Jerry Beck’s The Secret Ark of Icon Park

A new brash and playful installation in the Charlestown Navy Yard, The Secret Ark of Icon Park, is attributed to Jerry Beck, but it is not really just his. It dominates the greensward below the captain’s mansion, and it does bear his imprint. But Beck’s just the clown-around Captain Noah of the Ark, as the accompanying booklet suggests. Children recruited to collaborate on-site in Icon Park and at the Lowell-based Revolving Museum worked as trusted mates on deck. Their contributions keep the boat afloat.

On view through October 10th, the installation is the fifth public artwork presented by a joint initiative of the Institute of Contemporary Art and Boston National Historical Park. Approached from the plaza, it doesn’t immediately resemble an ark. The expected animal pairings aren’t apparent either. Several large-scale pieces, separate from the big blue enclosure in the center, attract attention initially—a silver-cable treasure chest bursting with flora; an enormous revolver, made of wine corks, pointing toward the harbor beside the park’s obligatory cannon, in cautionary recognition of the connection between American militarism and American street violence; a fanciful assemblage of mariners’ tools (dials, buoys, rudders), approximating a figurehead on a ship’s prow; and a sculpture of wire and red and blue tape, suggesting a pair of creatures at play outside of the ark.

Up close, the round, blue enclosure begins to fascinate, even if it barely still resembles an ark. Its sail-like walls consist of plastic squares hooked together by cables and grommets, most sporting the face of a young person—several children with funny and cute faces in Warholian repetition together representing an ethnic American mosaic. A dozen large oars, the most conspicuous claim to ark-hood, appear to be moving the vessel forward, their wooden paddles engraved skillfully with iconic, sometimes ironic images (snake, light bulb, anchor, and torpedo) and their transparent handles filled with freshly found objects (shells, coins, and feathers).

Inside the ark, the sense of a children’s safe refuge from mean American city streets comes through more than the image of the ark. But recent events in New Orleans provide a coincidental connection between actual flooding and the poverty-inspired violence from which Beck would like to offer an arts-based escape.

Here, samples abound of the accessible, conceptual art Captain Beck has enlisted from sailors on the rougher streets of Massachusetts—those same glad ones whose faces adorn the ark’s outer walls. Three-dimensional animals with fanciful coats of fur jump in and out of walls in two art carts. An exotic figure patterned with bands and swaths of shells (oyster, whelk, scallop) stands regally on a pedestal. Whimsical ship shapes of rope and wire sail across two tables. A Claes Oldenburgish notebook on wheels, with a huge yellow pencil attached, quotes a poem of Beck’s about the seemingly irresistible fascination children have with guns—and the horrifying results. In a pretend aquarium in the center, where the mast might rise toward the sky, a child can hook a fish on the line and read the secret message a peer has painted on the bottom. “Don’t quit,” reads one. “I never met a person I couldn’t call a beauty,” reads another.

After dutifully enduring the heady history of the frigate and its museum, families are likely to end up at Beck’s ark—and then they’re likely to be slightly confused by the anti-violence messages they didn’t expect to find at the site of a military museum. But they’re likely to approve at least of the colorful spirit with which Jerry Beck, like some Socratic artiste, cleverly leads his apprentices to state an admirably subversive message.