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10 Awful Public Art Pieces

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The biggest challenge of finding ten of the most wretched public art pieces? Narrowing it down to only ten.

We could've made a bottom ten list for New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago alone. 

Maybe some other time.

A-maze-ing Laughter, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Art Attack visited Chinese artist Yue Minjun’s sculptures two summers ago because our Canadian friends thought it would be “funny” and “stupid” to do so. It was definitely more of the second thing.

The 14 oversized bronze creeps, installed near English Bay in 2009 as part of the Vancouver International Sculpture Biennale, are frozen in various cheeseball poses of hysterical laughter. As with public art of this “quality,” the real art isn’t the giant shirtless dudes, but rather the unintended performance art routines of seeing folks going insane over the pieces. 

Lifesaver Fountain, Duisburg, Germany
This thing.

In 1991, the bird-ish creation of Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely was installed in the center of this western German city. It's made from scrapped-together industrial waste, stainless and varnished steel, polyester, and painted Teflon, and trickles of water spout from the bird’s domepiece and outstretched wings.

According to a Duisburg tourism website, the upchuck of colors that cover the bird head-to-toe “incorporates the ancient symbol of heaven with its bird associations… it represents the real world as an alternative to the fantastic bird which rises up above earthly life and drifts away into the world of dreams and visions.”

Huh? Lost in translation?

Tolerance, Houston
These seven sculptures along Buffalo Bayou at Allen Parkway and Montrose Boulevard are supposed to symbolize diversity. Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, working in silvery aluminum mesh, composed the bodies of the ten-foot-tall, alien-looking, kneeling figures with letters and symbols from various languages.
At night, the Houston Arts Alliance commission glows white in an attempt to get the wheels in your post-work-brain-mush churning and psyched about diversity and unity in Houston.


One question about Tolerance: How come the seven identical sculptures all look like white men?

Stroll (colloquially called Stickmen), Philadelphia
There’s a lot of killer public art in Philadelphia (the folk/mosaic art display at Magic Gardens, for instance), and there’s a lot of bunk, including William King’s 1995 piece Stroll, commissioned by the city of Philadelphia. The placement of the 30-foot-tall, towering aluminum and steel figures on the South Street Pedestrian Bridge between Front Street and Columbus Boulevard is supposed to evoke some sort of philosophical perspective on humans’ small place on Earth.


Instead of Stroll, the three open-air sculptures could be retitled Run (as in run the hell away as fast as you can when spotting these goofs, hardy har-har).

Any work by Paul McCarthy
Before it was destroyed over and over again, then eventually removed for good in 2014, there was a giant green butt plug at the Place Vendôme in Paris, France. At least that’s what was said by those lucky-duck enough to see Paul McCarthy’s inflatable Tree.

What was supposed to be a bloated Christmas tree became a canvas for vandalism owing to the work’s purposeful, sexually explicit overtones. (We expected more leniency from the Euros, especially here in Houston. After all, we know tolerance because of the Tolerance statues.) The Los Angeles-based McCarthy, who was assaulted with knuckle sandwiches, according to French news reports at the time, even admitted that the sculpture was a joke.

The real joke is the corny nature of McCarthy’s work, which has been installed all over the world. Snow White in sexual positions? Wow, that’s edgy. (Uh, no.) A giant M&M peanut? So cool. (Yawn.)

Magic Carpet Ride (nicknamed Cardiff Kook), Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California
The Cardiff Botanical Society commissioned Encinitas surfer Matthew Antichevich to the tune of approximately $120,000 to create a 16-foot bronze statue of a surfer. But then Cardiff Botanical ran out of money, so the surfer who was supposed to be frozen on top of a wave in backside floater position is instead catching granite plinth.

The statue, along with heaps of ridicule, has so far been dressed in a pink skirt, a lucha libre wrestling mask, various costumes (Zorro, Uncle Sam, a clown), a Santa Claus hat, a hood that was supposed to recall an Abu Ghraib prisoner, and a papier-mâché shark that’s chomping up the surfer dude.

Vigeland Park, Oslo, Norway
Dubbed as the world’s largest sculpture park made by a single artist, Oslo’s Frogner Park is dotted with acres of seriously messed-up bronze, granite and wrought-iron sculptures by the celebrated Norwegian artist Gustav Vigeland. There are naked kids riding on top of a naked mom, a nude man holding two naked babies underneath his armpits, a tall spire of sleeping (or dead, we’re not sure) babies, and more.

Visitors are totally oblivious to the carnal weirdness.

This being Norway (a.k.a. the birthplace of black metal), there’s a darker component. Rumor has it that Gustav’s brother Emanuel was jealous of Gustav’s success and went to the dark side. The result is Tomba Emmanuelle, often called the Emanuel Vigeland Museum.

It’s a mausoleum. And the remains of the creator, in a classic Scandinavian posthumous revenge, rest above the main entryway in an urn. When visitors enter the low-slung thoroughfare, they must bow to the urn/the dark side.

Monument with Standing Beast, Chicago
It’s either a Snoopy smoothie or the Peanuts dog with his insides ralphed up, which became his outsides, which became his insides, etc.

Chi-towners call the late French artist Jean Dubuffet’s sculpture “Snoopy in a blender” for good reason. The ten-ton, 29-foot-tall fiberglass monstrosity, unveiled across from the Daley Plaza in the Loop in 1984, is atrocious.

And nobody seems to know what the “art work” represents. Some have said it’s a tree, while others have called it a portal. (A portal?)

World Trade Center Transportation Hub, New York City
Santiago Calatrava’s “soaring symbol of a boondoogle,” as described by The New York Times, is a terrifying majesty of steel-ribbed, shiny white walls that resemble a winged dove. The landmark for the so-called transportation hub, which barely serves NYC residents (and instead connects Port Authority Trans Hudson train commuters from New Jersey to outlying subway lines), cost $4 billion in public funds.

Four billion dollars.

Again, $4 billion.

“Aside from the obvious Pantheon allusion, I no longer know what the hub is supposed to mean, symbolically, with its now-thickened ribs, hunkered torso and angry snouts on either end, weirdly compressing the entrances from the street,” writes the NYT’s Michael Kimmelman about the station, which opened on March 6. “It’s like a Pokémon.”

Bewitched Statue, Salem, Massachusetts
Who came up with this idea? Did someone say, “Oh, hey. There’s this town where witches were executed and stuff. Let’s cast that Bewitched chick in bronze!”?

That’s exactly what happened. Even if the idea was cool, someone had to execute the final result a lot better.

Elizabeth Montgomery, a back-in-the-day babe who played Samantha Stephens in the mid-1960s-to-early-1970s TV series Bewitched, is riding a broom and perched on a crescent moon. And she looks terrible/like she’s about to poison somebody with a brew of cat claws and skin of the newt.

The statue is also just nine feet tall.

It’s not totally Salem’s fault: TV Land (no joke) commissioned the statue and made the decision to place it in Witch Town. Nevertheless, we haven’t felt this bummed since Dick Sargent replaced Dick York as Darrin Stephens. 

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