SAN DIEGO — SeaWorld? Check. Balboa Park? Check. The zoo? Check. Most folks heading here for a vacation visit the usual tourist spots. Those are great, but there's more to the self-styled America's Finest City than a famous theme park, museums, and lions and tigers and bears, oh my.
Why not add the city's outdoor art to the checklist?
San Diego has a treasure-trove of dynamic, free outdoor art installations that the casual visitor might easily overlook. These pieces, by big-name artists as well as lesser-known talents, are easily reachable and, in some cases, just steps from tourist spots. You'll find an art park hidden under a freeway bridge, a college campus with a collection that rivals a museum's sculpture garden, eye-catching murals spread on the chic stores in one of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods and more.
First, head to UC San Diego to see the university's fantastic Stuart Collection. The artworks are spread out on the campus' grounds; it's a beautiful setting, ideal for wandering among eucalyptus groves and sprawling lawns while dodging students and professors on skateboards. (Hey, it's California.)
Walk along L.A. artist Alexis Smith's "Snake Path," a serpent made of pieces of colored slate that wrap around a mini Garden of Eden. Do Ho Suh's "Fallen Star," a house that magically "landed" on Jacobs Hall (at the Jacobs School of Engineering, of course), sticks out over the edge of the building and is cheerfully disorienting, as is Tim Hawkinson's giant "Bear" made out of boulders. My favorite is Elizabeth Murray's "Red Shoe," tucked into a eucalyptus grove. There are 14 other works by an all-star team of artists that includes William Wegman, Robert Irwin, Bruce Nauman and Nam June Paik.
Info: UCSD Stuart Collection; (858) 534-2117, http://stuartcollection.ucsd.edu.
'Murals of La Jolla'
Visitors to La Jolla come for the upscale shopping, dining and spectacular ocean views. It's fun to window-shop in the village, but remember to look up to take in the "Murals of La Jolla," a private community-wide project from the nonprofit La Jolla Community Foundation.
The folks at the foundation hit on a clever method to streamline the laborious process of creating large outdoor murals: These relatively inexpensive works use billboard technology. The artist sends a digital file of the image, which is then printed on vinyl and secured to the side of a building. There are murals by such luminaries as John Baldessari and Kim MacConnel, as well as up-and-comers such as Gajin Fujita, who grew up in Boyle Heights.
Info: "Murals of La Jolla," http://www.muralsoflajolla.com
Only a mile or so from the glitz of the Gaslamp Quarter and the East Village (not to mention Seaport Village, the convention center and Petco Park) is an art playground that is worlds apart. Chicano Park, under the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, was born of neighborhood activism in the late 1960s and early '70s, and its murals are a showcase and a snapshot of Chicano art from that era.
In the community-building spirit, some were designed by one or two people, then painted by a team of artists and, often, local volunteers. Besides San Diego talent, artists came from all over the state, including squads of muralists from L.A. and Orange counties.
Painter Victor Ochoa — also a co-founder of the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park — was one of the driving forces behind the murals. You can see his hand in such works as "Quetzalcóatl" and the "Children's Mural," done by students from nearby Lowell Elementary School.
Info: Chicano Park, http://www.chicanoparksandiego.com
San Diego Bay
Chances are good that the next arena for outdoor art will be a short drive from your hotel: San Diego Bay. Works funded by the Port of San Diego's Public Art Program dot the waterfront but are easy to miss as you hike, bike or skate your way along the concrete boardwalk.
It's worth pausing: The works are as varied as the artists who created them.
"The Benefit of Mr. Kite" by Mags Harries and Lajos Héder by the convention center is a large sculpture that changes as the sun passes overhead; Donal Hord's "Morning," in Embarcadero Marina Park, is a muscular young man carved in black granite who looks as if he's just waking up; "Pearl of the Pacific," a concrete-mosaic-ironwork fountain by James T. Hubbell, sparkles in Shoreline Park on Shelter Island.
Many of these works blend in so well that they are overlooked. For example, Roman de Salvo's "The Riparium" anchors new Ruocco Park, yet most visitors walk right under the abstract sculpture's lattice of eucalyptus branches without glancing up as they race to the boardwalk and the bay.
Info: Port of San Diego: http://www.thebigbay.com/art-on-san-diego-bay.html
Niki de Saint Phalle is the queen of San Diego art. The late French-born artist, who moved to La Jolla in her 60s, has works spread throughout the county.
"Queen Califia's Magical Circle," near the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, is an outdoor installation of her mosaic sculptures that is, well, magical. Sadly, it's been damaged by vandals and has been closed since May; check to see whether it has reopened before you go.
If it's not open, look for Saint Phalle's "Nikigator" when you visit Balboa Park. Or check out her "Coming Together" across the street from Petco Park. Her works are easy to spot: Once you've seen one of Saint Phalle's distinctive mosaic pieces in a psychedelic mix of shapes and colors, you'll recognize the rest.
Info: "Queen Califia's Magical Circle," http://www.queencalifia.org
Rest of the best
Roman de Salvo's "Nexus Eucalyptus," a sculpture of milled tree trunks that resembles a freeway interchange, is well suited for its location: a Caltrans office building at 4050 Taylor St.
If you take Amtrak to San Diego, look for Jenny Holzer's "For MCASD" on the side of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's downtown branch (1100 Kettner Blvd.) next to the train station. This neon work, best seen at night, features her trademark mix of electronic signage and thought-provoking words.
"Pleasure Point" by Nancy Rubins has a point to make: A similar project for the San Diego Convention Center was set to go in 1999, then killed when some San Diegans objected to it. Now, this construction made out of watercraft (kayaks, canoes, surfboards, etc.) graces the side of the MCASD branch in La Jolla.
The waterfront is full of eye-popping "trees," many of which have been created over the years for the port's "Urban Trees" series. Deana Mando's "Sea Dragon" is a good example, a curled "tree" that fiercely looks down on passing joggers. The park in front of the Hilton San Diego Bayfront has a mini-forest: "Wind Palms," by Ned Kahn, seven stainless steel works whose "leaves" move with the breeze.
As you assess these works, remember that everyone's an art critic — and that now includes you too.