What to do with Pugh’s mural?

The fate of Academe is hardly academic

When John Pugh painted his mural Academe on the east wall of Taylor Hall at Chico State, he intended it to be trickery. Its style, trompe l’oeil, means “fool the eye,” and the piece does just that, creating an illusion of a concrete exterior wall falling away to reveal the interior of a classic Greek edifice, complete with columns. Pugh has described it as “the ancient Greek academe flaunting itself through the modern educational façade.”

It was Pugh’s first large-scale mural, completed in 1981 while he was a student at the university, and it launched what has become an illustrious career as a professional artist and trickster. He has since completed more than 200 murals in which he tricks the viewer by creating large three-dimensional images on flat walls. Academe remains a favorite, he says.

Now that the university plans to demolish Taylor Hall and replace it with a larger facility, how to preserve this tricky painting is raising all kinds of tricky questions. Would moving the wall to another site, as the university proposes, be adequate? (Definitely not, says the Chico Heritage Association; its current location is part of its historicity.) Would hiring Pugh to repaint it elsewhere suffice? (He’s said he’d be willing to do it over.) Or should the university be required to construct the new building around the existing wall? (Too expensive, says university spokesman Joe Wills, explaining that VP for Business Lorraine Hoffman did some research and came up with a range of $3.2 million to $4.5 million to build around it.)

Meanwhile, other heavy hitters are taking stands on the matter. The Chico Arts Commission has written to the university in favor of keeping the mural in its present location, as has the state historic preservation officer, Wayne Donaldson. Donaldson went further, charging that the university didn’t follow proper environmental procedures when it failed to do a focused environmental-impact analysis that carefully evaluated the Pugh mural and properly mitigated any adverse impacts to it.

As I said, tricky, tricky.

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Robert Speer is editor of the CN&R.