If you walk or bike along the Brooklyn Greenway this month, you’ll probably see something very unexpected: a 10-foot-tall sculpture of Picasso mowing a lawn.
On view through July 15th, Elliott Arkin’s sculpture, appropriately titled The Spanish Gardener, sits on the corner of Degraw and Columbia Streets in the Columbia Waterfront District, a block or two from the East River. Arkin, a journeyman artist known for his wacky, art-history-referencing sculptures—lives nearby.
“The Brooklyn Greenway was a perfect fit,” Arkin tells artnet News. “When you’re doing a large piece like this, I think it’s important to give it a social context. Without that it would be just another public sculpture.”
That said, it’s hard to imagine Arkin’s work as ever being seen as “just another public sculpture.” It is after all, a cartoonish lawn gnome of the world’s most famous painter—replete with his signature horizontal-striped shirt—standing as tall as an NBA basketball hoop.
Like many of Arkin’s works, The Spanish Gardener grew out of a joke.
“I used to say that if Picasso was around today he would have to mow lawns for a living,” he says. “The art world has changed that much.”
He describes the piece as a “visual poem” with layers of meaning. In the press release, Arkin writes that, on one hand, it can be seen as a “salutation to the common man”; on the other, it’s a metaphor for artists’ roles as “caretakers, planting ideas and doing the work that shapes our space and world.” Ultimately, he notes, “it’s a satire on the art world with political, environmental, and social commentary.”
The sculpture is part of Arkin’s larger series of famous artists depicted as lawn gnomes, called “A Peaceable Kingdom.” Others include Georgia O’Keeffe planting calla lilies next to a cow skull, Louise Bourgeois having tea with a spider, Vincent Van Gogh sowing seeds, and a Speedo-clad Andy Warhol standing on a Brillo Box as he fills up an inflatable pool with a garden hose. Most of these works are only around 30 inches tall, however, making Picasso by far the biggest of the bunch.
“I like to camouflage my work with these kind of utilitarian objects—a garden gnome, in this instance, says Arkin. “It’s presented as something that’s not capital ‘A’ art. When you show someone something and tell them, ‘this is art,’ that can be unsettling. I want my work to be approachable by everyone, regardless of their background.”
Arkin has worn many creative hats in his time. After graduating from Amherst College in 1983, he moved to New York. He designed windows for Tiffany & Co. on Fifth Avenue, and worked with a film production company, Broadcast Arts, where, alongside fellow artists Wayne White and Gary Panter, he made animations for several commercials and TV shows, including Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
In the ’90s, he was the cartoonist-in-residence at the now defunct artnet Magazine. Since then, he has been commissioned to make work for the Three Tenors, design jewelry for the Warhol foundation, and he even received his real-estate license. He revisited his film connections in the late 2000s, when he helped out with Horton Hears a Who, for which he “carved the kangaroo.”
The majority of his sculptures, including those in the “Peaceable Kingdom” series, feature a mixed bag of references, typically having to do with the art world and its recognizable faces—art critic Charlie Finch carnivorously eating dealer Mary Boone, for instance, or a small maquette of Ai Weiwei giving the middle finger (it’s meant to serve as a ring holder). Recently, Arkin co-launched a Salvator Mundi-themed Cryptocurrency called Mundicoin.
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