Temporary Contemporary

Friends of the Bass Museum, Inc. d/b/a Bass Museum of Art

Funding Received: 2012
Miami Beach, FL
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
March 14, 2014

Image courtesy of Meg Pukel

Just under a month ago, the Bass Museum of Art installed two new artworks by Miami-based artists in Collins Park as part of tc: temporary contemporary. Christy Gast’s “Self Portrait as the Barefoot Mailman,” 2013, is prominently displayed outside of the Bass’s front entrance, while Emmett Moore’s two seating decks, which make up his piece “Points of Pine,” 2014, are positioned nearby under the trees close to 22nd Street. Both projects were specially conceived with the general public, and public display, in mind, and have elicited various types of interaction and response from people who spend time in the park. Moore’s work will be the focus of a future post, but here I consider Gast’s “Barefoot Mailman.”


At first glance, Collins Park appears to have experienced a mini hurricane, resulting in Gast’s bronze-colored figurative statue landing headfirst in a patch of grass right in front of the museum. Anyone willing to reorient themselves to read the plinth’s text will discover that this bronze statue (which is actually made of Fiberglas and allows the work to maintain its precarious-looking balance) represents “The Barefoot Mailman,” a folkloric figure from the history of South Florida.

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For those who are unfamiliar with the story, the ‘barefoot mailmen’ as they eventually became known, delivered the mail between Palm Beach and Miami, traveling by boat or on foot, prior to the development of passable roads from 1885 to 1892. These mail carriers braved all manner of weather conditions, South Florida critters and other hardships to provide a crucial service. The mysterious disappearance and death of several mailmen while carrying out their work added to their fabled status, and they have been immortalized in a number of books and films.

Inspired by the actual efforts and romanticized travails of the barefoot mailmen, Gast’s sculpture celebrates these historical figures and cannily subverts traditional Western public sculpture by literally turning the statue on its head. Like many public spaces, Collins Park is home to commemorative sculpture in the form of several bronze portrait busts of renowned men. Within this context, the appearance of a larger-than-life-sized, bronze-colored, formally posed figure positioned on a pedestal is quite appropriate and perhaps unsurprising. However, Gast’s piece appears to honor a generalized figure—the Barefoot Mailman—rather than a specific individual (or even a specific mail carrier). The title of the work, Self Portrait as the Barefoot Mailman, provides an additional level of information that potentially transforms the viewer’s conception of the piece by revealing that the sculpture is in fact a representation of the artist inhabiting the role of the Barefoot Mailman. Gast has “smuggled” a monumental representation of a woman into the ranks of the more traditional-looking masculine public sculpture displayed in Collins Park.

Gast’s artwork encompasses a number of meanings by connecting with her wider practice, which often involves thinking about public space and utilizing her own body through performance. The sculpture memorializes the barefoot mailmen as actual historical figures and South Florida folklore; it places a twelve-foot-high statue of the artist in a central position outside of an art museum; it monumentally immortalizes a woman; and it literally turns a sculpture on its head.

Public art is often discussed in terms of its ability to “activate a space,” or to make people more aware of their surroundings, particularly places that they pass through regularly and perhaps take for granted. From the minute that Gast’s sculpture was installed, passersby began stopping to do a double take. Cyclists rubbernecked as they rode by, only narrowly avoiding collisions. The sculpture not only activates the space, but it also clearly “activates” the viewer in a number of ways. Most people are happy to adapt their way of looking to accommodate the work’s particular character, as the photograph illustrates.

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However, some viewers were mildly perturbed by the artwork. The Bass’s mail carriers were concerned that perhaps the piece represented a critique of the Postal Service. To clarify, the artist has nothing but love and respect for the USPS and its employees—the sculpture is, in part, a celebration of the importance of mail carriers’ roles in the history of South Florida. Furthermore, a few members of the public complained, “If it’s meant to be upside-down, why isn’t the text on the plinth the other way up so that we can read it easily?” Comments such as this reflect how used we are to seeing certain types of public sculpture, displayed in a particular way. Confounding these expectations can cause people to look twice, and sometimes think again about what public sculpture is and what it can be. Feedback—whether good, bad, or indifferent—and the voicing of opinions about public art demonstrates a certain level of engagement and indicates that people are looking, thinking, and reacting. Starting such conversations can only be a good thing.