Billie Lawless and The Politician: A Toy
In the twenty-three years since it first appeared, hallucination-like, along Chester Ave., Billy Lawless’ over-sized, playful sculpture “The Politician: A Toy” has become one of Cleveland’s most important pieces of public art. It’s not nearly as sinister as the snaking, twisted steel bar that constitutes Isamu Noguchi’s similarly huge 1976 “Portal”, installed on the sidewalk in front of the Justice Building downtown. Nor is the concept as snide (quite) as Claes Oldenberg’s big (but not as big) “Free Stamp,” “flung” (as the artist put it) onto a patch of lawn next to City Hall. If the city were a curated exhibition (rather than a random mess of two centuries worth of projects and relics), you could say “The Politician” was an appropriate inclusion in the show, since so many of Cleveland’s public sculptures are peculiar, politically pessimistic, and often controversial–which is actually something we can be proud of. Lawless’s work, for instance, has recently provoked an incident of outright censorship, as well as a lawsuit in defense of the artist’s First Amendment rights.
As Cleveland’s premier drive-by chunk of art, it’s hard to overlook, with its wire-cutter steel lips, its blearily flickering cyclopean live TV eye, its two-ton cedar shovel-handle (for being pulled by forces larger than the average voting bloc), and an enormous braided golden tail, brazen as a Napoleonic epaulette. If you work near downtown, have taken classes at Cleveland State University in the past two decades, or commute from the East side of town, you’ve seen it in situ. The 42 foot tall Politician is painted bright blue, red and yellow. Made mostly from steel, it weighs more than twenty tons. You can’t miss it, and you really can’t ignore it. “The Politician: A Toy” is one of those public art civic features that people either love, or hate, or love to hate. Certainly it doesn’t inspire indifference, which for any work of art is a rare and desirable achievement. I’m more in the hate-to-love party myself, but in the two decades since it first appeared, looming along the south side of Chester Avenue from a privately owned plot of ground a few blocks east of East 55th Street, I’ve become a fan of this loud, brash, always-relevant artistic/political statement, which I think works to complement other controversial Cleveland Late Modern and Postmodern monuments.
When it was originally completed after three years of fabrication (1992-1994), Lawless’s broadly satirical representation of political process and personas met a stony reception from the city’s officeholders, especially then-mayor Michael White. White (who, like many other Cleveland mayors tended to be plain-spoken) reacted with memorable bluntness: “I’ve seen it,” he said, when asked about Lawless’s new piece, “and I don’t like it.”
Nevertheless, denying accusations that he had delayed building permits for the sculpture, the work was eventually given the go-ahead and was installed almost two years later on a lot belonging to industrialist Roy Kuhn at the corner of East 66th and Chester Avenue, during the stormy winter of 1995-96. Seldom noted is the fact that this original position, about halfway downtown from University Circle, was pretty much in the backyard of the historic Dunham Tavern at East 67th and Euclid Avenue, visited in the course of field trips by whole generations of busloads of Cuyahoga County’s schoolchildren for more than half a century. That heavily restored structure is one of the few remaining links that connect Clevelanders to their city’s earliest days. After 1995, as an extra bonus to their break from classroom routine, a lot of kids got to see Lawless’s churning, sputtering “Toy.” Fitting, maybe, and definitely educational. But the placement also felt like a kind of exile, to a dead zone in the city that stopped being a neighborhood long ago, a limbo-like mix of urban policy zones. Much of it is open country now –the Green Corps Midtown Learning Farm is right there. That almost bucolic interlude is, in turn, being replaced as we speak with a new shopping district and University Hospital outpost, emerging in the blocks just above East 55th Street.
Then in 2008 CSU offered a plot of land nearer to the beating heart of Cleveland’s body politic, on CSU’s campus at the corner of Chester Avenue and East 18th Street. Even more importantly, they offered an attractive set of hands-off clauses in their contract with Lawless, committing to reimbursement for upkeep, a small monthly stipend, and a promise to leave the sculpture unaltered and unedited. It was a more widely visible, and you might say more grown-up situation for Lawless’s fundamentally mature art work (“Toy” or not). All the same, late last year someone ordered CSU workers to tape a square of opaque plastic over a statement that the artist had added to the metal text/fence which surrounds his work and has been updated from time to time, formerly without comment or interference. That action was followed up by a demand that Lawless’s new text be removed, a sentence which read: “Build a Wall of Pussie [sic]”.
Lawless responded quickly, filing suit against the University for violation not only of his contract with the school, but of his First Amendment rights. Damages were also mentioned in his suit – $75,000.00 — a substantial sum, maybe, but paltry when you consider the actual costs and hard-to-deny artistic and historic significance of the work. Anyway, two months later, Lawless is all smiles, at least for the moment. Asked about the progress of out of court negotiations encouraged by US District Judge Dan Polster, Lawless happily remarks, “It was a pleasant surprise. They saw everything there. Things began to change (in CSU’s attitude toward the piece) about a year ago, but they did renew my contract last year. So the installation will remain in place until 2020, at which point they could choose to renew again.”
There isn’t any talk of money, so far at least, but it looks like Lawless has come out on top in the matter of “The Politician: A Toy.” Perhaps his lawyers argued that, as far as President Trump’s very famously leaked backstage boast about “grabbing pussies” and any references to it were concerned, the cat has been out of the bag since 2016 – way out. It may be that that in the era of #MeToo the University feared irate students might rake the school over the coals for allowing such an apparently tone-deaf instance of misogynistic hate speech on campus. But again, Trump said it, and major networks did the reporting, so Lawless’s use of one presidential indiscretion to evoke the absurdity (and obscenity) of another pillar of presidential policy – the walling off of Mexico — seems apropos. During moments of crisis during past U.S. administrations Billie Lawless has added other phrases to his fence – “Obama Scare,” was one in 2012, and former President Bush’s 1988 campaign phrase about “A Thousand Points of Light” has been part of the fence-text from early on, lampooned as “A Thousand Points of Slight.” A satirist’s work is always a work in progress.
I drove past the corner of Chester and East 18th Street in late March. “The Politician: A Toy” was still there, standing tall (if slightly obscured by some intervening shrubbery). Through the icy drizzle I could even make out the words “Build a Wall of Pussie.” Sometimes the best aid to vision is a suitable storm of controversy.