17 May Street sculptures have lifelike appeal

The sculpture “Double Check” is in Liberty Park near Ground Zero. It depicts a seated businessman hunkered over his briefcase. The figure was covered in white dust from the attacks, which might have caused rescuers to mistake it for a real-live human being, slumped over in shock or pain.The bronze sculptures of J. Seward Johnson are so realistic that emergency responders at the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City reportedly tried to rescue one of them.

Thursday, 15 of Johnson’s uncannily lifelike sculptures took up their posts at various points among the plazas, fountains and walkways of Gateway Center, Downtown.

The temporary installation, which will remain through Aug. 5, was organized by the Laurel Foundation.

“Johnson’s work is a magnet for all because it depicts and celebrates everyday life,” foundation president Elizabeth J. Tata said at Thursday’s unveiling.

The statues are on loan from the Sculpture Foundation in Santa Monica Calif. The Laurel Foundation provided them with a $15,000 grant for the sculptures, which are part of Johnson’s “Man on the Street” series.

It might be said that Johnson draws inspiration from the United States Census. His tromp l’oeil bronze figures are candid poses that capture ordinary citizens going about their day: mailmen and doctors, lunching office workers and skateboarding teenagers.

The Pittsburgh exhibit was made possible by Hertz Investment Group. Debra Donley, general manager of Gateway Center, said they jumped at the chance to host the sculptures on their property.

“When the first statues were being uncrated, you could see people coming down from the offices to see what was going on,” Donley said.

From a distance, the sculptures appear to be bronze statues that were given clothes as a prank, or afterthought. On closer examination, however, the wrinkled blue shirt on that window washer or the cardigans sported by a couple of tourists turn out to be painted bronze.

The effect was enough to fool at least one worker at Gateway Center yesterday.

Katie Fitzpatrick said she thought a Johnson sculpture of a couple engaging in a “public display of affection” was real.

“I was coming out of work to get my bus, and I saw this couple embracing,” said Fitzpatrick of Collier. “I see that all the time around there. I thought, ‘Get a room.’ ”

Her co-worker Monique Luck said she and a friend were riding the bus into work that morning when her friend pointed out a little girl playing near their Stanwix Street stop. Luck did a doubletake and told her friend, “Uh, I don’t think she’s real.”

Johnson, 80, has more than 350 sculptures in private collections, corporate offices and public places across the globe. His work can be seen in Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, Pacific Place in Hong Kong and Les Halles in Paris. They’re also at Nike World Headquarters in Oregon and William and Mary College in Virginia. He’s the grandson of Robert Wood Johnson, who founded the medical supply colossus Johnson & Johnson.

The Laurel Foundation was created in 1951 by philanthropist Cordelia Scaife May to support charities and cultural organizations. In 2009, the foundation provided more than $1 million in financial support to the fields of art and culture, vocational education, environmental causes, community development and public service.

Art critic and bon vivant Harry Schwalb said Johnson’s work satisfies a penchant for realism in a world where art is increasingly abstract and inaccessible.

“I think having this army of Johnsons around town will really be a good thing,” he says. “It’s not art with a capital ‘A,’ but it’s not bad at all.”

Brochures are available at the lobby security desks of each of the four Gateway Center towers. The brochure can also be downloaded at www.laurelfdn.org/Seward/Johnson.

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