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Size matters in Sonoma


“Monumental is not a matter of size,” so observed Albert Paley, sculptor of monumental metal behemoths.

And Sonoma is about to find out exactly what he meant by that.

Because from July to September this year, no fewer than five of Paley’s massive pieces will be on exhibit at various locations in downtown Sonoma – three on the Plaza, one at Depot Park and two more at the Sonoma Community Center.

The temporary public art display is an exhibit sponsored by the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art and has been showered with enough support from the Sonoma City Council to have made Peggy Guggenheim blush.

Sonoma’s enthusiasm for the public art proposal has been dripping like a Jackson Pollock paint stick ever since the idea first came before city officials in late winter, framed as another way to engage community members, educate students and impress tourists – not necessarily in that order. The Plaza is certainly big enough to absorb a few colossal masses of steel on its perimeters, and Depot Park and the SCC can always use a new reason for folks to pay them a visit.

Plus, there’s no denying that public art is a signifier of culturally significant cities – and there’s no reason for little Sonoma not to get on that cosmopolitan gravy train.

In fact, public art is not only a sign of cultural bravado, it’s one of historical consequence. Consider its antecedents:

The Sphinx, the Pyramids at Giza, the Parthenon, the statue of David, the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, Rodina Mat, the Angel of the North: the world’s most renowned works of art are often big, bold and make a statement about the monumentality of their place, their community… and, yes, their benefactors.

Paley, 73, is a particularly intriguing choice for Sonoma. Partly because his work is so un-Sonoma-like: we’re more used to pastoral, plein air, decoupage.

Sculpting from stone, metal and glass, Paley’s work ranges from everyday items like jewelry and candlesticks to what can best be called towering, jagged metal spears – like warped Ginsu knife sets from outer space. Unless those blade-like pieces are an artistic commentary on Plaza restaurants overcooking their Niman Ranch beef, it’ll be interesting to get Sonoma’s take on “Languorous Repose” and “Evanesce.”

Sonoma’s art-criticism chops aside, Paley’s work will be a walk in the park – literally: the Plaza and the Depot – compared with some of the less-appreciated displays that have cropped up in cities that should know better. Take Chicago’s universally ridiculed “Forever Marilyn,” a towering likeness of actress Monroe in the famous street-ventilation-strewn dress scene from “The Seven Year Itch, a kitsch behemoth that has inspired hundreds of thousands of classy photos of tourists ogling her nether regions from 20 feet below; or the curious sculpture at Zhengzhou Square in China showing cartoonish-looking son and mother pigs either a.) enjoying a “filial” back massage, as the Chinese art authorities insist (which is creepy enough, quite frankly), or b.) re-enacting a scene from “Deliverance.”

Some large-form artists aren’t simply tried in the court of public opinion for their ill-advised work – some are tried in actual criminal justice court for gross negligent manslaughter. That was the case with famed British artist Maurice Agis, whose 2006 installment in his “Dreamspace” series of inflatable walkthrough color-coated caverns detached from its moorings and flew through the air with 30 people inside – killing two and injuring a dozen.

Still, we’re quite sure Sonoma will survive Paley’s plus-sized pieces perfectly intact – save for the occasional “my kid could have metal-sculpted that” comment from the Sonoma peanut gallery we know and love so well.

Because as Aristotle said: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

That goes for the cities who dare to show the art, as well.

After all, monumental is not a matter of size.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.