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What to Look For in Monumental Sculpture

By Beau Smith

Monumental sculpture is exceptionally large sculpture. It is called "monumental" because monuments are often large sculptures. But such sculptures are not just monuments. Any large public sculpture, or any large sculpture, for that matter, is monumental. What should you look for? It should be sturdy and long-lasting. It should have a powerful presence. It should be the product of a big idea. Last but by no means least, it should be safe. I will review these criteria.

A public sculpture has to be a lot sturdier and a lot more structurally sound than a sculpture that goes in someone's backyard. The collector who buys art for the home or outdoor landscape would hope his purchase was as structurally sound and sturdy, but it rarely is. One should not be too upset about this. Public sculpture has to be exceptionally sturdy. The sculptor who attains public placement usually has a level of professionalism that recognizes the demands of public sculpture, demands that are different from backyard and garden sculpture.

Generally, the bigger the sculpture, the more structurally sound it has to be. If the sculpture is bigger than human-size, it moves out of the realm of that which the private art collector would buy and deeper into the realm of public sculpture. Thus, sculptors who regularly produce large, monumental pieces - anything over six feet tall or wide - tend to produce very sturdy pieces. Sculptors who regularly produce small work - anything less than four feet high - tend to have much less concern about structure and sturdiness. This may seem obvious, but it is something to remember when commissioning large pieces.

Aside from structural integrity, monumental sculpture offers, or should offer qualities that do, as it happens, reflect the title "monumental". Large sculpture should stand out. It should have a powerful presence. It doesn't necessarily have to leap out at you as a billboard would. Rather, it should have a powerful presence that does not have to leap out at you like an advertisement. The sculpture should give the viewer the feeling "Ah, here's something." The sculpture should capture your attention with its powerful presence. It should evoke awe and wonder - as well as any other emotions.

Big sculpture must present the "big idea". So if you were to say, "What's the big idea?" And someone pointed to the sculpture and said "That is, over there." You would have to agree, "Yeah, I guess you're right. That is a big idea." Some ideas should not be big: They should not be presented in large work. That does not mean the idea is any less worthy. It's just not a big idea...yet, anyway.

A sculptor need not come up with lots of big ideas. He might come up with one big idea and work that idea for years, perhaps a lifetime. Another artist might be comfortable working out little ideas, one and then another. Neither artist is better. The little idea artist should not, however, be making large, monumental sculpture: not unless he's found a big idea, or melded all the little ideas into a big one.

The last criterion for monumental sculpture one is pragmatic - and important, prosaic as that criterion might be: large sculpture has to be safe. Such sculpture is often made of metal. If it is not made of metal, it can be made of stone or concrete. The point here: Most materials a large sculpture can be made of are not soft. Therefore, they should not have any uncommonly sharp edges. For sure you expect a public work to be devoid of that. But the private sculpture also has to be safe. We, the general public, assume the sculpture is safe whether it is or is not. Thus, the creator of large sculptures has to take safety into account. If the work has a patina, is it safe to handle the work? Have any excess chemicals been washed off? Can the sculpture poke someone in the eye? Is it possible to walk into the sculpture and hurt oneself? And so on.

The private collector should think about this. He is not as protected as the buyer for public work. The buyer for public work is going to think about safety. The residential buyer, not necessarily. But he should.

Beau Smith is a professional multi-media artist who creates human-sized copper frogs. He also paints, writes, makes music, and designs for the web. His site is at http://beautifulfrog.com


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