Bovine Intervention

Charles Fambro is having a cow, but not the kind he expected. In February the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs announced that it would organize “Cows on Parade,” an elaborate public art exhibit inspired by a similar project in Zurich; the Chicago show, which opens on Tuesday and runs through the end of October, will feature some 300 near-life-size fiberglass cows designed and painted by local artists and displayed all over the city, both singly and in herds. The Park District decided to sponsor a dozen, the largest group in the exhibit, and more than 100 young artists applied for the chance to paint one of them, an honor that included a $1,000 grant. Fambro’s design was among the 12 chosen by a panel of Park District officials, but now that he’s delivered his cow the Park District has rejected it, claiming it’s not the cow he proposed in his application. “It was completely different,” says Marguerite Jarrett, Park District director of marketing and communications, who was part of the selection panel. According to Fambro, his finished cow is too suggestive of the graffiti art the city has taken great pains to erase.

Some of the artists designing cows for the exhibit are well known–painter Ed Paschke has delivered a cow that was sponsored by arts patron Averill Levitan. But according to Nathan Mason, the Cultural Affairs administrator who’s been named “cow-ordinator” of the exhibit, most of the Park District cows were painted by relatively young and unknown artists. The herd will probably be displayed on the museum campus at the south end of Grant Park (though Jarrett would not confirm this). The sketch that Fambro submitted with his application showed a grazing cow covered in broad washes of red, green, yellow, and blue; Mason says it reminded him of the work of Sam Gilliam, an artist who first came to prominence in the 60s with explorations of African textile traditions. “Fambro’s cow had a soft, muted, tie-dyed quality about it,” says Mason. The artist says he began painting his cow about a month ago, but after a few days he realized the piece wasn’t working out to his satisfaction: “I could see the finished cow was going to look like shit unless I introduced more contrast into the colors in the piece.” So without informing the Park District or the Cultural Affairs Department, Fambro began to use brighter colors, employing spray paint to create what Mason describes as “more gestural” strokes of color. Notes the cow-ordinator, “Those were not on the original sketch.”

Fambro says he used spray paint in the sketch he submitted, but he’s convinced that the finished cow touched a nerve: in 1997 the city banned the sale of spray paint in an effort to discourage graffiti taggers from defacing public property. Presumably the Department of Cultural Affairs would be anxious to steer clear of anything in its cow parade that even remotely suggests graffiti; such a reference could invite vandals to deface the artwork, which will be on display–unprotected–for over four months. “We aren’t anticipating any major problems,” says Mason. But an epidemic of cow taggers could be disastrous for the exhibit, which is scheduled to end with a charity auction of some of the artwork. Fambro concedes that a casual observer might mistake his design for graffiti, and he isn’t as optimistic as Mason. He says a friend who saw the Zurich exhibit last summer told him that some of the bovines looked “pretty beat up.”

The artist isn’t surprised that he’s hit a roadblock with the city. He remembers being a little unnerved last April when he was presented with a contract indicating that the city would have final right of refusal on all finished cows. “I sensed there could be trouble with the implications of that.” But Fambro doesn’t consider the departure from his original plan radical enough to invalidate his contract. In a letter to Mason dated June 3, Fambro wrote, “After reviewing my outline proposal for ‘Cows on Parade’ and comparing it to the finished cow, in terms of the contract and all other written information I was furnished with, I have come to the conclusion that I have fulfilled my contractual obligations.” According to Fambro, the “actual cow in no way deviates from the outline” and the relationship between the two is, in fact, “complementary.” He insisted that his cow be displayed and that he be paid the $500 of his grant still owed to him. “Failure in this regard will result in legal action.”

Last week the Park District and the public-art program at the Department of Cultural Affairs were standing firm, saying they were under no obligation to honor their end of the agreement unless Fambro repainted the cow according to the original design. But late Friday afternoon, having caught wind of this column’s interest in the controversy, the city reversed itself: Pat Matsumoto, a spokesperson for Cultural Affairs, said the city would adopt Fambro’s unwanted cow from the Park District, though it would be displayed in a different location that might not be known until a couple days before the opening ceremonies on June 15. Then on Monday that decision was overruled by Mike Lash, director of the public-art program, who’d been out of town. Lash says that so far he’s looked at about 200 of the finished cows, and this is the only one he’s rejected; he insists that Fambro paint something closer to his proposal. “I don’t think that he’s given it his best shot,” says Lash. Fambro says he’s been told that he’ll get his $1,000, but now he’s not sure he wants the city to have his cow. And unless he redoes the cow, it won’t be in the show or the catalog and won’t be displayed anywhere as part of the official exhibit. Apparently the folks at Cultural Affairs aren’t easily cowed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.