth embellished with a functioning lamp, windows embedded in the walls and treated with green drapes, a flowery wallpaper pattern leading to tanned hardwood flooring. Two framed pictures hang on one wall, and a book rests on the table. It had the appearance of a contented home where two partners would chat over a cup of coffee. By virtue of its design, the space had the potential to dramatically change how strangers might interact with each other while waiting for the bus.
While some pieces like Manifest Destiny are intended to provoke, Reigelman just as often hopes to make life easier, more enjoyable and beautiful. During a summer internship in New York City, Reigelman was fascinated by the step culture of the city. Where a car is a necessity for getting around in most American cities, Reigelman was struck by how much New Yorkers walk and how often they pause at a shaded stoop or on the stairs of buildings to rest, eat a meal, smoke a cigarette, read a book, chat on the phone, or just hang out with friends.
With a grant awarded by The Center for Craft, Creativity and Design, a fellowship achieved during his final year at the Cleveland Institute of Art, Reigelman fit tables for the impressive steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall on which people often sit. In this installation titled Stair Squares, blue L-shaped Tetris pieces seem to have fallen from the sky and landed on the steps of this busy hub. A fellow citizen on their work break could sit and eat a sandwich on top of the piece while their belongings rested within it. Children could color in books while their au pair took a breather after the walk from Court Street. Professionals could talk on the phone and take notes on yellow legal pads. During the Stair Squares’ occupation, the dull steps were dotted with a charming patchwork of blue. Even the pigeons took notice, bobbing their heads in inspection and marvel. All of this efficiency while still bringing art to the canvas of the steps.
Reigelman’s White Cloud, a Christo-like installation in its magnitude, adorned the exterior of the Cleveland Museum of Art with numerous white weather balloons, 8 feet in diameter. Reigelman’s project brought whimsy to the museum diurnally. In the evening, the museum became a temple floating in the night sky, alive with color as projectors displayed circular patterns of purples and cool blues, warm lines of red and orange, or blue polka dots against a calm yellow. The spectacle not only amazed but enticed passersby to go into the museum.
How did it all begin?
As a child Reigelman was always doodling. It was as reflexive as breathing. In his junior year of high school, he thought he might seek a career in physical therapy, but his art teacher said to him, “Mark, you know you can do art for the rest of your life, right? You know, as a thing.” This was when he woke up.
He went on to study Sculpture and Industrial Design at Cleveland Institute of Art. He had a passion for industrial design because of the discipline’s necessity of physical interaction, utility and efficiency. He loves the scale of sculpture, and the variety of materials and conceptual foundations. The combination of these inherently disparate fields was where he wanted to explore. Articles like Sitings of Public Art: Integration versus Intervention by Miwon Kwon further refined his approach to making art. Public Art can not only spruce up a decaying neighborhood or piece of land, but it can bring people together. And, as he happily discovered, he could get paid to do it. Reigelman was further driven to do public art after reading Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam. He was dismayed by the idea of civil disengagement.
Reigelman was always impressed by the spectacle of public art pieces of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, but their work seemed arbitrary and wasn’t necessarily site-specific. Richard Serra’s extraordinary sculptures inspired Reigelman to create his own that were more interactive and less of a physical obstacle. He has recently been commissioned by the Ludlow Community Association to create the project called Colorfield. The Ludlow neighborhood, which straddles Shaker Heights and Cleveland, was one of country’s first neighborhoods to successfully integrate its citizens during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Using ideas of color which are highlighted in Josef Albers’ book Interaction of Color, a book Reigelman says every artist should read, the installation will feature 48 triangular posts of various colors on each of the posts three sides. The posts will be eight feet tall, and eight inches wide on each side. The palette of colors the viewer will observe shifts depending on the angle at which you’re viewing the installation.
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Reigelman brings a sense of humor to his work in the form of visual puns. He’s created one-off pieces – a functioning clock affixed to sticks of dynamite, bookshelves which are actually books as shelves (you don’t necessarily have to put books on them), and his bitten silverware: forks, knives and spoons which have been bitten through as if in a cartoon; ironic and functional. His Breaking The Bottle furniture – a site-specific piece at Heller Gallery in New York – is a comment on the homes he saw during various trips abroad. Homeowners protected themselves against intruders by constructing tall walls along the perimeter of their homes which were, in a precise and purposeful manner, topped off with shards of broken glass made to cut any climbers. There was visual beauty in something which was created to harm.
In Cleveland, Reigelman won an award for setting the Cleveland Museum of Art on fire with his Wood-Pile installation. He generated interest in the Detroit Shoreway community with his Blue Birds scavenger hunt. This summer, a flock of the blue birds have migrated to New York City, perching themselves in Norwood’s garden, an exclusive club for the art community. They will be revealed as the foliage falls with the changing seasons.
Reigelman’s next installation will be his largest one to date. A glacier will soon emerge in Cleveland as the city rehabilitates its walkways which take pedestrians under Interstate 90/State Road 2 to the Lake Erie waterfront. He was intrigued by the glacial striation left on the surrounding geology in Ohio and plans to bring Ohio and Lake Erie back to its Pleistocene origins with a 40-foot tall, 200-foot long powder-coated aluminum glacial gateway.
Reigelman is truly an artist for the people. He brings history and art together to create dialogue and social interaction among us. Not only does he comment on the psycho-social aspects of our communities, he shows us how we can transform them. His work is sublime, engaging and intelligent. It makes you appreciate contemporary art even if you may never have before.