Outdoor murals have become an excellent artistic way for cities, especially those with older neighborhoods, to fight the urban blight and aesthetic depression that comes from vacant buildings, ugly commercial billboards, industrial abandonment and just plain aging.
They are, when done right, an inspirational gift of beauty and brightness. But they can also fall prey to sentimentality and/or innocuousness — their need to not offend their hosts can make them clichéd and nostalgic, or excessively message-y in an "eat your vegetables" way.
Cincinnati is lucky to have a very savvy organization, ArtWorks, administer an especially active and lively MuralWorks program, in which professional artists and youth apprentices have worked with neighborhoods to complete 17 murals so far. The artwork is of a high order and everyone seems open to new, interesting ideas.
Of those I've seen — I hope ArtWorks organizes bus tours soon — I have especially liked Northside's explosion of flowers and Carthage's post-card-like imagery. But the real conversation starter is the new Camp-Y Washington mural in Camp Washington, designed by artist Scott Donaldson with community input.
The mural, situated along a south-facing section of an aging four-story red-brick building on Colerain Avenue just north of Hopple Street across from the Camp Washington Chili parking lot, honors the neighborhood's namesake. Sort of.
Organized like a painting in a frame, it features George Washington in drag — a campy sensibility — with a decorative hat, rouged cheeks, a big pearl necklace and a ruffled yellow dress with a low bust line revealing a hint of cleavage.
In his right hand, he holds feathers. His left is petting a cow whose head is sticking out from the frame right toward us. Its mouth is open as if laughing — at us? Within the mural's picture plane are some flying pigs, a metal robot and a gorilla that is holding up the letter "Y" at the end of the painted word "CAMP." The mural is a (slightly forced) visual pun.
The references to the neighborhood's businesses — past and present — are unmistakable. Washington is wearing an outfit like one from the nearby costume shop on Colerain that has a gorilla on its front faade. The pigs and cow are references to the stockyards and meatpacking plants once along Spring Grove Avenue.
I'm not entirely enamored of this mural. I like the teasing humor of Washington in drag; you have to be awfully literal-minded to be offended by its depiction of our first president. But the slight twist of Washington's arm as he pets his cow, while in the manner of the stiff formality of a bygone era's formal portraiture, is dangerously close to using unsubtle stereotype.
Still, the piece's overall sense of irreverent humor makes it a cheerful presence in its environment. And it makes Camp Washington, whose history includes being home to the dank, infamous prison known as the Workhouse, seem a happier, friendly place for hosting it. The kind of place to visit and enjoy — maybe even live.
CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]