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Saturday, November 13, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Beholders See No Beauty In This Art -- Unamused Critics Hit `The Wall' As Public Menace

A jogger unplugs her headphones and stares, mouth agape. Then she slaps her thigh and grins.

"Oh, I get it. It's art, isn't it? That's what it is, right? Art? Right?"

Maybe.

But it's also been called sinister, whimsical, tacky and really orange.

The concrete is hardly dry at "The Wall of Death," Seattle's latest effort at public art, and already the critics are debating whether it's public art or public enemy.

"The Wall," by artist Mowry Baden of Victoria, B.C., was erected underneath the north end of the University Bridge, along the Burke Gilman Trail.

The major piece - an orange tube supported by cone-shaped columns - symbolizes a carnival spectacular popular in the early part of the 20th century. In the real version, daredevil motorcyclists rode round and round a pitched track, climbing the wall at a 90-degree angle while centrifugal force kept them from falling. Bicyclists race the same way in velodromes.

Across the Burke-Gilman is the "parking lot" part of the piece, complete with an old motorcycle and junkyard cars filled with sawdust and concrete.

The city is going to add lights later, says Greg Lauen, a spokesman for the Seattle Arts Commission.

The Arts Commission paid $100,000 for the work through a program that dedicates 1 percent of the cost of public works to art.

"I'm sure it's going to attract gangs or people who have dark thoughts," says Ted Holzman, who wrote the Arts Commission that the city "has made a serious blunder here. And not just an aesthetic one."

Holzman and his wife, Clare Maxwell, who work at the University of Washington nearby, often walk the Burke-Gilman. Maxwell says she has been accosted twice by strange men on that part of the trail.

"It's dark under there and industrial," Maxwell says. "There's times when there's nobody there. I don't think it's wise to be down there sometimes. But you can't quarrel with art, I guess. Art is whatever someone says is art."

Jeanne Heuving, a professor at the UW Bothell campus, says it's art. "It's terrific. This is a uniquely urban landscape . . . " Several artsy phrases later, she gets to the part where "people can come here and see the true death of an urban landscape." But by the time she's through explaining it, even she is laughing so hard she can barely finish.

It isn't funny to George Fournie, who works at AVTECH, an avionics-manufacturing firm nearby.

"I think it sucks," Fournie says. "It's a travesty. With all this sawdust they've just created a giant Kitty Litter and a fire trap. They haven't even covered up all the sawdust in these cars with the concrete. Somebody's going to come along here and flick a cigarette in one and we're going to have smoldering cars right under the freeway. I sure don't see any art in it."

Wonder what the public would be thinking if Baden's first dream of art for Seattle had come true?

He wanted to put a huge dump truck over the Marion Street overpass near the Colman Dock ferry terminal. But Seattle's Engineering Department said it couldn't be done.

People argued over that, too, says the Arts Commission's Lauen.

"Some thought it would have been a whimsical reminder of Seattle's success as a recycling center. But others thought it was just trashy."

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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