Tom McGrath’s spectacular installation at the Dr. Phillips Center raises the bar for public art in Orlando

Public works of art must satisfy many constituencies; the artist was not intimidated

Jim Pugh, an Orlando developer and the chairman of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, faced a difficult challenge when he set out to choose an artist to adorn the theater bearing his and his wife’s name. He had seen Frank Stella’s much-loved ceiling mural at the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston, and he wanted something with the same architectural continuity and intense colors.

Stella was not an option, but Sue Scott, an art adviser to the Dr. Phillips Foundation and a longtime Orlando Museum of Art curator before she opened her own gallery in New York, suggested several well-known contemporary artists for the commission: notably Sarah Sze, Daniel Buren, Liam Gillick and Pat Steir. A mural of 1,200 square feet (the rough dimensions of the open area of the ceiling) by any of them would have cost a minimum of $1 million and taken at least a year to accomplish. Neither the time – less than seven months – nor the budget were sufficient to secure an artist of their stature.

Scott then suggested a New York-based painter, 36-year-old Tom McGrath. McGrath impressed the committee with his decade-long exhibition history, his conceptual rigor and pictorial sensibility, and his knowledge of architectural materials. McGrath got the commission, moved his studio into an empty Church Street space, and as of the public opening on Thursday, Nov. 6 (see Live Active Cultures, page 15), the citizens of Orlando can see this extraordinary artwork created for them by an artist intensely dedicated to his craft.

Public murals, like the astronomical ceiling of New York’s Grand Central Terminal, Chagall’s Four Seasons mosaic in the Chicago Loop and countless WPA projects across the country, have set towering historical and cultural precedents. These precedents, along with the imposing engineering and installation requirements, did not intimidate McGrath. The artist knew that a public artwork has to fulfill the ambitions and desires, sometimes contradictory, of many constituencies. The city has had some rather unsuccessful experiences with public art in the past, and the Dr. Phillips Center board’s dream of revitalizing downtown Orlando demanded that the art they commissioned be both contemporary and timeless, international and local, high-minded and populist.

McGrath – whom the artist David Salle called “a new breed of realist” in a 2012 essay in the Paris Review – uses landscape as a departure point from which to explore our engagements with the social space, depicting both places and, at a conceptual remove, the moment of those places being seen. In a recent interview with Orlando Weekly, the artist said, “I’ve been thinking about the planetarium effect – a reminder of everyone’s childhood seduction and fascination by the magic of the heavens.” To awaken these memories, McGrath has deployed a swirl of bright colors, gestural forms and morphing shapes engaged in a push-and-pull of dynamic relations. With a conceptual approach, McGrath treats the architectural features of the building as a canvas, and dissolves them into a limitless sky.

As in his paintings, McGrath introduced gridded areas and moiré patterns to provide structure to the vortex of imagery. Asked about his image referents, he reels off more than we can enumerate here: “A large net, silkscreens of brushstrokes and splatters that I made and photographed, vector meshes of flight maps for Orlando and major central Florida airports, Judson Theater dancers, breakdancers … a distorted sample of the painting ‘Victory Over the Sun’ by Lissitzky, a Tiepolo engraving, a hypercube section, a diagram of the entire Internet, a painting of a cloud by Constable” – these are just some of his visual catalog.

The 26 panels are “screened, hand-painted, sprayed, spattered and brushed,” on Barrisol, “a French architectural polymer used mostly for ceilings resembling skylights and difficult architectural shapes.” The translucent elastomeric plastic is back-lit, which alters the color saturation and hue and required McGrath to carefully monitor the thickness of the paint he was applying by spray and brush. The silkscreened parts of the work were produced at Flying Horse Editions (with the help of Adrian Gonzalez) during the seven months the artist has been in Orlando.

This mural commission is a new departure for McGrath; his success here will make it a challenge for him to return to his gallery-scale art making. For now, we know he has made a great contribution to the desire for downtown Orlando to become a place where the arts and the people come together. Let this be the start of successful place-making, with artists and art at the center of planning, execution and activity in the public realm.


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