Armstrong Park, Sculpture Garden Open Again

“You will see the restored statue of Louis Armstrong, toe and all,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced today at a ribbon cutting ceremony to reopen Armstrong Park. The damaging of the Armstrong statue in Armstrong Park was the final indignity in Ray Nagin’s hurried last act – the installation of a sculpture garden. When he officially opened it, two pieces were not yet in place, and a sculpture commemorating second lines rested on a temporary plywood base. Careless work including improperly laid sidewalks meant that the park had to be closed so that walkways could be repoured and sculptures could be properly mounted. Located within near the projected site for the biomedical center, the renovated Saenger and the proposed St. Claude streetcar line, Landrieu referred to Armstrong Park as “the gateway to New Orleans.”

Once the gates opened, attendees entered the park and many flocked to Congo Square, where Bamboula 2000 performed. Others checked out the infamous sculpture garden. I wrote about much of it when it first opened, but at that time, the Congo Square sculpture had yet to be erected.

Like most of the art chosen for the garden, it’s far too literal, and with the exception of the dancing woman, it’s joyless and lacks energy. Perhaps the most discouraging thing about the piece is that it’s two dimensional – a gently curved piece that is set in cement. Viewers behind and beside the piece see not art but cement. It can only be viewed from the front, meaning it’s only attractive from one vantage point and an eyesore from others.

Steve Kline may be best known for his sculptures outside the bus station and inside Terminal D at the airport. They’re whimsical and full of dynamic life and energy. His take on the Old Opera House is easily the biggest risk, and he wasn’t afraid to venture away from a traditional representation. The result is him at his most architectural with three pieces – three multi-colored stairs topped with polished metal balls, a multi-colored wall topped with a polished metal squiggle, and a polished metal ball on the ground on the other side of the wall.

I love the daring of the piece, but even with images of the Old Opera House in black discretely attached on the sides of the main structure, it’s hard to figure out the relationship between Kline’s work and its inspiration. The brightly colored blocks covered with tile are beautiful, and the lights in the ground suggest that daylight may not be the best time to see the work, but I see contemporary Hollywood far more than 19th Century elegance in the piece. That said, Kline misses in a far more interesting way than most of the pieces in the garden.