Arts & Theater

Gale Hart darts along the sharp edges of Sacramento art

Artist Gale Hart's darts hit their mark in downtown Sacramento

Artist Gale Hart loves to bring controversy to her work and start conversation, and her charge with this new artwork was to "activate L Street" and the area near Sacramento's new downtown arena, Golden 1 Center. Here she explains "Missing the Mark
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Artist Gale Hart loves to bring controversy to her work and start conversation, and her charge with this new artwork was to "activate L Street" and the area near Sacramento's new downtown arena, Golden 1 Center. Here she explains "Missing the Mark

To find the most provocative and perhaps locally relevant piece of public art at Golden 1 Center, head south from Jeff Koons’ multicolored, multimillion dollar piglet and pause along L Street.

There, you’ll find a series of 12-foot darts sticking out of the concrete, as if they were lobbed from the heavens by a deity dizzy from too many pints. A number-less dartboard lies embedded not far away. Its missing scores, along with oversized dart tails and disembodied hands, are scattered near Golden 1’s gateway.

This fun yet pointed public art piece, “Missing the Mark” by Sacramento’s Gale Hart, can be viewed as an attempt to deconstruct the mainstream notion of winning and losing, of games and gamesmanship. It can be viewed as making statement about the high-drama, big-money world of professional sports. It also can be viewed as a musing on the years-long jostling of business and political interests in getting the $557 million Golden 1 Center built.

“To me, it means there was so much controversy around the arena – did it miss the mark?” Hart said on a recent morning at her midtown studio. “It did for some people. But also, it’s going to be a very iconic mark for Sacramento. I like duality in my work. I like hypocrisy in my work. I like making fun of things that we take so serious.”

This kind of playful provocation has defined Hart’s work for more than three decades. Hart, 60, is often called “the godmother of contemporary art in Sacramento,” an iconoclast who works expertly with wood, metals, paint and other mediums.

Her pieces often are filled with imagery that could ruffle the wine-and-cheese crowd. Her series of paintings about animal rights – called “Why Not Eat Your Pet?” – included a Disney-styled depiction of Pinocchio aiming a gun at Bambi. One of her gun-inspired sculptures, “ ’Til Death Do Us Part,” offered a murder-suicide motif. It was a double-barrel weapon that simultaneously pointed away from and at its handler.

“I look at the world and think, ‘That is crazy!’ ” Hart said. “So I have to say something about it. I’m not going to hold a sign and say, ‘I’m a vegan,’ or ‘I’m pro-gun’ or ‘I’m anti-gun.’ This is my sign. This is my protest. Politics have always been a part of my art at some level.”

Hart represents an edgier spirit that once defined much of midtown, before the arrival of expensive lofts, farm-to-fork restaurants and, of course, the new arena. She wears her jet black hair in spiky layers, as if she were a long lost member of the Dead Boys or another classic ’70s punk band. When she’s not creating at her mechanic’s shop of a studio – a decidedly unchic space that’s scattered with tools, metalworking equipment and spray-paint cans – you might find her skateboarding around the city.

“When I go out and skate, it doesn’t matter what kind of mood I’m in, it makes me happy,” Hart said. “I think that’s why a skateboard is shaped like a pill.”

She hasn’t spent much time skating over the past year. She’s mostly been focused on finishing “Missing the Mark,” for which she received a $300,000 grant from the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission. Hart was one of three local artists commissioned to create public art works in conjunction with the Golden 1 Center (the others were Bill Fontana and Bryan Valenzuela).

Most of the money was spent on creating the installation itself, Hart said. She worked with contractors to fabricate the fiberglass, stainless steel and other elements that form the installation. She also hired an engineer to calculate what the wind load would be on the darts.

“Missing the Mark” is Hart’s first major piece of public art. It will be seen by thousands of people annually as they walk to and from the arena. The darts not only puncture the landscape but entice interaction. They have already become a popular photo spots. Lie on the sidewalk in front of one of them and it looks like the dart is piercing your body.

Some may view the piece as making a statement contrary to the civic cheerleading that has surrounded the construction of the new arena. Shelly Willis, executive director of SMAC, said Hart was encouraged to keep her edge and create a work that would stimulate conversation, not just root for the home team.

“Everyone (on the selection panel) immediately liked it,” Willis said. “It’s a very smart piece. We do have in this country a kind of reality with sports as entertainment and also as a generator of economic benefits. In public art, you want to commission a work that’s not a one-liner, so to speak. I can imagine coming to that piece in five or 10 years and having different perspectives on it.”

Local legend

Questioning the status quo long has been of interest to Hart.

She was born in Michigan, but raised in Fair Oaks where she attended Bella Vista High School. Academics, even art school, were never her style. She has rarely worked a full-time job, apart from some stints in a photo lab and picture framing shop.

“I guess a job always makes me feel like I’m in jail,” Hart said. “Even the arena (assignment) made me feel like that. I had to show up at certain times to do this and that, but I’ve been able to handle it. I’ve just never liked structure.

She always has relied on her hands, and was raised around people who knew their tools, including a grandfather who worked on cars. “Everyone in my family was extremely mechanical, so there were always nuts and bolts lying around,” she said. “I always tried to make animals out of them.”

Hart also became adept at woodworking. She spent a chunk of the late-1970s and 1980s living in a van and traveling to art shows, where she sold hybrid art/furniture works. Painting and drawing also entered her repertoire, often with intense imagery that Hart described as “emotional train-wreck paintings.”

Those were the lean times for Hart. “In the 1980s, especially for the edgy art I was doing, there was not really a buying market in the Sacramento area,” she said. “I’ve always been an artist’s artist, where the artist dug what I did but the public wasn’t wrapped around. It was always like, ‘What the hell is this? I don’t want this in my world.’ 

Hart persisted, though, with championing by local gallery owners Michael Himovitz and Pamela Skinner, and earned a reputation for her expert craftsmanship and anti-establishment point of view. One series of hers featured shiny metal skateboards with spikes sticking from the deck – a riff on prohibitive attitudes toward skateboarding.

For a newer generation of artists and gallery owners, Hart is viewed as a local legend, someone who has paid her dues in the trenches of Sacramento’s art scene.

“Here you have a person who supported themself on their work for their whole life,” said Liv Moe, executive director of downtown’s Verge Center for the Arts. “Gale has an aesthetic that’s kind of physical in terms of its craftsmanship. There are so many things that come together in her work, even in terms of color choice. The darts are a perfect example. You see it right away and know it’s Gale.”

The same could be said for Koons’ work. Hart said she is a fan of the $8 million “Coloring Book” and appreciates the details of its construction, including the welding of the stainless steel and translucent nature of the coloring that gives it an unusually “loose” feel.

“You can not like that piece, and you can not like Jeff Koons – but you can’t stand in front of that and not be in awe of the craftsmanship,” Hart said. “People say, ‘It doesn’t speak about Sacramento.’ Well not everything in Sacramento has to be about the Gold Rush. Come on, people, you have Old Sacramento. You have Coloma. Aesthetically, I think it works great out there. The arena’s supposed to be fun. You don’t want a dark, menacing piece of bronze out there.”

Hart said a few pieces from “Missing the Mark” still need to be installed, including a giant dart that will stick out of a nearby garage. After that, her studio beckons. “I’m in a really strange place right now,” Hart said. “I have a lot of creative energy. I’m looking at things that I haven’t done before. I don’t just go into things. I attack things.”

Gale Hart's been painting, bending and blasting her work on the central city grid since the 1970s. Some refer to her as Sacramento’s Godmother of Contemporary Art.

Chris Macias: 916-321-1253, @chris_macias