July 15, 2011
It should be good news that a giant statue of a woman rose over one of Chicago's most conspicuous public spaces this week.
Chicago, a city that has almost as many statues as it has potholes, is notoriously short on statues of women. Mile after magnificent mile, our city teems with large reproductions of presidents, philosophers, sports stars, warriors and saints, almost every one a man.
Finally, we get a highly visible statue of a woman. Twenty-six-feet tall. Looming next to North Michigan Avenue at the Chicago River. As obvious as a skyscraper.
And as tawdry as a peep show.
"Relax," an inner voice chided the other day when I wandered out of Tribune Tower and immediately ran into workers installing what appeared to be a humongous Marilyn Monroe.
Her famous white skirt swooped toward the heavens. Her underwear was in full view. Her head remained a mystery, wrapped in plastic with a cord at the throat, unpleasantly, if unintentionally, adding to the pornographic feel.
"It's just a tourist attraction," the inner voice clucked when I cringed. "Walk on."
So what that men were standing dwarfed between the giant legs of the fake Marilyn, shooting photos of her crotch while one stuck out his tongue to mime a lick? So what if there were guys leering at her underpants and her exposed backside? Hey. Whatever makes people happy. Women were there laughing too.
"Chill, Hon," said my inner voice. "If you don't think this is fun, you must be getting old."
So it was with relief that a while later I stumbled on an item by ChicagoNow blogger Abraham Ritchie, who had the guts to sum up the sculpture in four perfect words: "Downright creepy and sexist."
The statue, whose head will be unveiled Friday, could prove to be someone besides Marilyn Monroe. Maybe the head will look like Barack Obama's. Or John Boehner's.
No matter whose head it is, though, the rest is Monroe, clearly derived from a scene in the 1955 movie, "The Seven Year Itch," in which a gust from a sidewalk subway grate blows her full skirt skyward.
Photos of the scene, shot in Manhattan, have been wildly popular for decades. In the best-known of those photos, Monroe hugs her knees together as she presses her skirt down. The billowing cloth offers just a glimpse of underwear.
The original image is coy. Marilyn on the Mag Mile is crude.
"This work is totally objectifying," said Ritchie when I called him Thursday, curious about his perspective as a young male art critic. "It's not even the subtle eroticism of a pinup of the 1950s or of the original photo. It's a stiff representation of sexual voyeurism."
The Monroe statue is the work of J. Seward Johnson, an artist who isn't from Chicago or based here but who is a favorite of Chicago's Zeller Realty Group, which has put other of his giant sculptures in Pioneer Court. The one before this was a huge reproduction of the farm couple from the painting "American Gothic." Art critics often refer to his work as kitsch.
Kitsch is in the eye of the beholder, and there's a place for kitsch in this world. There's also a place for art that makes you think about sex and the human body. There's a place for all of that in public.
But this sculpture doesn't merit its primo place in Chicago. Its only distinguishing feature is its size, which brings to mind some 1950s B movie about giant women.
What's most disturbing about the sculpture, though, is not that it's mediocre. It's the fact that Marilyn Monroe was real. She wasn't a sci-fi amazon. She was more than an image. She was a real woman who died at the age of 36 of a drug overdose, perhaps by suicide. Inviting people to leer at her giant underpants is just icky.
The next time someone wants to fill a public space with art, why not find a Chicago artist? Or a Chicago theme? Or a great piece of art from somewhere else that makes the point that Chicago is a city where great artists show their work?
How about a statue of a woman that focuses on something besides her underwear?
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