Portland has three federal courthouses, all downtown, all somewhat empty, all with curious artworks attached: Pioneer Courthouse – currently undergoing a serious and controversial renovation, Gus Solomon Federal Courthouse, and the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse.

Gus Solomon, a respected Oregon jurist, died in 1986. Somehow in 1989 Congress decided to rename the courthouse on Sixth and Market after him. At the formal and always locked entrance to the building on the Market Street side, then Governor Neil Goldschmidt, Congressman Les Aucoin, and many distinguished jurists heard Solomon’s friend and former clerk, Stephen Gillis make cordial remarks before a crowd of distinguished family members, jurists and reporters.

At the close of the ceremony, Ventana al Pacifico (Window to the Pacific) by Manuel Neri was unveiled. The price tag – $100,000.

Expenses in building and decorating federal courts has also been controversial – and relatively unlimited. The U.S. Courts Design Guide (caution 1+ megabyte PDF) hold the instructions, but only Gore Vidal could explain the rational. And he hasn’t.

This freestanding relief sculpture, from Carrara marble, was commissioned by the General Service Office as part of their Art-In-Architecture program.

Neri has been making bronze and marble sculptures like these, but typically freestanding and simpler for a couple of decades. He also sells prints of his sketch drawings.

I won’t comment on his work in general, since I haven’t seen enough of it to muscle up an opinion.

My guess though is the GSA commissioned this piece with specs on maintenance, but not on integration with the larger structure. Because it doesn’t. At all.

The courthouse is a a calm, tan stone color, augmented by polished bronze armatures and doors, and near Ventana al Pacifico are two beautiful large bronze sconces. Cameras discreetly ring the building. Men with guns stand at the doors and windows.

In 1989, the tree on the east side of the sculpture was only five or eight feet high, allowing a clear view from Sixth Avenue. Now allowed to overgrow, the brush and leaves hide the artwork, not for modesty.

Like many with valuable public sculptures, vandalism is a key rational for creating a barrier between the artwork and the viewer. Like with many Portland sculptures, Ventana al Pacifico is hoisted high and away from it’s potential viewers, about 17 feet high on the east side (Market is at a slight rake) and 15 feet on the west. The clear view, from the west, is pushed off by height, by stairs, by distance.
Really there is no clear level view of Ventana al Pacifico.

But that’s a minor bureaucratic issue, rendered irresolvable by federal bureaucracy. Until the big earthquake comes, this thing’s not moving.

The larger issue is the sense of the sculpture itself. The figures are rough sketches of humans, parts are aligned, but parts – faces, hands, torsos, are roughed out, drilled with holes, punctured. The evoked feeling is of pain, of loss, of suffering, of incarceration, of the wiping out of identity, of facelessness. Of invisibility – in the middle of a big handsome city.

These are spectural guardians, ghosts of the machine of justice, stuck in the purgatory of the locked entrance, reminders of all the humans who have lost their freedoms, their identities – perhaps their lives – in this rock island of the law.