"Sleepwalker," 2014, Painted Bronze, 66 inches x 48 inches x 36 inches.

Tony Matelli “Sleepwalker,” 2014, Painted Bronze, 66 inches x 48 inches x 36 inches. Photo: Tony Matelli.

A balding white man in sagging white briefs staggers in place, arms outstretched, face slack and eyes closed. Tourists crowd around to take pictures. An old man reaches out to touch the briefs. A child runs up to kick his legs.

None of that is ever going to bother the Sleepwalker because he’s not real. Tony Matelli’s ‘Sleepwalker’ is a lifelike and life-sized sculpture of painted bronze, part of his public art exhibit around the themes of different kinds of travel called “Wanderlust.” It was installed in the High Line Park in Manhattan during the last week of April.

This isn’t “Wanderlust’s” debut. In 2014, the exhibit was installed at Wellesley College, where ‘Sleepwalker’ caused no small amount of comment and some controversy, including a thousand signature petition to have the sculpture removed. The school denied the petition, but Matelli was thrilled by the conversation and attention his piece attracted.

Curators from the Davis Museum of Art at Wellesley College provide a context for Matelli’s controversial work:

Matelli’s Sleepwalker—considered up close—is a man in deep sleep. Arms outstretched, eyes closed, he appears vulnerable and unaware against the snowy backdrop of the space around him. He is not naked. He is profoundly passive. He is inert, as sculpture. But he does inspire narrative. He appears to have drifted away from wherever he belongs, and one wonders why; one wonders also how he has gotten so lost, so off course. He is a figure of pathos, and one that warrants our measured consideration. Perhaps he carries metaphorical weight.

So far, no one in New York has petitioned for ‘Sleepwalker’s’ removal, but it’s only been there a week. The statue’s realism has attracted a lot of tourist photos, hundreds a day stopping to take a selfie with the unconscious man of bronze. It will remain in its new situation for at least a year, along with the rest of “Wanderlust” displayed in the area.