On the ides of June, while squinting at a cluster of threatening clouds from his perch on a grassy construction site just outside of Sparta, Wisconsin, this small city Chicago sculptor Tony Tasset is, to use his words, totally freaking out.
“You know those reality shows?” Tasset says, a slightly uneasy smile on his face. “This is that part when the team is up against their deadline, and it looks like they’re never going to finish on time.”
Tasset’s “team” is made up of a half-dozen fiberglass workers at Sparta’s Fast Corporation (Fiberglass Animals Shapes and Trademarks), who have been assigned to construct the artist’s largest piece to date: a giant eyeball aptly named Eye, which, upon completion, will stand three stories tall and stare east from the Loop’s Pritzker Park, at State and Van Buren streets. Tasset was commissioned for the job last fall by the Chicago Loop Alliance, and Fast Corporation, with which he had collaborated on prior sculptures (including a 12-foot-high eyeball), took the engineering reins earlier this year.
But by mid-June, outdoor construction on the 30-foot-high sphere had slowed to a near halt, thanks to a definitively unpredictable and unavoidable obstacle: rain. Buckets of it, for days on end — days that were fast approaching a long-scheduled July 7 public unveiling.
When the Tribune made a trip to Sparta the week of June 13, Tasset and his fiberglass team had eight days to assemble the structure’s 24 pieces into a perfect sphere, sand and buff out any imperfections, prime its exterior, paint it pinkish-white to resemble Tasset’s eye (on which it’s modeled), paint on a couple hundred veins, complete the painted detail on the iris, cut the finished white sphere into a set of 17 pieces suitable for traveling the 250-odd miles between Sparta and the Loop, and arrive in time for installation and touch-ups. All weather permitting.
And the rain beat down on Sparta, and Tasset paced back and forth between the large construction bay that contained the iris, and the muddied exterior grounds where the giant eyeball, much too big for protective tents or any other kind of rain cover, sat waiting.
Eye was commissioned by the Chicago Loop Alliance as part of its premiere Art Loop installation: a new, temporary work “by an important artist” to be installed each summer in the Loop and paired with free programming. For its part, the CLA is promoting the sculpture as if it were the next “Bean.”
“We wanted to have someone do something that we thought was fun and a little irreverent,” said CLA Executive Director Ty Tabing, who sat on the committee of art-centric locals that picked Tasset as the debut Art Loop artist. “His art is not too highbrow,” Tabing said via telephone in June, “and still very provocative and thought-provoking at the same time.”
Funding for the project, via special services taxes paid by Loop retailers and businesses, amounted to “a little over the six-figures mark,” Tabing said, and CLA raised more than that amount in corporate sponsorships. Tasset’s initial proposal was “Cardinal,” a series of 156 decorative banners lining State Street from Congress Parkway to Wacker Drive, featuring the state bird in flight against a sky-blue background. But with a chunk of change left over and a decision to expand the project to Pritzker Park, Eye was added.
It has since become the focal point, pardon the pun.
Tasset, 49, who earned his master’s degree from the School of the Art Institute in 1985 and graduated into immediate national and international success, began making public works earlier this decade, starting with a pair of hand-painted, cast bronze magnolia trees for Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Earlier in June, Tasset sat in the CLA offices to talk about their collaboration.
“I’m an artist that’s shown in galleries, and occasionally museums, and I’ve made all kinds of different work, some of it very exclusive,” he said. “But these public works … suddenly to try to make a work which sort of addressed everybody, was weirdly freeing for me. It was like I came to a point, maybe sometime in my early 40s, where I thought, I just don’t think it’s good enough to say, ‘Oh, you all are idiots. Here’s my art: Take it or leave it.’ I just thought that somehow, even if I, as an artist, liked it, that just wasn’t a satisfactory answer.” He said his goal as a public artist is to make work that both appeals to “intellectuals” and speaks to a wider audience. “With every piece,” he said, “I’m always negotiating how much the audience can handle — what they like, what they don’t like.”
So will they like Eye?
“There are going to be a lot of people who are like, ‘Oh, this is terrible,’” Tasset said. “I’ve always wanted to make work that people either loved or hated. The worst thing would be a kind if innocuous decorative work that you can just pass by, that doesn’t do one thing or another.” He pauses, then clarifies: “I wanted to make something with effect.”
“Eye has the potential to transcend Tasset’s quirky life views,” says John McKinnon, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at the Milwaukee Art Museum. “I think pedestrians will find something new and unexpected (in Eye), much like (Tasset) does through his own work,” McKinnon said.
Back up in Sparta, the effect that Tasset’s nearly 20-foot-tall iris has on its viewer, even just leaning against the wall of the construction bay, is intense. It’s a new day, and the rain has ceased — for the morning, at least — and Tasset and his team have been on site since 6:30 a.m. Kori Kowitz, Fast Corporation’s resident painter (the company specializes in amusement park structures, such as slides), arrived closer to dawn, wearing a mask to protect her 24-year-old lungs from the powerful fumes emitted by the automobile-strength paint she’s using to flesh out the blue of the iris. If anyone beyond Tasset is responsible for the sculpture’s effect, it’s Kowitz.
When asked if she enjoys her work, there’s no hesitation.
“Totally,” Kowitz says. “You never know when someone’s going to call up and ask for a 30-foot eyeball.”
by Lauren Viera
photos by Nancy Stone