Sorry Jon – kill the whales!

Unlike most art – which people voluntarily view or experience, and which they can therefore take or leave, a situation which should allow the artist pretty much free reign – public art presents a problem of sorts, in that it is imposed on viewers regardless of their opinion of it. Too often, of course, this results in generic, boring, art-by-committee. Perhaps a solution is to place the art in a public place, but not one that everyone more or less has to see every day.

I’m thinking of this because, about ten years ago, Milwaukee County chose to commission a mural for the rather ugly concrete wall of a municipal parking garage overhanging a downtown freeway, directly north of the Marquette interchange where I-94 and I-43 meet. Before the mural went up, I was thinking, well, that’s good – anything’s an improvement over that wall.

I was wrong. The county chose to put up one of rampant self-promoter Wyland‘s whale murals.


Because, as everyone knows, Milwaukee is all about the whales, what with our being a major oceanic seaport and located along a major whale migration route, as well as having been founded by whalers back in the nineteenth century. (Note to the geography-challenged: the preceding is sarcasm.) Wyland – who underlines his ridiculousness by preeningly insisting on being known only by his surname (his mother calls him Robert, or perhaps Bobby, or perhaps she just sighs exasperatedly, I don’t know) – is one of those who make me question my usual annoyance at the way certain words, like “art,” get transformed from simple descriptives into honorifics. So let us not argue that Wyland’s whale murals aren’t art; let us merely claim that they’re lousy art. Hell, Lisa Frank‘s whales are more visually interesting and creative – and at least she doesn’t pretend to be doing anything other than trying to make lots of money by selling her images to preteen girls.


Anyway, after a bit of controversy (Wyland threatened legal action, pretending any building with his art on it had to be preserved in perpetuity…even though in fact, the contract explicitly waived Wyland’s rights and granted Milwaukee County the right to remodel or demolish the building, including the whale mural, if need be), the mural is going to be coming down as part of the rebuilding of the Marquette interchange.


Other than the hamhanded literalism of Wyland’s image-making, the absurdity of featuring whales over a freeway in Milwaukee was a key reason that almost no one around here ever warmed to the mural. So what sort of image might be more appropriate to Milwaukee?

Well, as everyone knows, Milwaukee is famous for beer – and despite endless attempts on the part of chambers of commerce and other interested parties to transcend Milwaukee’s “beer and brats” image (which rarely work – if only because they always end up reinforcing that image in mentioning how much they want to transcend it), there’s still a bar on nearly every other corner of the city. Many people don’t know it, but Milwaukee is also home to the International Clown Hall of Fame (or as its URL would have it, the “Clown Museum“). Some of our older, more conservative residents, particularly on the southwest side where every other house is owned by a cop, firefighter, or someone related to one, are big supporters of the NRA.

At the same time (as I alluded to above), Milwaukee has considerably updated its image in the past decade, to the point where we’re actually attracting young, smart, artistic types to the city – in a word, we’re finally figuring out how to do the sexy.

So, what’s the perfect image for Milwaukee? Combine the above, and you get…

Drunken Horny Clowns with Guns

Now who could argue with that?

It so happens that artist Bruce Nauman (who grew up in Milwaukee) has already done half the image:



(from his neon work Mean Clown Welcome)

Just put a bottle in one hand and a shotgun in the other, and we’re done.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Sorry Jon – kill the whales!

  1. loudfan

    Somehow I’d managed to make it this far in my life without ever having heard of Wyland, despite the fact that “This painter, sculptor, and muralist is one of the most prolific and celebrated artists of our time. Perhaps of all time,” according to his web site. It sounds like he’s the Thomas Kinkade of whale paintings.

  2. 2fs

    It sounds like he’s the Thomas Kinkade of whale paintings.

    Nah, Kinkade’s more talented. My favorite Wyland Moment(tm)? He wants to paint whales on the Great Wall of China. Yep, it’s stood there for thousands of years and done just fine – but you know, it would really be improved by having a bunch of whales on it. Yeesh.

  3. Paula

    …and celebrated artists of our time. Perhaps of all time…

    On the front page, though, he makes the distinction “marine artist,” so he’s only comparing himself to, ya know, the 5 other marine artists….plus guy.

  4. Paula

    That should read “plus this guy”–my “this” went thataway.

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