Sculptures Build Community in Downtown Albany

Ten of Seward Johnson’s “Celebrating the Familiar” sculpture work is currently on display in downtown Albany. The exhibit features ten of Mr. Johnson’s pieces that were carefully placed in walking locations throughout downtown.

On a recent cool summer evening, Jim and I decided to take a walk around downtown Albany to enjoy the world-renowned artist’s work. We actually started at the second exhibit on the walk, following the map provided by The Downtown Albany Business Improvement District (BID) website. The link is if you are interested in taking the tour.

The artist, Seward Johnson, is the recipient of the 2019 International Sculpture Center Lifetime Achievement Award. He’s considered “America’s most popular sculptor” by many; and while he began his career as an oil painter, he has been using sculpture as a medium since 1968. His work historically pays homage to everyday life, and this exhibit appears to follow that them.

The placemaking program is aimed to connect downtown employees, residents and visitors to shared places by inviting art forms into those spaces. We started with “Skateboarder,” near where we parked on Broadway, and then proceeded to follow the map in sequence.

Important to note was the placement of this work is literally in everyday spaces being utilized by residents, so we were walking through neighborhoods to access them. Some of the folks shared with us “how freaky” it was to see a sculpture and expect it to move, “but it doesn’t.” One resident particularly mused with us over “Sidewalk Concert,” where the subject was playing violin over an open violin case. “Every time I see it,” the man laughed, “I think is that dude really playing violin for money?”

The pieces were all from a different time. From the working woman’s big bow on her attire in “Ambassador of the Streets” to the rather sexist and questionable “Elemental” that depicted a married man (see wedding band detail) holding an umbrella over a much younger, unmarried woman, the sculptures reflected perhaps the 1950s to 1970s time in American history.

There were off moments beyond the wedding band. While I love children, “Follow The Leader” felt a bit misplaced in downtown Albany. Depicting two white children from more rural settings, they felt out of place in the landscape of the city.

My favorite sculpture, however, had to be “Coming Home,” which is placed directly across the street from the Palace Theatre. The subjects are a young girl hugging a man in fatigues, and the relief in their faces felt more authentic than the rest.

Art should make us question realities, and this exhibit does so in the way it was curated and placed. Why, for example, have a painter placed on a corner without color? Why aren’t more of the subjects people of color themselves? And the choice of the one piece that clearly depicted a black person, “Coming Home,” is very narrow in its representation of black American life.

The sculptures are detailed. You will note a watch on many wrists, some eyes are colored vibrantly with blue while others are stony cold, and the dogs (how can I not mention the dogs) appear ready to run and play.

But they also felt forced and limited to one view of American life.

Perhaps the artist wants us to question these things deeply, noting wedding bands and details like watches to make us more aware of the world around us. Perhaps the artist is mocking how narrowly we define our everyday and ordinary life.

Or perhaps the art was simply meant, as the BID suggests, to welcome people into downtown Albany on foot.

Either way, go check it out. We have some great walking weather left, and the exhibit is on display through early November.

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