Martin Puryear’s Big Bling Roams NoMad’s Favorite Park
The long lines at Shake Shack in Madison Square Park have been recently rendered more bearable by the sight of Martin Puryear’s awe-inspiring new sculpture, Big Bling. Ken Johnson of the New York Times described it as a “forty-foot-tall slab of sculpture whose silhouette resembles that of an animal of indeterminate species. It could be an elephant or a sitting cat.” In fact, Big Bling most resembles a Trojan horse, but unlike the Trojan horse of Greek mythology, which was purportedly made entirely of wood, the wooden skeleton of Puryear’s creature is encased in a skin of wire mesh. What really attracts viewers’ eyes, though, is the giant golden ring protruding from the head like a bull’s nose ring, a horse’s bit, a shackle.
Big Bling poses questions that all designers grapple with: How and why do you select certain materials? How does environment influence scale? Can a message be delivered under the cloak of color? And, finally, how can you move outdoor colors indoors? These are exactly the sorts of issues that Puryear confronts with Big Bling. As he explained in a minidocumentary Art 21 Magazine made about the piece, “My work has the potential for evolution and change and open-endedness, which to me feels resonant with what it is to live a life.”
According to Puryear, the issue of scale is where his projects always begin. As he told Art21, “For me, that’s always been in some way the most difficult but also the most crucial part of the project.” However, what Big Bling illustrates is a problem that many designers face: Do you scale a project to the environment? To the people who will inhabit that environment? To both?
“My work has the potential for evolution and change and open-endedness, which to me feels resonant with what it is to live a life.”
Big Bling’s environment puts this quandary into stark relief. On one hand, the sculpture cowers beneath some of New York City’s most iconic buildings: the Flatiron Building, the MetLife Tower, and the New York Life Building. On the other hand, Big Bling towers over the visitors to Madison Square Park. To put the issue another way: Should the size of a sofa be determined by the room or by the people who will sit on it every day? Puryear chose the latter. He explained to Art 21, “I prefer to have work that doesn’t have to relate to a building, so this relates more to the people, hopefully, that will be circulating around it.” And to those people, Big Bling seems enormous, and yet the scale of the buildings that surround Madison Square Park keeps the piece from appearing too monstrous, too ridiculous, too big for its environment.
The lesson Big Bling provides is this: Design to people and not spaces, and yet use the size of those spaces to expand what’s possible.
The next question posed by Big Bling is in many ways the central question of design: How do you decide which materials fit the needs of a particular project?
For Puryear, the answer starts with perspective. Viewed from Madison Avenue, Big Bling appears to be a monolith, a massive and solid piece of stone or steel. However, when you move closer, the true nature of the piece reveals itself: It’s actually a delicate plywood structure stitched together by steel girding. The entire piece is made to appear even more precariously perched by the huge kidney-shaped hole near the front of the creature. This, combined with the golden shackle weighing down the head, makes you wonder if Big Bling might come toppling down in the smallest of storms.
What gives Big Bling both structural stability and the appearance of solidity from afar is the wire mesh that encases the wood. Puryear’s choice of this industrial material was crucial to the success of Big Bling. Not only does the mesh allow for the piece to change depending on the viewer’s perspective, but it also introduces a playful relationship between the audience and the artist—when you stand next to Big Bling, the childish part of you wants to climb the wooden vertebrae, but Puryear, almost in the role of a parent, protects you from the inevitable fall.
Design to people and not spaces, and yet use the size of those spaces to expand what’s possible.
The lesson designers can take from Puryear’s choice of mesh is one worth remembering: Materials should always play more than one role. If Puryear had utilized the fencing as just a safety feature or as a structural component, and not as a material that also plays with perspective, the impact of Big Bling would be diminished. As Puryear said to Art21, “What I like is the dichotomy between that heaviness and massiveness and the actual sense of it as really a veil.”
Its Weight in Gold
Many commentators have focused on the name of the piece—Big Bling. The New York Times’ Johnson said of the name, “The main clue to Mr. Puryear’s intentions is in the gold shackle and the titular word ’bling,’ which refers to the sort of ostentatious jewelry favored by hip-hop artists of past decades. Bling subsequently came to refer to anything of flashy, exorbitantly pricey excess, like yachts and multimillion-dollar artworks.” While this explanation may be a little wordy—and a little stodgy—Johnson is on the money with his analysis.
Colors come packed with meaning, and this meaning can, and should, be utilized by designers as well as sculptors. Without the golden shackle or ring—whatever you want to call it—Puryear’s creation would carry less weight, less meaning. The golden shackle is what spurs the viewer’s imagination and intellect, what invites interpretation. Perhaps Big Bling is a commentary on the shackles of money and greed. Perhaps the gold is a symbol of an offering; Puryear himself referred to Big Bling as a “visual poem of praise to Manhattan.”
Whatever the true meaning may be—if there is one—it rests in Puryear’s choice of gold, both as a material and a color. The lesson for designers is clear: Use colors that carry meaning in all their varieties and shades.
Puryear’s Big Bling and Madison Square Park inspired us to create a palette that juxtaposes luxurious colors with earthy tones. At the center of this palette is Pratt & Lambert’s Golden Burma 13-11. Similar to Big Bling’s golden shackle, this sunlit shade of gold draws the eye with its warmth and luxury. The glowing negative spaces of Big Bling remind us of the soft light of Ambertique 15-1. The rest of the colors for this palette are inspired by the natural beauty of Madison Square Park: Light Chartreuse 16-10 for the light underside of leaves blowing in the wind, Festival Moss 17-17 for the well-manicured lawn’s deep shade of green, and Walnut Bark 8-17 for the trees that tower over the park.
Use our Golden Park palette in any room where windows offer a view of the outdoors. This palette will tear down walls and create a sense of color continuity that, like Puryear’s creation, makes you rethink the relationship between color and materials.