`Male/Female' statue latest stop on `Zippy' trip

Baltimore figure in comic yesterday

August 27, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

It's a male.

It's a female.

And now it's a comic strip character.

Two months after it appeared in front of Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station, the 51-foot-tall aluminum sculpture known as Male/Female got its first national exposure yesterday - in the offbeat comic strip Zippy the Pinhead.

Connecticut-based artist Bill Griffith used yesterday's strip to focus on the $750,000 work by Jonathan Borofsky that consists of two interlocking figures, one male and one female, with a light where the heart would be.

Commissioned as a gift to the city from the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore City, Male/Female is the most expensive work of art ever donated to Baltimore.

"From one angle, I'm male," the figure in the comic strip tells Zippy. "In this mode, I want a cigar and a porn site." But from another angle, "I'm female," the figure continues. "In this mode, I want new shoes and lunch out."

In the final panel, the statue has the last word, decrying any efforts to stereotype men and women. "We must fight these simplistic reductionisms to our very last breath," it says.

Although the sculpture has received widespread attention in local publications since its June 4 dedication - including a steady stream of letters to The Sun questioning its artistic merit and a Sun editorial suggesting that it be relocated - the depiction in Griffith's strip, which is syndicated in 200 newspapers in the United States and abroad, represents the first time it has received any sort of national publicity.

The strip did not name the sculpture or say it was in Baltimore, but a companion Web site does.

Beverley Compton, president of the Municipal Art Society, said the comic strip was entirely unexpected but is nevertheless the sort of attention he hoped Borofsky's work would receive.

"We've done what most people thought was impossible: We've gotten the average person in the street talking about art," he said. "To have a nationally syndicated comic strip pick it up and write a funny vignette about it, I think that's just an extension of it."

In Griffith's strip, title character Zippy the Pinhead often encounters various "roadside icons" while on an open-ended cross-country journey.

Griffith says he comes up with about a quarter of the subjects that appear in the strip and others are suggested by readers. He said Male/Female was suggested by a Hunt Valley resident, Tim Quinn, who sent him photos of the piece shortly after it was installed.

Since the late 1990s, Griffith said, "Zippy has been obsessed with roadside architecture and icons from across the U.S. When he encounters a being such as this, he tends to hear it speak."

The objects that Zippy encounters may range from commercial figures such as Bob's Big Boy to the Hearst Castle in California to works of fine art by Claes Oldenburg. The sculptor of Male/Female is very much "on Zippy's wavelength," Griffith said.

"Not to get into art criticism too heavily, but the sculpture as I look at it is both intriguing and compelling but also a little kitschy, and I like that. It's a nice place to be - high art and low art at the same time."

Griffith said Borofsky's sculpture seems to be saying that people are full of contradictions, and he agrees with that message.

"I think everyone has a Republican in them and a Democrat in them. Everyone has a male in them and a female in them. Everyone has more than a few contradictions. ... That's what we're all about."

Griffith said he was also attracted by the boldness of Borofsky's piece.

"There's something slightly heavy-handed about it, and I don't mean that negatively," he said. "It makes its point very aggressively. ... It's a powerful image, which makes it ideal for Zippy.

"The nice thing about this kind of large, in-your-face public sculpture is that it's meant to be provocative," he added. "It provokes me. It provoked me to do a comic strip."

And unlike completely abstract art, Borofsky's piece has a literal quality that "invites the average person to react to it," he said. "In fact, you can't not react to it."

Reached at his studio in Maine, Borofsky said he was pleased to think that his work triggered another artist's creativity."

"I'm amazed that the sculpture has that much power that it finds its way into 200 newspapers," he said.

Male/Female is not the first Baltimore-area structure encountered by Zippy. Previous subjects include the Enchanted Forest in Ellicott City, the Sip 'n' Bite restaurant in Canton, and the Captain James Landing restaurant, which looks like a ship that ran aground on Boston Street.

Is Baltimore more fertile ground for Zippy than other places?

"It seems to be," its creator says.

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