A new sculpture on State Street has set off a sometimes angry debate about public art, free speech, and the rights of corporations to protect their logos. The work — titled “W”— is by Santa Barbara artist Colin Gray, and is on display outside the Bank of America on the corner of State and Canon Perdido streets. The piece is made of two large, irregularly shaped red wheels, each of which bears an inverted version of McDonald’s famed Golden Arches. A cluster of bright green arrows punctures the figure from above and behind. According to the artist, the work represents his intuitive personal musing on a 1999 incident in France, in which angry French farmers dismantled their local McDonald’s restaurant with pitchforks to protest globalization’s negative impact on the market for their cheese.
Just before last week’s official unveiling of the State of the Art Gallery public sculpture project, the Santa Barbara News-Press ran a photograph of the piece with the caption, “Die McDonald’s Die,” which the paper reported were the words a passing bicyclist yelled when he saw the artwork. Santa Barbara McDonald’s franchise owners Herb and David Peterson have taken this aggressive interpretation of the work’s message to heart. David — Herb’s son — has reportedly vowed to see to it personally that the sculpture be removed before it is officially due to be taken down on November 17. Rita Ferri — the visual arts coordinator at the County Arts Commission (CAC) and curator of the State of the Art Gallery — responded to Peterson’s threat by stating, “This is not a personal attack; David should learn a bit more about the work.” However, Ferri admitted, “In Colin’s work, the wheel is a symbol of war and of power gone awry.”
Feelings for and against the work and its presence on State Street have run high over the past 10 days, with local arts administrators entering the discussion via letters to the editor of the News-Press and open letters to those directly involved. CAC Executive Director Ginny Brush weighed in on Tuesday, September 5, pointing out in the News-Press that the public deserves to make up its own mind about all eight of the sculptures in this show, without having their preconceptions modeled by an anonymous passerby’s irresponsible characterization. For his part, artist Colin Gray claims to have been horrified in his own right by the caption’s murderous rhetoric; he insists in an open letter to David Peterson (which was published in full on The Independent’s Web site) that he wishes “to take the meaning of this work back and away from anything personal to do with you, your business, or the people that work for you.” Perhaps the most interesting and complex reaction to the piece belongs to David Peterson, who remains indignant, but has, in his own words, “cooled off” about it over the last few days.
The reasons for this newfound moderation are the “hundreds of messages” he reports having received in support of his family and McDonald’s over the past few days. Interestingly, Gray lays a similar claim to a groundswell of support for the piece, describing repeated incidents in which people have asked to shake his hand and told him that “this is just what Santa Barbara needs.” As Peterson continues to petition City Hall to order the removal of the sculpture, it remains to be seen who will have the last word on the big yellow letter. Is it an upside down “M” for “malicious” or, as Gray states, a big “W” for “We”? Whatever the outcome, there’s no doubt this is not the last we will hear about it.