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Museum of Contemporary Art hopes artist can liven up the building

Miami-based artist Mark Handforth supervises installatihis  sculptures outside Museum Contemporary Art Thursday. It's open public Friday. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Miami-based artist Mark Handforth supervises the installation of his sculptures outside the Museum of Contemporary Art on Thursday. It's open to the public on Friday. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 8, 2011 2:17AM

Contemporary art. It’s a handle that can conjure visions of the puzzlingly odd, the shockingly outlandish or the intellectually incomprehensible. Which is to say, the less than approachable.

When the structure that houses contemporary works is itself somewhat intimidating, it doesn’t help matters.

But Chicago’s celebrated Museum of Contemporary Art, whose handsome but austere facade between Pearson Street and Chicago Avenue doesn’t exactly scream “Come on in!,” is taking measures to better integrate itself with the neighborhood and the city at large.

While the MCA has sporadically featured outdoor art installations at its current location, the latest one by Miami-based artist Mark Handforth is the most ambitious to date — and apparently the first of more such summer projects to come.

According to chief curator Michael Darling, the museum has been looking for ways to “enliven the building” and relate more effectively to its audience. Handforth’s creations, he says, use materials and images that connect to a more human scale.

“Some people have thought that our building is kind of imposing ,” Darlin says. “So I thought somebody whose work represented a real contrast to that might show off the elegance of the building and also help to create a bridge to the public,” Darling said. “Mark was really one of the first people who came to mind [when we were] thinking about that challenge.”

Standing on the museum’s plaza during day two of his planned three-day installation (scheduled to open today), Handforth supervised the hoisting of a twisted, highly flexible, nearly 30-foot steel-and-aluminum hanger dubbed “Blackbird.” With the assistance of a large crane and a half dozen hard-hatted men grasping green and yellow guide ropes, it was set atop one of two platforms (“plinths”) that flank the stair-fronted entrance and bolted down. “Lamppost-Snake” — a classic “cobra-head” streetlight manipulated to look like, you guessed it, a snake — had been positioned the day before.

Wearing jeans, a crisp white V-necked T-shirt and grayish-white wavy hair, the artist looked pleased, not least of all because inclement weather hadn’t impeded progress. “It’s been very smooth so far,” he said.

On a portion of the plaza close to Pearson, a collapsed stainless steel traffic cone capped by a policeman’s bobby hat and drenched in paint (“BeatProp”) remained under protective custody in its black wooden crate.

The grandest piece, “PhoneBone,” a humongous telephone handset clinging vertically to a Brontosaurus-size femur — both cast aluminum — was en route from an Oklahoma foundry.

“Look at this place,” the personable Handforth said, taking a visual sweep of towering buildings around him, including the sleek new Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago just across the street. “I like this place particularly because I think the whole sense of scale is absolutely absurd in Chicago.”

Then again, Handforth explained loudly as the crane revved up behind him, “scale in a sense is not a size thing. It’s about the intensity of the object. You can have a very small object that’s much more intense than some of these very big ones.”

At one point a spectator approached Handforth and struck up a conversation.

“How do you twist it around like that?” he asked of the “Blackbird” piece.

“It’s hard,” Handforth replied. “Big hands.”

They talked a bit more while Handforth kept an eye on the proceedings.

“It makes me smile,” the man said, smiling.

“It makes you smile? That’s good. Wait till you see that little tiny one,” Handforth said, motioning to the black crate. “That’ll really make you smile.”

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