Letter: Is it art — or a disgrace? | June 19, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



Viewpoint - June 19, 2013

Letter: Is it art — or a disgrace?

Please take a moment to look at this photo. The "sculpture" in the photo is located on Willow Road and Coleman Avenue in Menlo Park.

This is a disgrace to a beautiful city that prides itself on beauty. How this came to be was a city mistake at a cost of over $50,000.

This is the only entrance to Menlo Park on the north side coming off Highway 101. You would think the city fathers would want a sculpture or beautiful grove of flowering trees that would make a visitor or commuter smile. Instead, we have this mass of rocks made to look like ... couches? Makes one wonder, why and how did something like this happen?

Is there a "fix" for it? Tear it out, or as Reagan would say, "Take down this wall of rock"? We would like to hear the opinion of your readers.

Tawny and Bob Barnett

Willow Road, Menlo Park


Posted by Quetzacoatl, a resident of another community
on Jun 18, 2013 at 7:27 pm

Former San Jose mayor Susan Hammer approved a $500,000 payment to commission a "Statue representing the historial and cultural significance of the fine city of San Jose".

Web Link

Posted by Joe, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 21, 2013 at 12:00 pm

I agree with the writer's opinions of this sculpture. The Peninsula is home to many such "works of art," too many. But this is, after all, a set of communities populated by technologists and the people who serve the interests of technological advancement and the resulting quick buck ... not a group steeped in the cultural values that would lead to respectable public art.

For great art, go to a cosmopolitan community.

Posted by Joe, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 21, 2013 at 1:23 pm

I want to add that by "respectable public art," I meant art that invites serious consideration.

Posted by no couch potato, I, a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Jun 21, 2013 at 2:02 pm

Joe, I'm glad you clarified that. Art should make one think. It shouldn't clamor for respectability in the sense that word is so often used -- a designation of approval for conventional actions and thinking.

The story from the Almanac back when the sculpture was commissioned quotes the artist's project description:

"Like the site itself, once blanketed with farmland, later home to working-class residents, and now an active, professional suburban neighborhood, 'Convertibles' physically and metaphorically embodies the essence of transition."

Here's a link to the story.


Posted by Rocks, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 21, 2013 at 2:28 pm

I enjoy that sculpture; it has a sense of whimsey about it that I find charming. It took me a while to figure it out, since I only experience it while driving by.

BTW, could someone enumerate "the cultural values that would lead to respectable public art."?

Posted by Joe, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 21, 2013 at 3:01 pm

The cultural values I am thinking of arise from a vital street culture, a mass transit system that everyone uses for all manner of trips, neighborhoods other than suburbs, parks with public swimming pools, vibrant alternative cultures, world class museums, libraries that are more than one-story rooms with books in them, the kind of thing you have to go to San Francisco to even get close to experiencing.

Instead we have a car culture where only the poor ride mass transit, neighborhoods distinctive for and prized for their tranquility, miniature parks, parks without shade, parks built on landfills, city centers with almost no place to sit, no public pools (Menlo Park excepted, but its lessons are privatized!), a distaste for tall buildings much less beautiful buildings, houses built to celebrate the back yard rather than the street, garage sales with nothing interesting for sale, a street culture that consists of people walking their dogs, no sidewalks, no street food, no street music, but money, lots and lots of money to enrich private lives. There probably is great art on the Peninsula, but it's all behind private walls. Need I go on?

Posted by whatever, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 21, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Perhaps move it to the Bayfront Park which was made out of our former city dump.

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of another community
on Jun 21, 2013 at 8:24 pm

Joe - your neighborhood may not have sidewalks, but much of Menlo does.

Just curious - what do you get out of living in Menlo? I found it a great place to grow up. It was more diverse then, too - & not having $$ wasn't as huge of a barrier then as it is now. The schools weren't as good, which is why we went to private school. But there was more economic, racial, lifestyle & ethnic diversity then. There was more art, more artists.

The one down side to all of the good stuff you mentioned: noise. Vibrant neighborhoods are generally noisy. Since much of this state has been built w/out double-paned windows, noise is an issue.

But on another note, the last couple days errands took me to the same lovely Menlo neighborhood. It was very quiet, very peaceful - & to a fault, everyone outdoors that I saw had their heads glued to their phones, despite the incredible beauty around them. This wasn't a super fancy neighborhood, & when I was growing up, it was less lovely. A concerted effort has gone in to making suburban homes look like Wisteria Lane - more cute fences, sweet arbors, tinkling fountains & trailing blooms. As much as I appreciate the visuals, I know there's been a real cost - not just the deceptive financial cost, but the cost of what you've described. However, your town was never intended to be like life in the big city. It's unapologetically a 'burb. Gone are the Hell's Angels who lived next door to my kindergarten...oh, those were the days!

The good news is that there's still some funk in Menlo's trunk - but you have to be an oldtimer like me, or really keep your eyes peeled. For example, did you know that gypsies hang out at Cook's Seafood? Yep, they eat their frequently, right in the middle of the 'burbs, in your 'hood!

Posted by personal taste, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 21, 2013 at 11:29 pm

It's a matter of personal taste. Like Rocks, I find the flying couch humorous, amusing, and though-provoking; much more enjoyable than some stodgy and serious monument.

Posted by Looking for meaning, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 22, 2013 at 10:28 pm

Joe, I'm thinking maybe your definition of cultural values as reflected in suburbia is the best argument in support of a sculpture of couches reflecting the suburban peninsula. Couches, as in the safe, comfortable place of repose for suburbanites not compelled to engage in the street culture you refer to.

Of course, if you really want to get cynical, you might see couches as as a symbol for the professional help that so many of the overworked, over-stressed, half-crazed, ever-striving residents of our outwardly tranquil city seek to deal with the neuroses resulting from suburban life. And what do you think of that theory, Dr. Freud?

Posted by Joe, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 24, 2013 at 9:47 am

How silly of me not to see the profound significance of the couch as a symbol of our manifest yearning for inner comfort by imagining external postures of being at ease. But then it's made of rocks. But recall Rodin's Thinker. He, too, sits on a rock. I wonder if he'd like living on the Peninsula?

Dr. Freud, were he here, would probably remind us that sometimes a couch is just a couch.

Posted by Lurker, a resident of another community
on Jun 24, 2013 at 3:22 pm

Can someone post a photo of the sculpture?

Posted by registered user, Renee Batti, a resident of associate editor of The Almanac
on Jun 24, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Lurker, Here's a link to the PDF of last week's Almanac. The photo you're looking for is on Page 11 of the section (the penultimate page).

Web Link

Posted by Jeff S., a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Jun 24, 2013 at 9:53 pm

Hey guys,

I had thought that it was some ruins of something that we weren't able to tear down due to historical signifigance. It would be a very nice spot to plant a grove of Willow trees (to go with Willow Rd) instead or some more greenery. Artwork is more appropriate and more thought-provoking in more pedestrian-friendly areas like a downtown area, library or city center where they can be pondered, appreciated or not. The funny thing is that there is no real bench to even sit at to even contemplate this beast. I suspect that if this was right outside the main library or city hall building it would have been removed long ago or perhaps never installed as most would realize that it is really odd. The placement of it here is even odder even for an open-minded art lover. It belongs in the middle of a park inside a modern art museum for people to ponder. It's at the busy road side of the park and unless you want your kids to come and play by the road while you ponder the rock sculpture...you get my point. It's argueably also a distraction for drivers who will be wondering what in the world it is and it's a bit of a liability if kids climb up it. It's time to find something different for the space.

Jeff S. Menlo Park

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of another community
on Jun 25, 2013 at 12:10 am

Joe - The Thinker already does reside on the peninsula - he's at Stanford & available for viewing in the Diekman Gallery!

Posted by JIM, a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Jun 25, 2013 at 12:12 pm


Posted by OlderMom, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 25, 2013 at 12:34 pm

This statue is near the entrance to a park and there is a fair amount of pedestrian traffic along Willow Road at that point. I have often seen kids climbing onto the lower portion of it - sort of like a play structure for those a little older than the ones who play inside the park. I like it - I think rocks are pretty natural too.

Posted by Compass Rose, a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Jun 25, 2013 at 12:54 pm

"This is the only entrance to Menlo Park on the north side coming off Highway 101."

Many of us use Marsh, on the MP border as a northern entrance.

The Barnett's sense of Art is about as developed as their sense of direction, although those of us in Suburban Park are well aware that MP ignores Bohannon and Suburban Park.

Until they need money.

Posted by Downtowner, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 25, 2013 at 1:22 pm

"Couches" might commemorate the discarded furniture on piled on sidewalks waiting to be selected by passers-by whose furniture is even less attractive.

Posted by Joe, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 25, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Personally, I'd like to see a roving exhibit in which The Thinker moves around town to gaze at various objects, including objects of art, certain prominent trees, the outdoor basketball court at Burgess Park, the bicycle rack at the library, Starbucks, etc.

Posted by Stu Soffer, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jun 25, 2013 at 1:53 pm

We modestly collect art and sculpture, so at times I put money where my mouth is. My most charitable comment regarding the Willow Road is that the work is more appropriately called "Rubble." But that's art: it should invite interpretation.

I attended it's unveiling - it being a big community event. Menlo Park could have done much better on dressing up that important location.

Which reminds me - for all the handwringing regarding El Camino and the Specific Plan, this was (hopefully is), an opportunity for intertwining interesting art throughout whatever goes into El Camino. We no longer have an Arts Commission that could review such things.

Kudos to Roy Borrone for actively curating and promoting many artists at the family Cafe at 1010 El Camino.

Posted by Ethan, a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Jun 25, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Since there is no visual referent here, I'm assuming this is a piece of conceptual sculpture that the reader must imagine based on the various critiques.

"Art is anything you can get away with."
--Marshall McLuhan (not Warhol)

Posted by Art Critic, a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Jun 25, 2013 at 2:57 pm

This is the finest public art installation since Cristo's "The Gates" in New York City.

See Web Link


Posted by Joe, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 25, 2013 at 2:58 pm

Ethan - Imagine a couch made of river rocks that is right side up but mounted in the middle on a strange pyramid-like pedestal also made of river rocks. The couch is bending towards the ground on either side.

Now place on one end of that bending couch ... another couch! This one, however, is on its end and launching into the sky like a rampant lion.

I know, couches are not animate. Like humor, some pieces of art -- like this one! -- would benefit greatly from a consistent relationship with reality.

To see GREAT art with rocks, go to Runnymede Sculpture Farm in Woodside (when it's open to the public).

Web Link

Posted by Stu Soffer, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jun 25, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Fair enough.

My benchmark on outdoor installations is the Storm King Art Center upstate NY:

Web Link

Posted by Willows resident, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 26, 2013 at 10:57 am

Is that what that is? Public art? I've always wondered what those rocks were there for, but it never occurred to me that they were art!

Posted by Nicole Williams, a resident of another community
on Jun 26, 2013 at 11:29 am

I used to live in Menlo Park and on a recent visit noticed this rock formation. I too never thought that this was art but rather a pile of rubble. I wondered why Menlo Park would have an eyesore like this for people to see and associate with such a wonderful city.

Posted by Davena Gentry, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 26, 2013 at 1:01 pm

Yesterday there was a little boy under a multi-colored umbrella sitting up in the "couch" reading. I thought it was a great sight and now regret not stopping to photograph!

Posted by Michelangelo, a resident of Woodside: Woodside Glens
on Jun 26, 2013 at 2:27 pm

Different strokes; not my cup of tea, but so what?

Now don't get me wrong, I really do love and appreciate art (in college I minored in art/art history--yeah, yeah, I know...), but honestly, outside of thinking I might be looking at the remains of an old house, at a brief (as in driving by) glance it just looks like a precarious pile of rocks in earthquake country. As long as it was donated, the price was right. ;>)

Posted by Thomas Mayer, a resident of another community
on Jun 26, 2013 at 2:41 pm

When I first saw this I thought it was the foundations of an old barn sort of pushed up into a pile by a bulldozer. The 65-year-old man in me was saddened by the passing of the old building. The 10-year-old kid in me wanted to go play king of the mountain with my friends.

I would much rather my tax dollars be spent on art like this rather than on just another statue of an old white guy.

Posted by Allied arts, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 27, 2013 at 2:35 am

Really terrible. Most people will not feel free to express a negative view. I am sure it will be considered very ignorant

Posted by Judy S., a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 27, 2013 at 5:14 pm

When this "art" was built, I remember a part of it fell off. It's too bad the whole piece did not collapse. This "pile of rocks" was better suited for Bayfront Park.

A grove of flowering trees would have been more suitable. After all, Menlo Park's symbol is a tree!

Posted by Joe, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 27, 2013 at 6:53 pm

I wonder why it is that great public art is so rare in Silicon Valley. My guess, and there is probably no way to check this out, is that art and the idea of a common benefit deriving from an encounter with truth and beauty in the same object at the same moment, are not priorities.

Silicon Valley is a Libertarian stronghold, right? Maybe art that is great or approaching great confuses technologists with the unknown and, for them, possibly unknowable universe of aesthetic values. Maybe they would feel intimidated and bewildered in their own stomping ground. And we can't have that.

Posted by Nathan, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Jun 28, 2013 at 4:00 am

That is one ugly eyesore of a sculpture. It looks a little bit like a snaggle-toothed dragon mouth...missing the rest of its head, or else a giant staple-remover.

And that 'couch' part.

It looks like there was a construction project with a lot of leftover material, and the crew got drunk and said, "I know, let's just glue all this crap together somehow and see what happens!"

Posted by Joe, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 28, 2013 at 8:43 am


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of another community
on Jun 28, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Joe - I think you're onto something re Sili Valley folks being confused w/aesthetic values. I've noticed that as well. There's such a huge divide between the artists & the techies, especially in the past 20 years. There used to be more overlap. When I hosted art openings & repped a couple of artists, the techies of course had money for art. But there's less interest from what I've seen. A friend in LA who owns a gallery noticed the same thing when he used to frequently travel up this way for the tech company we worked for.
I do understand if it's not relevant to folks. But I also recognize the imbalance here - especially w/those who actually have a visual art budget!

I've made a concerted effort to buy pieces that we love from local artists & they're a constant source of pleasure. That's what public art should be, at least for the majority.

Posted by Pat, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jun 29, 2013 at 1:01 pm

To the pretentious, want-to-be-arty, this is a work of art. I see it as a contorted pile of rock that reminds me of the "Emperor who Wore no Clothes.'

Posted by Pat, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Jun 29, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Oops, I meant to say "The Emperor's New Clothes, but you get my meaning!

Posted by Honore, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 29, 2013 at 2:35 pm

Bad as it is, at least it is just rocks. I would much rather have this than that child/automobile sculpture with a face and legs on California Ave. in Palo Alto. That thing gives me the creeps and would cause automobile accidents for sure!

Posted by Los Libertarian , a resident of Hillview Middle School
on Jun 29, 2013 at 3:43 pm

"Silicon Valley is a Libertarian stronghold, right?"

Sure, look at all the Libertarians elected in the area.


Posted by Joe, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 30, 2013 at 11:15 am

Yes, there are few to no public officials declared as members of the Libertarian Party. Silicon Valley is mostly represented by Democrats, I'd guess.

But that has little to do with the strong strain of Libertarian sentiment here in this culture. In my 20 years employed in high technology companies in Santa Clara county, the HARDEST conversation, the VERY HARDEST conversation to have was a conversation about larger issues -- ethics in government, social justice, climate change, corporate power, money in politics ... you name it. Books, foreign films, the humanities, all also essentially off limits.

Blank stares, that's what I remember. Blank stares and "let's get back to talking about technology" or the stock market or a pending sales coup or varieties of beer or just yukking it up about something juvenile. Mostly it was about technology.

I don't think it's inappropriate or over the top to call Silicon Valley a cultural wasteland. But a wasteland filled with people who have successfully hijacked the routines of the country's culture at large and bent them, over 30 years, to the products of their uninteresting and ultimately barren imaginations.

Posted by Groucho, a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 30, 2013 at 12:57 pm

I've been in the area for decades and worked for a lot of technology companies and vendors to tech companies. I've had no problem with current events and/or political conversations with many, many good folks on either the liberal or conservative ends of the spectrum. The one place I find an inability to have a decent conversation is with the few Paulies and other libertarians I run into occasionally. They don't seem interested in discussion. Well, two-way discussion. The few I've heard from seem bent on indoctrinating converts in a style typical to Moonies or JW's. ("Ya gotta read Atlas Shrugged!" the same way a JW wants you to read his handout, and then launching into educating you about the gold standard, etc..)

As to Joe's grasp of reality:
- "there are few to no public officials declared as members of the Libertarian Party" Huh? There are none, zero, zip, nada; not "few to no". You are vastly overestimating the Libertarian bent or representation in the Valley, imho.
- "Silicon Valley is mostly represented by Democrats, I'd guess". Guess again - the entire Bay area is *solely* represented by Democrats at the national level.
- "But that has little to do with the strong strain of Libertarian sentiment" Based on what? Your opinion that the Valley is a "cultural wasteland"?? One should be cautioned: do not confuse greed with libertarianism (though their is a strong crossover.)

Based on those Joe's views, one imagines it might be difficult to stimulate conversation about either art or politics.

Back to art: sure, the valley isn't San Francisco or New York. No one is. That's why SF and NY are so special. We are very lucky to be so close, 40 mins to one and 5 hours to another.

Here's a NY guy: "Well, Art is Art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know."

Posted by Joe, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 30, 2013 at 1:22 pm

I'm not setting myself up as the authority on the culture of Silicon Valley, but I do have a view that is based on three decades of living and working here, and having traveled some during that time.

Granted, there are no Libertarians in office. But I absolutely stand by my anecdotal accounts of trying to talk with my co-workers when I was active in the high-tech sector: 1980 - 2000. Maybe there's been a sea change in the last 13 years. I am so, so glad and relieved to be away from having engineers and tech-oriented people as interlocutors that I haven't been checking. And I don't plan to. That was a bad, bad dream.

The selection of movies that show here, the recent New Yorker story on the sad state of humanities education at Stanford, the relentlessly uninspiring architecture ... If there is evidence of higher culture not secreted away in some nook or cranny, I don't know where to find it.

Posted by Joe, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 30, 2013 at 1:59 pm

"Sad state of humanities at Stanford" may be overstating it, but the point about the New Yorker story is that it reveals that the area's principle university is oriented toward business and entrepreneurship, including active participation among members of the faculty and staff.

Web Link

"What's the return on my investment?" is the operative question before taking a particular course, according to the story. I want nothing to do with such calculations.

Stanford and Silicon Valley seem to have become creations of each other's ambitions. I find that deeply disturbing.

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of another community
on Jun 30, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Joe - I agree. While I know more artists & creatives in this valley than many others do, it's because I'm a lifelong resident & have a bent in that direction. That said, the majority of the artists/creatives (by that, I don't mean app developers or advertising execs!) I know moved out of the valley a ways back. A lot of them are in Oakland, SF, Santa Cruz, LA & out of the state. A surprising number live on the coast, Sebastopol & Petaluma.

I also know a number of frustrated, older, but financially successful techies who've rebelled in middle age & participate in Burning Man & art collectives, the latter not in the valley. I've also organized low attendance art get togethers in the past. And yet, many tecchies consider themselves urbane & cultured, because they've been to Paris or Venice.

The other night, I was listening to the Instagram founders talk on KQED & I had to turn it off. They sound very nice, thoughtful, intelligent & harmless, but that hyperfocus on apps + hipster culture -artistry was just too much.

Some years ago, I dated a PhD student at Stanford who actually left after his 2nd Masters (he was in engineering) because he was very turned off by the "ROI" mentality of his program, fellow students & much of Stanford. Eventually he returned & completed it, having made a wary peace w/it. Not surprisingly, he married a creative academic & lives in NYC. He isn't creative, but unbalanced attitude really bothered him. I found it striking, insightful & was thrilled that, due to his education abroad, even as an engineer he was so turned off!

Thank you for your comments - this has inspired me to get in touch w/a friend who pledged to plan some art dinners this summer :-)

Posted by Joe, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 30, 2013 at 4:49 pm

Thanks! I appreciate the support.

Posted by tawny barnett, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jul 2, 2013 at 1:50 pm

Now that we have had many comments regarding this "disgrace" not my word but it works, I am looking for a solution to getting this eyesore removed and replaced with something more attractive such as a grove of trees or a rock garden possibly even using the existing rocks. If anyone has suggestions, please submit your ideas. We have more comments against this eyesore than for it so I believe we should continue with this project and make this Menlo Park entrance more attractive.
thank you all taking the time to address this.
thank you
tawny barnett

Posted by Joe, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jul 2, 2013 at 4:05 pm

With the rocks cemented together, I don't see how this can be taken apart and yield anything of value.

I feel like I'm recommending a book burning, but maybe this sculpture should be fed to a rock crusher. Speaking of rocks, there's a Sisyphean task ... getting the town council to seriously consider destroying a work of public art.

Posted by mary ellis, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jul 9, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Would it be possible to get a petition going to get rid of this rock mess? Maybe take it up with the city council? I would gladly sign a petition.