The New Yorker, 08/02/10

By Ian Frazier | web link

What is sweeter than a sheet of new plywood? Last summer, when a Mexican-born, New York-based artist named Diego Medina made a fourteen-foot-high plywood sculpture for the New York City Department of Transportation and the Bronx River Art Center, the sculpture’s pristine sides gleamed like freshly pressed linen. The artist had arranged for the grain of the wood to run lengthwise along the sculpture’s various curves and planes for an eye-pleasing effect, while the darker lines made by the edges of the three-quarter-inch boards gave the impression that a border had been drawn around each part of the work with a ruler and a carpenter’s pencil. Medina titled the sculpture “Aurora” (“Dawn”), after a poem by Federico García Lorca. The sculpture was installed in the middle of West Farms Square Plaza, one of the loudest and busiest intersections in the Bronx, where the No. 2 and No. 5 trains shriek on elevated tracks overhead, and city buses click and wheeze and roar at a crowded stop, and ambulance sirens on their way to and from Montefiore Medical Center, just up the street, Doppler by.

Encircled by small benches, the sculpture brought the intersection a certain calm. The thing everybody worried about, though, was graffiti. All those blank wooden surfaces in the midst of the ambient racket seemed to be just asking for it, and if what happened to the pillars of the El, fifty feet away (“Lost,” “Ceksi Baby,” [illegible], etc.), were to happen to the sculpture its spell would be undone. On the next block, the staff of the Bronx River Art Center held their breaths. Months passed. In January of this year, José Ruiz, the center’s director and curator, announced that the sculpture remained graffiti-free! In fact, his statement could be construed as a figure of speech whose real meaning was that, owing to the evident affection of the neighborhood for Medina’s “Aurora,” the sculpture had been tagged with such a small amount of graffiti as to constitute almost no graffiti at all. Also, of that graffiti, none could still be clearly seen.

Recently, a passerby found this still to be true. Nearby, Maritza Pacheco, an assistant at the Bronx River Art Center, had just stepped out of the center’s street-side door for a smoke. The passerby stopped to talk. Pacheco was wearing decoratively sewn bluejeans and a bright-green T-shirt, and she had her black hair in a short ponytail. Her smile was like double doors thrown open wide. “The reason there is no graffiti on that sculpture is because of me,” she said. “I walk here from my apartment before eight o’clock six days a week—my job starts at eight—and every morning when I go by the sculpture I check if anybody write on it, and if they did I come here and get our battery-powered sander and go back and rub the writing out. That’s why it is clean. Also, I pick up any food or garbage people leave there, and sometimes if I have to clean up nasty stuff I use a lot of bleach and a lot of water. Taking care of the sculpture is just one of my jobs, because I also repaint this whole gallery white every six weeks, I help with costumes when there’s performances, I pack art work in crates, I sign people up for art classes—everything. I came to New York from Puerto Rico twenty-five years ago and I been at this job nineteen years. To me, the shapes in the sculpture remind me of the moon over the city, and of the stars. I know people around here like this sculpture, that is why they don’t bother it too much. And, now that you ask me, I’m thinking—nobody has done nothing at all to it for the last three months.”

The passerby—he was headed for the Bronx Zoo, four blocks north—went back to the sculpture and sat on a bench. The day happened to be one of the extra-hot ones that modern summers specialize in. Small honey-locust trees provided vestigial shade. Medina’s sculpture, with its half-star shape on one side and a moonlike disk on top, projected a cheerfulness and an optimism not to be found in the García Lorca poem that inspired it (“The New York dawn has / four columns of mud / and a hurricane of black doves / that paddle in putrescent waters”). But the sculptor had chosen his medium wisely. No matter plywood’s context, it ages, it goes all dull and gray, it reminds us we better get a move on. This sculpture couldn’t help also referring to plywood in windows and doors across the land. Above, the El shrieked. An underside of huge battleship-gray girders supported platform, railing, and, at the very top, a row of thin white lampposts, curved like bishops’ crosiers against the white-hot sky.

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This program is made possible with support from the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, including Council Members Eric Dinowitz, Althea Stevens, Kristy Marmorato and the Bronx Delegation. Additional support is from Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, the NYS Council on the Arts with support from Governor Kathy Hochul and the NYS Legislature. Foundation support is from Con Edison: The Power of Giving, The New Yankee Stadium Community Benefits Fund, The Lincoln Fund, and private donors.

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