I never saw the Muskie School of Public Service atrium before Professor of Art Mark Wethli's new sculpture, "Civitas," was installed, but I try not to imagine the space without it. With its bare white walls, stretches of glass and gray trim, it is no wonder the space, part of the University of Southern Maine in Portland, "struck a lot of people as being a little cold."
Now, the atrium feels warm and active, animated by the bright yellow painted poplar beams zig-zagging across its most prominent wall. "Civitas" is a highly successful installation in that it enlivens the space it was designed for without clashing with preexisting elements. Rather, "Civitas" draws from the atrium's architecture, responding to geometric cues like the mullions that divide the large glass wall and interior windows into smaller shapes.
Wethli, who received a Percent for Art commission to create the 35-foot-long, six-foot-tall low-relief sculpture, also artfully responded to the space's function by incorporating symbolic commentary on civic cooperation into his design.
"Civitas" is comprised of over 300 wooden pieces, ranging from four inches to six feet in length, that are arranged in a lively series of angular joints and junctions.
Some shapes face one another, engaged in fierce debate, while others merge and ally themselves with their polygonal neighbors. Trapezoids, rhomboids, and triangles approach, attract and repel one another in active dialogue.
Despite the apparent disputes between factions, the various parts of "Civitas" form a coherent whole.
"There's a lot of point and counterpoint in the design, but the sum of the point and counterpoint is harmonic...and that, to me, is meant to be a metaphor for the democratic process, which currently seems to be terribly broken," said Wethli. "The way things are at the moment, I mean for the piece to be prescriptive rather than descriptive."
The fluid functioning of state is also the subject of Ambrogio Lorenzetti's 1338-40 early-Renaissance mural, "Effects of Good Government on City and Countryside," which depicts an industrious, cooperative cityscape. Wethli translated the angles and lines of the architecture that dominate Lorenzetti's composition into the wooden beams forming "Civitas."
Wethli's commentary on the importance of cooperation and consensus is powerfully yet subtly apparent on a number of levels: No two pieces of wood are alike, but they form unified sections. These different sections form a harmonic whole, and the whole engages fluently with the atrium's architecture.
Wethli lamented the stubborn, partisan nature of current American politics, paraphrasing an observation President Obama made in his Tuesday night State of the Union Address: "We've lost track of the idea that government used to be about compromise and conciliation, not about digging into positions."
"Civitas" appears different depending on where the viewer stands, and this variability is also part of its political allegory.
"Being low relief, it has parallax. So as you move past it, it changes," said Wethli. "Two people can look at the same set of facts and come away with totally different conclusions and 'Civitas' was consciously intended to invoke that quality—as the saying goes, it depends on your point of view."
The complex conversation running through "Civitas" is not just about politics, however. The piece, in conjunction with Wethli's third Percent for Art project, "Locus" (2011), speaks to the relationship between painting and sculpture, between two dimensions and three.
"Locus," a 27-foot-long mural, stretches across a slightly curved wall in the Osher Map Library, next door to the Muskie School. The piece features black lines atop a spiky green shape that interact with one another in a very similar way to the yellow pieces of "Civitas."
In fact, the shadows cast on the white wall "Civitas" is mounted to create a flattened version of the installation that recalls the forms of "Locus."
Wethli described "Civitas" as a "sculptural expression of painting at the Osher." Together, "Locus" and "Civitas" form a m”bius strip, along which viewers can trace the ways cartography and government translate three dimensions into two, and vice versa.
"Artistically, the two pieces are meant as a dialogue about 2-D and 3-D space. A map is basically a tool that takes the three-dimensional world—the globe, a terrain, a landscape—and renders it in 2-D and that's what that piece is about," said Wethli of "Locus." "Government is about taking things—principles and abstractions, things that live in documents and laws, things that are flat—and vivifying them and making them dimensional."
Lorenzetti's mural is often discussed in art history surveys as straddling the divide between the medieval and early Renaissance. The angles of the architecture are awkward and ultimately not spatially viable, but they reflect an attempt to render perspectival space that anticipates later artists' success.
Wethli takes the pivotal art historical position of this source material and reinterprets it through the lens of another movement during which artists reconceived the depiction spatial depth: cubism.
"My piece...depends very much on cubism, which I love, but what interests me is that it kind of looks kind of cubist to us, but it traces its way back to that moment in history where Lorenzetti and his contemporaries were coming out of flatness into depth."
The conceptual complexity of "Civitas" alone would justify the time it took Wethli to design and build it, but the physical construction also presented a host of challenges that occupied Wethli for a year and a half.
Wethli began by designing the piece as a whole, but soon realized that when the piece needed to be transported from his Fort Andross studio to Portland, it would be impossible to slice the sculpture into sections. After this false start, Wethli redesigned the piece in 10 modular parts that could be assembled on site. He enlisted the help of Evan Farley '11 to help him prepare and sand the wood, but Wethi measured and cut each piece himself.
The process was labor intensive, requiring mindboggling foresight and precise execution.
"Most given days, it was just a matter of arriving at work, looking at the model, looking at where you had left off, and deciding where the next stick would go," said Wethli. "Even with the model, there was a lot of thinking along the way...It wasn't like Ikea, there's no, 'put section A up to section B.'"
"It was a little like a chess game," he continued. "You had to be looking to the future and making sure you weren't building yourself into a corner."
Wethli is not generally prone to postpartum after completing large projects, but he would not have time to dwell on "Civitas" even if he was. Two major shows requiring new work are rapidly approaching—one at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA) and one in Paris, at minimalist gallery Paris CONCRET.
To celebrate its 60th anniversary, CMCA will be presenting an honors awards exhibition of five artists it believes to have advanced contemporary art in Maine. Lecturer of Art John Bisbee is also among the five artists honored.
Fortunately for the many admirers of "Civitas," the visual language of that installation is one Wethi plans to continue speaking. For the CMCA show, he will be building low-relief wooden sculptures in the vein of "Civitas" sections that will hang on the gallery walls at eye level and measure a more modest two by three feet.
It is hard to imagine a contemporary architectural context in which the forms of "Civitas" would not work; their skeletal nature recalls the bones of a building, that appear as Wethli said, to be almost "pressing through the wall."
Speaking to all of his site-specific work, Wethli said, "I want my work to almost be an expression of the building and I literally mean, if the building could speak about something, this might be the way it would speak."
An opening reception for "Civitas" will be held next Friday, February 3 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Muskie School of Public Service, located at 34 Bedford St., Portland, Maine. All are welcome to attend.