Friday, July 17, 2009

Art in Des Moines 2008

The Best & Worst of 2008

Artist of the Year - Richard Kelley

Internationally collected since the 1970’s, the “Dean of Iowa painters” delivered brighter, more optimistic narratives in a cynical year. The “magical realist” moved slightly away from abstraction without diminishing any of its ability to mysteriously move viewers.

Designer of the Year - G.E. Wattier

Greg Wattier’s architectural firm has been defining edge in Des Moines (Court Center, Mitchellville Library, Gateway Lofts) for awhile now. This year they honed that edge with the stunning conversion of an art deco car dealership into Alba restaurant, the hopeful new Fourth Street Condos, the retro new Iowa State Bar Association headquarters and even some new benches on Court Avenue that are both practical and aesthetic.

Exhibition of the Year - “World Histories” at the Des Moines Art Center (DMAC)
Acting more like an intercontinental exposition than a 20th century museum, DMAC celebrated its 60th anniversary by recruiting 11 emerging artists from around the world. Their art demonstrated the creative process of the third millennium flat world as a Hegelian dialectic. Each piece of art synthesized something original from the clash of regional traditions with a broader cultural perspective.

Architecture of the Year & Public Art of the Year - Davis Brown Tower
This building brought a new concept to Des Moines. Its cylindrical glass structure, wedged between two rectangles, looks like a working piston while it stacks seven levels of parking between two floors of retail space and four floors of offices. Developer LADCO also incorporated the year’s best public art: sculpture by jd hansen and a staggered light installation by STRETCH that could well become a civic landmark - the 21st century’s Younker’s clock.

Studio Show of the Year - Alex Brown at Art 316
Brown previewed paintings (for his upcoming exhibitions in Tokyo, New York and Geneva) that simultaneously flirted with photo realism, geometric abstraction and atomic deconstruction. His optically mesmerizing canvases built tension between illusion and discovery.

Gallery Show of the Year - Bill Luchsinger & Karen Strohbeen at Moberg Gallery

This digital couple’s thoughtful show, currently at Moberg Gallery, blurs and confounds distinctions between photography and painting. Their montages and superimpositions reveal more about the creative process than a psychology course on Jungian symbolism.

Worst Design of the Year - Ingersoll beautification project
This long-running fiasco wins for the second year in a row by miring the entire 28th to 31st Street corridor in construction zone perils for most of the year. Truly ugly light and power poles went up and down, and up again, with the passionate intensity of pubescence indecision. Handicapped parking was placed in front of an art gallery, rather than a nearby chiropractic clinic.

Breakout Artist of the Year - Rachel Merrill
Merrill demonstrated a storyteller’s talent for embellishing ordinary objects - wedding dresses in one of her several shows - with extraordinary implications.

Artistic Life Award - Lee Ann (Conlan)
This dreadlocked stylist of skulls and bones produced the edgiest event of the year in which she painted erotically tattooed, nude models while, unbeknownst to most, visitors were photographed gawking. This year she also opened her own gallery and chronicled not one, but two, “ugly divorces” in her paintings.

Artistic Death Award - Fito Garché at Art Dive

Christine Mullane’s gallery ran away with this award for landing the suicide and murder paintings of an artist who then committed both murder (of his agent and ex-girlfriend) and then suicide.

“What Bad Economy?” Award
Des Moines collectors paid over $14,000 at a November exhibition in West Glen for bonobo art, as in watercolors done by apes.

November 2008

The Weightiest November

The art world allows November the shortest shrift of all months. If noticed at all, it’s usually defined by its deficiencies, as in poet Thomas Hood’s famous “No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds - November.” This year, however, the month blows through Des Moines like a conspiracy to transform its image. Three different galleries have simultaneously opened exhibitions by likely the four most significant Central Iowa painters of the last half century - Jules Kirschenbaum, Cornelis Ruhtenberg, Mary Kline-Misol and Richard Kelley. In the fifty years I have been paying attention to Iowa painting, there has never been such a coincidence of weighty exhibitions.
More than anyone, Richard Kelley demonstrated the artistic devotion to the painting craft. Early in his career he was a university art professor. Feeling that college politics undermined the focus a painter needed, he switched to janitorial work to unburden his creative mind. Kelley’s “Enjoying Painting, Enjoying Life,” at Moberg Gallery through November 29, is the painter’s first exhibition since he quit mopping the Des Moines Register‘s floors. Internationally collected since the 1970’s, Kelley resurrects motifs from his early decades - namely Mary Ann, his red headed muse with Pied Piper talents. His new paintings also shine brighter, particularly his trademark blues and reds. Always a painter of “magical realism,” Kelley is moving slightly away from abstraction, without losing any of its ability to mysteriously move the viewer.
The late Jules Kirschenbaum was the most influential Central Iowa painter of his generation, inspiring two generations of artists as a professor at Drake and as a thoughtful stylist who was ahead of his time. The sudden superstardom of British painter Damien Hurst earlier this decade recalled the macabre subject matter on which Kirschenbaum cleaned his brushes. It also made Kirschenbaum’s work more valuable. Very few of his paintings remain on the open market. That’s why Olson-Larsen Gallery has combined a few with drawings, and also with paintings of Kirschenbaum’s wife Cornelis Ruhtenberg, through January 3.
Few Iowa artists have as impressive a resume as Ruhtenberg, a Latvian-born painter of original style. The New York Times began sending first string art critics to review her exhibitions in the 1940’s. Her work was exhibited at the Met, MOMA, the Corcoran and other heavyweight museums before the Eisenhower Era ended. She invented a figurative style that never quite fit within any modern art movements. Critics called it: a cross between Sung Dynasty landscape painting and German Expressionism; “chiaroscuro, in a full spectrum of colors,” 3.) and “music-made-visible.” From the vantage of today‘s more clamorous art scene, Ruhtenberg’s subtle inventions serve the spiritual mood of her paintings better than the techniques of contemporary “spiritual art“ do. She used glazes almost invisibly, to modify and merge colors, rather than glossing or embellishing them.
Mary Kline-Misol, a student of Kirschenbaum and a former North High School art teacher, exhibits a year of transitional paintings at Hentschel Art Gallery through December 29. Best known for paintings evoking Lewis Carroll’s imagination, Kline-Misol focused this year on a long personal encounter with a family of foxes that she befriended on her property and mythologized on her canvasses. They mix with some botanical paintings of ominous mystery. Her paintings mingle in the gallery with marvelously original folk art by her husband Sinesio Misol. That orthopedic surgeon shows sculptures made with surgical instruments and also some mythological spirits carved and painted on tree parts.
This coincidence of exhibitions has its own poetry. While the local art scene derives most of its currency from a much larger group of young artists, they stand on the shoulders of these peers, all of whom stubbornly proved that painting could become a livelihood in Des Moines. It’s beautifully appropriate that they all be honored, and examined, in the penultimate month.

October 2008

Dirty Little Secrets

“America Imagines Chinese,” at Drake’s Anderson Gallery, exposes one of our country’s dirtiest little secrets - anti-Asian racism that led to the long-running embarrassment of the Exclusions Act. This eye-opening exhibition recalls that national disgrace through trading cards - advertising’s most visible medium before the advent of magazines, billboards, radio and television. The images in the exhibition make Little Black Sambo look dignified by comparison.
The show manages some levity by injecting considerable educational trivia. We learn that few ethnicities were exempt from the hatred and derision of America’s 19th century majority. An Oscar Wilde section shows how deeply that Irish writer unnerved mainstream America with his gayness, his wit and his nationality. Wilde was even portrayed as a Negro and Chinaman, just to make sure that uppity Irishmen were put in their place. This exhibition also reveals some little known art history. The advertising boys of America invented surrealism about five decades ahead of Dali and Dadists. The show runs through Friday, October 17.

The Red & the Black

Yan Pei-Ming’s exhibition “Life Souvenir” at the Des Moines Art Center provides an ironic closing to the saga of the Chinese and American graphic arts. Ming is famous for tweaking Andy Warhol with paintings of the Pope and Chairman Mao. Ming painted two bigger-than-life series for this Des Moines show. One, in red watercolor, shows new born babies. Another, in black and white oils, depicts American soldiers killed in Iraq. He apologized for exploiting obvious symbolism.
“Red is the color of beginnings, good luck and happiness. Black is the color of mourning and death and unhappiness. Both are memorials (souvenirs), because red is associated with the amniotic fluid and black and white with tombs and gravestones,” he said.
Ming told us that he manipulates stereotypes for irony’s sake. Born in 1960 (a metallic rat year), Ming identifies with his astrological fate.
“I am a rat, but not metallic, I am a sewer rat. I survive on garbage,” he said, explaining that he left China because the Communist Party didn’t allow students who stutter to study art. He emigrated to France and worked ten years in a Chinese restaurant to pay his way through art school and to learn French.
“Twenty eight years later, life is good,” he joked. Two of his paintings averaged $2 million each this year in Sotheby auctions. Ming smiled about profiting off Communist clichés.
“When I learned to paint, I painted Chairman Mao - because the only art that Chinese artists were allowed to paint was propaganda art. Now I paint them for my own propaganda,” he said.
Irony also directed his return to China to establish a watercolor studio.
“I painted watercolors in Dijon and they never looked the same as watercolors painted in Shanghai. So I deconstructed the process and made sure that everything was exactly the same - the pigments, the bushes, the paper. The only thing that differed was the water. It was easier for me to go to the Shanghai water than to bring Shanghai water to France,” he said, while tipping ashes from a Cuban cigar.


The American Institute of Architects honored three local buildings and three local architectural firms for excellence in sustainable design. HLKB won for their M.C. Ginsburg project in Clive, Substance won for their own downtown studio and ASK for their CyRide project in Ames. HLKB also won three general design awards for buildings in South Dakota, Cedar Falls and Iowa City.

September 2008

Hanging Art: A Murderous Affair

Art imitates life but death imitates art. Fito Garché’s tragic life left evidence of that old adage in Des Moines. Despite his anti-Castro themes, Garché managed to make a living as an artist in Cuba. After troubles with Communist authorities, he fled that country in 1994, then spent a year in detention at Guantamano Bay before resuming his art career in Miami and Kansas City, with exhibitions in South America and Mexico as well. Jail and persecution haunted the painter. He developed problems with substance abuse and personal relationships. Five years ago he was arrested for breaking into an ex-girlfriend’s home and threatening her with a knife.
This past June, Art Dive owner Christine Mullane met Garché and his agent-girl friend Jana Mackey in Lawrence, Kansas. Mullane arranged an exhibition of Garché’s paintings and bought several outright. Shortly after that meeting, Mackey broke up with Garché and focused on her work as a lobbyist for the National Organization for Women and the Kansas Equality Coalition, petitioning the Kansas legislature for tougher laws on domestic violence. Mackey was murdered on July 3 during a violent encounter in which, police said, “she put up quite a fight.” Garché fled Kansas that same day but was arrested two days later in New Jersey. He was found dead by hanging in his jail cell the same day.
One of Mullane’s Garché paintings shows a tortured man hanging in a jail cell. She has taken all the Cuban artist’s paintings off the market for now, despite considerable demand. She is planning to organize an exhibition to benefit domestic violence.

DMAC Downtown enters “Twilight Zone”

The Des Moines Art Center (DMAC) Downtown’s new exhibition should be introduced by Rod Serling: “You're traveling through another dimension - a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's a signpost up ahead. Your next stop - The Twilight Zone.”
Like that anthology of great tales, DMAC‘s “Private Universe” collects stories of great imagination from the last 130 years. Themes range from historic to contemporary: Max Klinger’s crazed reflection’s on what was, in the 1880’s, a new theory called evolution would later influence both surrealism and psychoanalysis; Anna Gaskell’s eerie film seems to provide psychological context for what could be television news’ latest “Amber Alert” incident. Such diverse art is held together by its cohesive theme - everything is a creation of complex imagination. Some of the show’s artists paid dearly for their visions. Yayoi Kusama has been institutionalized for decades. Joseph Cornell, whom curator Laura Burkhalter called “The Godfather of the exhibition,” was infamously reclusive.
Most of this art is lighter than the psyches who created it: Kusama’s sculptures mix large phallic symbols with dazzling women’s shoes in a feminist dream closet guaranteed to make anyone smile. Patrick Nakatani’s photograph’s detail the life’s work of an imaginary archeologist who has discovered late model sports cars beneath the ancient ruins of Maccu Piccu, Stonehenge, etc. As in Twilight Zone episodes, nothing in this show is as it seems at first glance. Wondrous surprises and ironies await patient observers.
The exhibition also restores some of long cloistered treasures of the museum’s collection. Former DMAC director Peggy Patrick observed “It’s like meeting a bunch of old friends again after years apart.” “Private Universe” runs through January 25.


Iowa State prof Ingrid Lillgren’s affordable “Assemblages” provide rock solid grounding for the dazzling gems in Ann Au’s autumn collection at 2Au… Bob Nandell’s four decade career in photojournalism dazzles the Cowles Communication Center at Grandview through December 11.

August 2008

Soap Box Rants from a Blue Collar Freak

Frank Hansen has given up his day job and now paints full time, to the benefit of both the artist and his collectors. Not too long ago, Des Moines did not provide a market enthusiastic enough to support career painters. Now it does, more than at any time since the 1920‘s. Moberg Gallery’s annual Hansen exhibition shows that this painter is using his new found studio time well. His subject matter still derives from his personal, grindhouse visions but Hansen’s technique has developed this year. Several of his new works layer paint more diligently than ever before. Others show intricate brush strokes and more serious detailing.
Thematically, the works are still sarcastic and equivocal - showing humor and beauty in the most depraved people and places. Hansen’s “Romantic Caveman” returns after several years in hiding. The painter felt his work was getting a little too proper and market-oriented so he resurrected his Cro-Magnon alter ego, in all his X-rated form. Very few people ever worried that Hansen’s work was too proper, but the new paintings clearly court a muse more prone to hanging out around dumpsters than country clubs. If these paintings were song titles, I’d buy all the albums without even listening: “Dead Guy’s Nicknames Make No Sense;” “Blue Gill Bonnet;” “Pachyderm Noodle Dish;” “Soap Box Rants from a Blue Collar Freak Seem Wise in Luxurious Homes;” “Stalking Siamese Twins;” “Karma Teasing Life Drawing.” I could go on - there are fifty new paintings in the exhibition. One, “Tracy Levine’s Big Heart,” is an homage to Des Moines Metro Arts Alliance director. Another “Date with Destiny” is a portrait of the artist’s cat during surgery. The exhibition opens Friday, Aug. 29.

Life Flux Painting

Tilly Woodward is not really a “still life” painter so much as a painter of frozen moments in flux. Her new exhibition at Olson-Larsen Galleries demonstrates a Japanese sensitivity to ephemeral beauties - “longing and loss in detail” in the artist’s words. These exquisitely detailed paintings are wrought with symbolism far more subtle than is vogue today. Woodward even dares to paint birds in the hand, an intimidating subject to most Western painters because it demands the evocation of contradictory emotions which are almost impossible to catch without movement - trust and trepidation.
“When I paint I think of the beauty of the garden, a small landscape, as well as mudras, gang signs, offerings, prayers and fairy tales,” Woodward admits.
Her paintings are appropriately paired with two large new canvasses by Michael Brangoccio. Those depict birds minus the usual busy narratives and mythic symbolism of that painter’s repertoire. The exhibition runs through Saturday, Aug. 23.

There Goes the Bride

Heavier handed symbolism reigns at Heritage Gallery where “I’ll Show You Mine” presents manipulated photography by Jason (“Don’t call me a surrealist”) Scott Hoffman and head-turning mixed media art by Rachel Merrill. Merrill demonstrates a good storyteller’s talent for embellishing ordinary objects - wedding dresses in this show - with extraordinary implications. Show runs through Friday, Sept. 12.


The second annual ArtStop (Sept. 5-6) lineup is loaded with strong attractions. Besides Frank Hansen at Moberg, Fitch Gallery will exhibit nine female artists collectively known as Jane360, Art Dive will debut “Mandalas” by Christine Mullane and a group show featuring
figurative oils by Bekah Ash, Joan Hentschel Gallery will open a “Jacqueline Kluver” fabric art exhibition, Olson-Larsen will premiere “New Works” by “Sarah Grant” and “Scott Charles Ross” and the Des Moines Art Center continues its sensational 60th anniversary exhibition “World Histories,” which has set several museum attendance records already… “Advertising Cards and the American Image“ at Drake‘s Anderson Gallery (Sept. 5 - Oct. 17) reveals how USA perceptions of the Chinese have changed in 120 years… “Resident Artists: Low Brow Elite” at the cutting edge Gateway Lofts, on Friday Sept. 12, will include works of Michelle Holly, Kyle Thye, Cat Rocketship, Alex Kuno, Brent Houzenga and Van Holmgren, with music by three groups. An after party at Vaudeville Mews will include all-night-long live painting by resident artists plus musical performances.

July 2008

Leaving a Mark on Iowa

The new Davis Brown Tower at 10th and Walnut has the potential to leave a signature on 21st century architecture in Iowa. Its concept is new here - a cylindrical glass structure, wedged between two rectangles, looks like a working piston and stacks seven levels of parking between two floors of retail space and four floors of offices. Street level design combines a sidewalk arcade and a canopy system. If that isn’t enough eccentricity to grab your eyeballs, developer Ladco also incorporated two exciting pieces of public art. “Yesterday” by jd hansen neatly bridges this new millennium architectural statement with the landmark Hotel Fort Des Moines across 10th Street. Her six foot bronze statue evokes a “modern” icon from the previous century - Henry Moore.
The Tower’s sidewalk level interior includes an installation by STRETCH that also could become a civic landmark. This solid wall of glass domes, orbs and sconces (mostly recycled from a Maytag washing machine mistake) is wired like a scoreboard with colored, programmable LED lights in staggered patterns. Tower tenants have programming privileges and we’ve heard rumors that creative minds are planning to express everything from patriotism to football fervor. STRETCH has a reputation for helping distinguish notable places (HR Block World Headquarters and Woodsweather Bridge in Kansas City). The Davis Brown wall will enhance it.
STRETCH is also being featured in “Sculpture 2,” Moberg Gallery’s exhibition through August 23. Collaborative sculpture shows have become an endangered species, for obvious reasons. When artworks are measured in tons and kilowatt hours instead of square inches, mounting a show is daunting. Moberg’s sculpture exhibition last summer was supposed to be a one time thing but the gallery’s schedule opened up after Wendell Mohr’s family pulled that artist’s paintings off the market following his death in late May. Mohr was the main reason this column lobbied the last 15 years for an Iowa Living Legends program to honor senior citizens who have significantly augmented the state’s culture. He was an American master watercolorist, a great teacher and the driving force that created an arts community in Van Buren County ghost towns. It’s fitting that his place on the calendar is being filled with an exhibition as monumental as the Industrial Era bridges, docks and railroad’s Wendell preferred to paint.
For this show: TJ Moberg constructed a wooden roller coaster inspired by his childhood memories of sneaking into Riverview Park; Jesse Small contributes four porcelain chandeliers; Toby Penney brought wall sculptures evoking rural life; Chris Vance created a new wall sculpture; James Woodfill contributed a video installation, a spinning pedestal and some wall-mounted trash can lids that also spin; John Philip Davis brought three hanging works that add a three dimensional, anthropomorphic form to his multi-textured canvasses; Frank Hansen assembled a new wall sculpture; jd hansen is displaying “Bird Man” a companion piece to her downtown statue; John Siblik shows some river weavings and drawings from his environmental sculptures; Peter Warren shows men’s suits built from salvaged ceiling tiles; new artists Akram Asheer and Tracy Duran exhibit wall sculptures and assemblages.


Des Moines’ Bill Hamilton set his paintbrush down long enough to assemble an exhibition of found object art, which debuts at Joan Hentschel Friday . Hamilton says “Reclamation” has a double meaning.
“Reclaiming discarded objects for one, and the other is reclaiming the walls of galleries, and hopefully homes, from the clutches of a slick shiny corporate style of art that seems to be everywhere these days.” “Reclamation” will run concurrently with “The Last Days of Eden,“ paintings of Alejandro Mazon, through September 2.


Des Moines Art Center’s “World Histories” has set multiple museum attendance records… Mark Kneeskern’s film “Thank God I Sucked at Sports,” about Des Moines painter Frank Hansen, will premiere at Fleur cinema August 28... Moberg Gallery’s show of new paintings by Leslie Bell will run through August 23… Works of Cheri Sorenson and Stewart Buck are displayed at Hy-Vee Hall in the Iowa Events Center… Waleigh LePon’s reverse glass paintings will move from Art Dive to Hoyt Sherman’s Art-A-Fair on July 27.

June 2008

Des Moines Re Invents June

In 20th century Iowa, art was pretty much considered an indulgence of the rich and artists were deemed the “unproductive class.” In this new millennium, artists transformed into the “creative class” and became a key recruiting tool for civic leaders. Now every city in America is trying to cultivate an arty persona. That’s a tough sales job for a professional town in which bankers, insurance executives, lawyers, realtors and genetic scientists form the establishment core. That’s why Des Moines re-invented June.
Just when the art world in most cities closes shop and heads for the hills and beaches, buttoned down Des Moines loosens its arty alter ego for a series of street parties celebrating the arts of winemaking, opera singing, ceramics, sculpture, painting, theatrics and more. These fiestas, especially the upcoming Des Moines Art Festival and Metro Des Moines Opera festival, became virtual advertisements for the city’s creative culture by recruiting itinerant artists and drawing impressive crowds. Some of their visitors trickle down into Des Moines’ permanent art scene where the real creative class hangs it hat. June is big for them too.
In Olson-Larsen Gallery’s Summer Landscape exhibition, Bobbie McKibbin shows off the fruits of a her first year as a full time painter. The bounty of her produce was such that Marlene Olson couldn’t even find room to hang her personal favorite piece. Like most of the ten artists featured in the gallery’s two current shows, McKibbin approaches landscape from a beauty of nature perspective. Diametrically opposite to optimism’s rosy perch, David Ottenstein contributes several black and white visions of contemporary rural Iowa. In stark portraits of endless fields of row crops and in bales of hay that tweak a Monet-based cliché, the photographer reveals the Iowa from which family farms are being eradicated. An occasional dilapidated barn, lingering like a faithful abandoned pet, is the only sign of human presence. Eugenie Torgerson co-stars in this show, with Turneresque visions of the prairie, including several incorporated into dazzling box constructions that emulate High Renaissance craftsmanship.
At Moberg Gallery, painter/sculpture Toby Penney digs deep into her rural roots. Previously an abstract painter, Penney’s most impressive new paintings depict livestock subjects in a primal language that evokes the earliest cave paintings. Her new sculptures suggest metamorphoses reminiscent of Greek myth. This is a brilliant new phase for a talented artist.
Des Moines’ edgiest show this year took place at Gateway Lofts. That’s the latest G. E. Wattier building, the architect who seems to be defining what’s edgy in Des Moines (Liar’s Club, Legends on Court, Alba, Mitchellville Library). The crowd that Lee Ann (Conlan) attracts provides context for that definition. She’s the rock star among local artists, a dreadlocked stylist of skulls and bones. Even her models are stars in the Warhol tradition. One of them, erotically tattooed and nude, modeled on a bed during the exhibition while Lee Ann worked furiously. Unbeknownst to most, visitors were being photographed while they gawked. There’s no such thing as unobserved voyeurism anymore.
Such theatrics could become farce in the hands of a poseur but Lee Ann carried it off. Her art dealt emotionally and dramatically with two events that roiled the artist: “I went through an ugly divorce and my kids have been forced to deal with that;” and “The Virgina Tech shootings really, really effected me,” she explained. In one series, Lee Ann posed her boys with thoughts of dinosaur carnage in their heads. In a second series, the same children appear with their own artwork superimposed in talk bubbles. Both drew “mommies walking out on children.” Lee Ann also painted the same model who worked the show, but with wrist bandages instead of tattoos, as the Virginia Tech killer.


Observing Flag Day and Che Guevara’s birthday, Art Dive opened
a group show featuring Cuban artist Fito Garché last Saturday. It runs through July… Ankeny Art Center is hosting an international artists trading card show, with workshops June 21, through August.

May 2008

A Sense of Place in a Flat World

To mark its 60th anniversary, the Des Moines Art Center (DMAC) determined not to celebrate its past but to boldly redefine itself. “World Histories,” the anniversary exhibition which opens this week, blows away any notions of stagnation with which the museum might have been associated in the past. Acting more like an intercontinental exposition than a 20th century museum, DMAC recruited 11 emerging artists from around the world. All provide text books examples of the creative process as a Hegelian dialectic: They begin with a regional tradition, apply it within a clashing tradition and synthesize something original.
These artists’ biographies declare the new art world order: Sonny Assu is a Native American British Columbian merging totem and pop art; Heri Dono is an Indonesian shadow play artist working with low tech sculptural installations; Dario Escobar is Guatemalan Roman Catholic whose work combines mass-produced objects, craft techniques and religious iconography; Yoko Inoue is a traditional Japanese ceramic artist working with mass made consumer products; Shi Jinsong is a Chinese metal artist branding a line of warrior baby products “to survive the manipulative, erotic and violent nature of our consumption culture;” Mustafa Maluka is a Holland-trained graphic designer painting pop culture portraits in South Africa’s mean streets; Rachel Raken is a digital and video artist of Maori descent working with old New Zealand myths; Katrin Sigurdardóttir is an “architectural intervention artist” from Iceland working in New York; Jesse Small is Kansan working in Chinese porcelain and Asian digital styles; Angela Strassheim is an Iowan who riffs off forensic photography in New York; El Anatsui is a Ghanaian painter working in Nigeria.
Curator Laura Burkhalter explained how the show reflects the state of contemporary art.
“The art world is no longer confined to one or two major cities in the United States and Western Europe. It’s opened up significantly with vibrant art centers and biennial exhibitions now thriving across almost every continent,” she said. Shows like this make Des Moines one of those new vibrant art centers.
Meanwhile, the Downtown DMAC is using the 58th edition of the museum’s Iowa Artists exhibit to redefine the most basic art form - drawing. That show includes 26 artists working in a variety of traditional media (charcoal, graphite and pen) as well as non-traditional media such as wire, vinyl and voice-activated body piercing devices. Iowa drawing now includes everything from illustrations for a children’s book to wall drawings, scarification and a skywalk installation.
Individual artists contributed to the definition of the genre. Venerable University of Iowa art professor Joe Patrick pointed out that drawing is “the revelation of the motions of the mind.” To dramatize that concept in the show, he drew the heads of some thoughtful friends. Charcoal landscapist Barbara Fedeler defined drawing as “seeing a problem” and as “thinking things through.” John Bybee, who lost his wife last year, said he turned to drawing as a way to “explore presences and context within my world.”

Toby Penney

Tennessee painter and sculpture Toby Penney will add to her growing Iowa fan base with a new show at Moberg Gallery beginning May 30. “A Sense of Place” will be a slight departure from the gorgeous abstract oils and the wax and concrete vegetable sculptures shown here in recent years. She’s working in basically the same media but her subject matter has become more figurative. Birds and animals help her build a personal mythology.
“I’m more comfortable with my own sense of place, and with myself now. I think that’s allowed me to explore some things that I had pretty much abandoned for the previous 15 years. I grew up in rural Tennessee in a farming environment. Birds and animals were part of a personal mythology, not just for me. I think that’s universal. That’s why the cave paintings of Lascaux still resonate with people today,” she explained.


In the spirit of “World Histories” Nebraska painter Larry Root applies origami and kanji techniques to the arresting medium of plastic lexan, at Joan Hentschel beginning May 30... Olson-Larsen’s annual summer landscape show debuts May 30... Metro Opera’s season previews May 31 with Cabernet Night Live at Temple of the Performing Arts, $75.

April 2008

Yoko’s Plastic Buddhas:
Art Center Celebrates 60th Birthday in Worldly Fashion

The Des Moines Art Center (DMAC) began celebrating its 60th anniversary last week by bringing Yoko Inoue to town for a series of events anticipating “World Histories,” the museum’s biggest show ever by several measures. For its big birthday, DMAC wanted an exhibition focused on the present and the future. Curator Laura Burkhalter explained.
“We looked to emerging artists from around the world who are typical of the contemporary world in that most of them were born in one country, live in another, show and sell their work in yet others and move about freely. We looked for artists who express that kind of global citizenship yet retain their unique cultural voices. Yoko exemplifies this better than anyone. Since I started talking to her, she’s been in a different country every time it seems - Holland, Bolivia, Ecuador, New York,” she said.
Inoue, who proudly hails from “Osaka - the food and cultural center of Japan,” says that even the materials the raw media in her art are global citizens. She’s currently in the middle of an ambitious six year project that takes her back and forth between equatorial South America and New York City.
“It all started a few years back when I was doing a performance on Canal Street and noticed these street vendors from Peru. They were selling sweaters that were sort of a knock-off of Ralph Lauren’s American flag sweaters. They were selling fast too. I bought one and got to thinking about it. I liked the irony that these symbols of American patriotism were being made by Peruvian immigrants,” she mused.
Those thoughts inspired her to commission a large number of similar sweaters in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. She imported them to use in another Canal Street performance. However, while visiting a potato festival near Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, Inoue became curious about red, white and blue flags being waved. She learned that they celebrated the three ancient colors of Andean potato blossoms and realized that red, white and blue had symbolic significance in the Andes that trumped their meaning in the American flag. So, she deconstructed her sweaters to export their red, white and blue yarns to a women’s co-operative back in the Andes where native weavers will turn them into textile potato flowers.
“I’m in Stage 3 now, but I eventually want to import them again and I’m not sure yet whether I’ll use them in another performance or if I’ll have them sold by street vendors,” she explained.
For “World Histories,” Inoue collected plastic water bottles and plastic knock-offs of Buddhist iconography, mostly from 99 Cent stores and street vendors. She made casts from their shapes and created her own re-images with traditional Japanese ceramic techniques of firing and glazing. She believes that together plastic Buddhas and plastic water bottle create an ambivalent metaphor.
“Plastic Buddhas are definitely kitsch but they still have some meaningful resonance for most people who buy them. They use them as décor but to express something spiritual or religious. So their form has a power to transcend its commercialization. That interests me. Water has spiritual and cultural meaning too, it’s symbolic of purity. In Buddhist temples, water is medicinal. People come to take the water and hope for a cure. When they are cured, they return to the temple and give money to build a Buddha. Now contrast that with the toxicity and environmental problems associated with plastic water bottles that are mass produced in China. With water bottles also the commercialization has detracted the spiritual meaning. I hope that by using traditional methods of firing and glazing, I can restore some of that meaning in my images,” she explained. The works of ten other worldly artists will join Inoue’s in “World Histories."


The annual Iowa Artists exhibition premieres April 25 at Downtown Des Moines Art Center. Drawings of 26 artists range from traditional (charcoal, graphite and pen on paper) to eccentric drawings with wire & vinyl, digital media, sprayed paint and skin-piercing jewelry. There’s even going to be a skywalk installation… Michael Johnson’s stunning black & white landscape photography steals the lightening from two other new shows at Olson-Larsen Gallery - sculptures of Mac Hornecker and new works by five painters, all through May 24… Bev Gegen’s gorgeous “Abstract Expressions” play through May 24 at Moberg Gallery.

March 2008

Chris Vance: the Rites of Spring

Chris Vance is the crocus of our asphalt prairie, reappearing every year to declare that winter actually ends. His annual exhibition at Moberg Gallery has never been more welcom than this year. Like Spring flowers, this show has been changing daily because collectors kept picking paintings off the wall prior to the official opening last Friday. The painter has always been a workhorse but Vance said he’s never spent more time painting than this year: The ever changing show includes more than 150 new works.
“I can’t be sure. I think there are 80 to 90 in ‘The Wall’ alone,” he guessed, referring to a three dimensional series of paintings, four layers deep, that covers an entire wall. Vance explained its evolution.
“Two years ago, I did a piece called ‘Elements’ which was painted on wood I had found in peoples’ trash. I wanted to expand on the idea of creating and recreating at the same time. Instead of painting over found objects that had histories of their own, I thought that by painting over my own painting I could create a similar sense of history. I painted over one painting ( “60 Days“) sixty days in row. I did a lot of sanding and rubbing on these new paintings. Those techniques evolved from the experience of painting on found wood objects,” he explained.
The bottom layer of “The Wall” appears to be the gallery wall. That was Vance’s intention but gallery owner TJ Moberg talked him into painting on Masonite panels and installing them. Otherwise the work would have been lost when the show ended.
“That was a great idea. I think I want to use these panels when I install my first museum show this year at the South Dakota Art Museum,” Vance explained.
Vance’s palette is brighter this year. His signature earth tones have not been forsaken but they are accented with more dabs of color, nuances that keep the work interesting for the artist.
“New colors arise from the layering process. I’m intrigued with taking colors and dirtying them,” he said.
Vance says the title of this year’s show, “Overload,” asks specific questions. “All the new technology supposedly saves us time. But time for what? It doesn’t seem to be used for connecting with people. Are we letting our lives pass by? I hope this show says ’Don’t let that happen.’”
Indeed, various works continue a personal narrative of a maturing family man. Vance has four children, ages 3 - 14 now, and parental issues pop up in the show: “Cell Phone Sheriff” is how Vance thinks his kids view him. So is “Smigel,” a word that has become slang for “adult nerd” according to Vance. “Colton’s Magic” is a portrait of a three year old’s creative arrangement of toys. “High School Boys Like Drugs” is self explanatory.
Digital works, new for Vance, return the artist to his roots - he was a printmaker before he began painting. One digital portrait, “Grass Eater,” catches Vance’s 14 year old daughter in a moment of adolescent angst. “Summer of the Farmer & Bird Infestation” riffs off that same theme.
“The starlings or garden swallows, whatever they are called, took over our yard and our life last year. My wife wanted them killed. My daughter helped me do that but then she let me know that she thought I was the Devil. She pointed out the irony that we bought indoor birds at the same time we were getting rid of outdoor birds,” he explained.
“Overload” continues through March 29.


Mary Kline-Misol’s inimitable “Puppetry” paintings are being exhibited at Joan Hentschel Gallery this month… “Trauma Reflected in Art” compiles art by students at the Iowa Juvenile Home and will be exhibited in the Capitol Law Library through March before being displayed in the Capitol rotunda in April.

February 2008

Iowa’s Most Venerable Presence

They don’t make painters like Cornelis Ruhtenberg anymore. If Iowa recognized Living Treasures like more culturally invested places do, she would be the original inductee. Few Iowa artists have ever carried as impressive a resume as Latvian-born painter of original style. Ruhtenberg has exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, National Academy of Art, Corcoran Gallery, Chicago Art Institute, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, etc.. The New York Times began sending first string art critics to review her exhibitions in the 1940’s! Along with her husband, the late Jules Kirschenbaum, she influenced two generations of younger Iowa painters.
Ruhtenberg is still drawing today despite suffering two strokes, but Olson-Larsen Galleries’ new exhibition presents a life-long retrospective of painted meditations upon mostly human subjects. The artist invented a figurative style that never quite fit within any modern art movements. Critics called it: 1.) a cross between Sung Dynasty (12th century China) landscape painting and German Expressionism; 2.) chiaroscuro in a full spectrum of colors; and 3.) music-made-visible. From the vantage of today‘s more clamorous art scene, Ruhtenberg’s subtle inventions serve the spiritual mood of her paintings far better than the techniques of contemporary “spiritual art“ do. The painter used glazes almost invisibly to modify and merge colors, never to gloss or embellish them. Today a battalion of younger painters typically layer acrylics on canvasses, directly out of tubes, and cover them with glazes lustrous enough to keep a car key from scratching an automobile hood.
When Ruhtenberg began mixing acrylics on canvasses and then applying her glazes, the technique helped move viewers’ eyes subconsciously from one point of light to another. Art critic Diane Cochrane described the way that sucked one into the artist’s mood as “serenely dynamic.” Ruhtenberg’s art always had more to do with quantum mechanics than marketing or branding. While much art today screams “look at me. I matter,” ego was erased, along with many faces, in Ruhtenberg‘s paintings. That gave her subjects a chance to dance between alternative universes. Her later works (sadly the gallery does not provide dates) in this exhibition depict beloved ghosts mingling with those on the verge of passage: In “Jessica’s Last Autumn” a terrier appears at peace with a tree full of squirrels; In “Green Couple,” the artist picnics with her late husband. In “Dominoes,” two aged women in a dark parlor complete a cycle of life that begins with several brighter paintings of children playing games with the glee of those of who chase the sun in flight.
The collective mood of this exhibition harks a timeless music that harmonizes with a submissive appreciation of life‘s ephemeral quality. It’s a huge and moving show the likes of which are rarely seen in Iowa. Through March 29.

A Lesson Too Late

Compared to comparable venues, Des Moines’ 30 year old Civic Center ranked # 14 in the English-speaking world in Pollstar’s 2007 rankings for ticket sales. That topped the entire Midwest, ahead of legendary theaters such as the Orpheum in Minneapolis (#16) and the Fox in Detroit (#37). The two year old Wells Fargo Arena continued to struggle compared to comparable venues. It’s been beaten badly by Omaha’s Qwest Center and has barely managed to outdraw Sioux City’s Tyson Center and Moline’s The Mark, both of which have 5000 fewer seats. Now, with the opening of Kansas City’s Sprint Arena, Wells Fargo is no longer the region‘s new kid.
The Civic Center’s single bowl, democratic design contrasts drastically to Wells Fargo’s multi-leveled, apartheid style architecture. Attendance numbers reaffirm what many local architects said all along: segregation and elitism are hard to sell in Iowa. The Civic Center was designed by a local firm; Wells Fargo was not.


Travis Rice, an Iowa designer of vision and mischief, opens his first gallery exhibition “Topographic Delusions,“ at Joan Hentschel on Feb. 22... "Woven Traditions: Central and West African Textiles" includes glorious works by the Ashante, Yoruba, Nupe, Bamana, Kuba and Pygmy tribal people through Feb. 22, at Drake’s Anderson Gallery.

January 2008

“Odd & Awkward Trails”
DMAC shows re-open investigations

At first glance, "Objects and Economies" at Des Moines Art Center (DMAC) Downtown looks like a familiar cliché. Artists and academicians have been denouncing the empty materialism of the western world since the Industrial Revolution. With little new to say, they often become tedious in direct relationship with the earnestness of their anti-capitalism. Despite the show‘s daunting title, this retrospective of the works and stunts of University of Illinois professor Conrad Bakker side steps that drag by focusing on amusement. The exhibition presents artistic replicas of objects of value - from garage sale junk to muscle cars. Much of the art is second generational - photographs of Bakker’s experiments teasing shoppers with his replicas. It’s third generational in one instance where he photographs the sidewalk sale of a replica of a fake Rolex.
Bakker also teases himself by selling his artistic reproductions and testing his own value. In supermarkets he offers artistic replicas of household products. He lists others on eBay and Craig list. In Des Moines, he installed a faux designer furniture gallery and created limited series of Des Moines Art Center gift cards. Those sold for prices that varied according to the faux dollar amounts painted on them. The cheapest denominations sold out immediately but there were plenty of expensive ones left for sale. That’s a humbling stunt that amuses audiences as much as it amuses the artist.
“ I am interested in allowing these objects to drift into and out of social and commercial contexts. This is not a strategy to draw attention to these artworks as ‘specific objects’ as much as it is a way to create a conceptual kind of drag that leaves an odd and awkward trail,” Bakker explained. "Objects and Economies," runs through March 28.
“Play the Story,” which opens at the main DMAC next Friday, also questions establishment points of view. Raised in Nevada, Iowa, multimedia artist Matthew Buckingham questions the role that social memory plays in contemporary life. He built a reputation with accessorized film works on historic topics as diverse as Henry Hudson’s accidental discovery of the fur trapping industry and the introduction of the sparrow to North America.
His DMAC show will includes four parts. “The Spirit and the Letter” concerns 18th century social reformer Mary Wollstonecraft, best known for her books on sexual inequality. Wollstonecraft’s turbulent life has been more scrutinized than her writing and her status has been contested by generations of feminist thinkers. Buckingham’s video installation promises to present her as a ghost with an unsettled legacy.
“Everything I Need’ follows the 20th century psychologist and feminist Charlotte Wolff who escaped Nazi Germany to write some of the first books about same-sex relationships. She was embraced by the lesbian movement in Berlin, where she finally returned in 1978. Buckingham’s video tries to imagine Wolff’s thoughts on that trip back to Germany.
“False Future” concerns the 19th century inventor Louis Aimée Augustin Le Prince who invented moving pictures but mysteriously disappeared before he could patent his discovery. Buckingham shot his film at the exact location in Leeds where Le Prince first made movies in the 1880s.
The final work in the new show concerns Buckingham’s long connection to Carl Milles’ sculpture “Man and Pegasus,” a bronze of several editions around the world including one in the Art Center’s reflecting pool that enchanted Buckingham as a child.

Art News

Mac Hornecker was awarded a commission to create a sculpture for downtown Clinton. “River’s Edge” will be about turbulence at the river and changes in nature… Des Moines artists William Barnes and Thomas Rosborough will create a major mural for Snedecor Hall at Iowa State University. Part of a $9 million renovation, the mural is an Art in State Buildings project… Des Moines painter Bill Hamilton recently began a year’s teaching job in Alexandria, Egypt… Ames artist-architect Pete Goche just commenced a six month teaching and research project in Rome, Italy… Des Moines painter Richard Kelley retired from his job at the Des Moines Register and is now painting full time.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Patricia Piccinini Grabs Des Moines

January 2007
Young Mother Up from Down Under
Patricia Piccinini grabs your attention with six-inch claws. And because her best-known art solicits responses from those parts of the human brain shared with reptiles, some people try to dismiss it.
The cover shot on the Des Moines Art Center’s announcement of Piccinini’s exhibition “Hug,” for example, drew complaints that it exploited shock value as a gimmick. It didn’t. Gimmicks shock for the sole purpose of shocking. Piccinini’s shocking creatures are visionary solutions to frightening real world problems.

Within the debates about the morality of cloning, genetics and stem cell manipulation, Piccinini is an extreme moderate. That makes her as odd within the worlds of art and politics as any of her creations are within nature. She articulates both sides of the debates with dramatic, but even restraint.
“We can genetically engineer a certain kind of protein in milk to feed all the children in Africa, which would be a wonderful thing. Or we might patent a new form of grain and then sell it at such a high price that it will be impossible for African farmers to remain, or ever again become, self-sufficient. That would be terrible,” she posed.

After 15 years of artful mediations about such human interventions in nature, the Australian artist now accepts a quantum range of possibilities.

“I am interested in outcomes, particularly in failures — in doing the wrong thing for the right reason,” she says. “When we intervene in nature, it is always with good intentions, but thinking we are in control is always the problem. We can’t ever control the consequences of the intervention. In Australia, we imported foxes and rabbits in order to look like England. They turned instead into the biggest pests on the continent. I try to create narratives, to tell stories that demonstrate our inability to control outcomes. Maybe this is part of evolution? Maybe this is how it goes from here?”
In “Hug,” one of those stories concerns a nearly extinct bird beloved in Australia — the HeHo, or golden helmeted honeyeater. They’re dependent upon gum trees and possums to tap their food. The controversial photo on the Art Center invitations depicted a Piccinini sculpture of a genetically engineered “Bodyguard” for the HeHo — fierce enough to frighten predators and with jaws to tap gum trees. Ferocious and repulsive at first sight, the clone becomes maternal and sympathetic on closer inspection — “more like us, than unlike us” in the artist’s words.
“My Bodyguards aren’t necessarily a real solution,” she says. “Maybe the real solution is waving goodbye to many endangered species. That’s nature, too. My work hangs on that structure.”
Another story in “Hug” concerns an issue more down to the Iowa earth. “The Young Family” is based on a chimera with dominant pig genes.

“I am interested in animal organs that can be transplanted in humans and since pig organs are the least likely to be rejected, I spent some time with pigs,” she says. “I wanted to be around a sow giving birth and it was an experience I will never forget. She delivered 13 piglets, but she sat on six of them. That’s nature.

“I’m a city girl like most people in Australia and most people in the world for that matter. So it was a bit of a revelation to see that she’s full of human qualities. The disturbing thing for us is that that reflects us in a lowly point of view. Then we have to think about how we treat pigs and other animals. They are more like us than unlike us,” she reiterated.

As if to dramatize that, Piccinini explained that “The Young Family” is partly autobiographical.

“This work is about a mother thinking about her children and their future. My mother was sick from the time I was 13 until she died many years later. I would have done anything to help her. So, I don’t find it problematic to consider organs transplanted from creatures that aren’t genetically all human. Confronting a pig mother and her own dilemma of destiny is just as emotional for me.

“I am pregnant now. My sister is depressed and her mother was depressed when pregnant with her — depression prevents the transmission of seratonin to the fetus. We never know to what extent we interfere with the outcomes of others. But when we do know, it evokes new questions about how to behave. It’s all about education. Letting people know so they can make good choices about how to behave. Education is part of nurturing and nurturing is a big, big part of my work,” she says.

Art in Des Moines 2007

Best and Worst of 2007

Artist of the Year - Bill Luchsinger & Karen Strohbeen

Most artists take time off to recuperate from cancer surgery, Luchsinger and his better half opted for the therapy of hard work, producing some of the most eye opening creations of their brilliant mutual career. (Currently at Moberg Gallery).

Design of the Year - Dewaay Capital Management Corporate Headquarters by Jeffrey Morgan

If you could cross the rustic majesty of Gilbert Stanley Underwood with a little form-follows-function discipline from Bauhaus gospel you would get something like this new corporate campus in Clive. You’d also have a new standard of style in the western suburbs.

Runner-up - Interstate 235. The city has focused for decades now on impressing airport visitors while ignoring the vast majority visit by car. This finally presents the latter with a slick first impression of Des Moines.

Worst Design of the Year,- Ingersoll beautification project

If they can’t remove that ugly protective wrap from the new power poles, then please, try taking them back to Home Depot for a refund.
Runner-up - Interstate 235. It didn’t seem possible but somehow designers found a way to raise and arc all the freeway bridges while diminishing the sight lines and prohibiting safe right turns off exit ramps.

Gallery Show of the Year - “Sculpture” at Moberg Gallery

This was a monumental undertaking with Robert Craig, John Philip Davis, Chris Vance, TJ Moberg, Stretch, Bob Cooper and Tom Moberg all contributing big work for an indoor-outdoor show.

Runner-up - “Birds” currently at Olson-Larsen. This exhibition includes a roomful of Michael Brangoccio’s epic meditations on faith and physics.

New Artist of the Year - Robert Craig

It doesn’t seem fair but this talented Drake professor fits our criteria for a new artist: The “Sculpture” exhibition was actually the first time his work had ever been shown collectively in one place. Craig’s year culminated with a commission for a series of large sculptures for the Village of Ponderosa.

Best Performance Art - Joffrey Ballet at Art Fest

Thanks to Hancher Auditorium, this amazing show was free. Shawn Johnson was disqualified from this category because her best performances were out of state.

Museum Show of the Year - “Hug: Recent Work by Patricia Piccinini” at Des Moines Art Center Downtown

This Aussie artist’s first one-person museum exhibition in the United States introduced hyper-realistic sculptures to the ethical debates over cloning, stem cell research, intellectual rights over genetic material and good stewardship. Her adorable creatures (“Don’t call them freaks”) changed the way many visitors think about endangered species and “artificial life.”

Runner-up “Meet the New You” at Des Moines Art Center. Another thinking person’s show, this brought radical ideas concerning future shock from four worldly artists.

Story of the Year - Culver dumps Walker

New Iowa Governor Chet Culver took charge by dumping the successful, high-profile head of Iowa’s Department of Cultural Affairs. Anita Walker was soon hired to manage the arts agency of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Runner-up: ArtStop brings tourists and a new collective effort to town.

Logo of the Year - AIA Iowa Convention

The American Institute of Architects ought to carry a handicap in this category.

Worst Logo of the Year - Iowa State University sports

ISU Athletic Director Jamie Pollard compared this new brand to both Disney’s trademark ears and McDonalds’ golden arches. Who knew that in Ames, there IS an I in team. And a big ego in charge.

Most Ambitious Show - “Stellar Axis” currently at Hentshel Art Gallery

This exhibition credited 22 people including a “grant writing adviser.” The Des Moines show chronicles the work of five who traveled as close as possible to the South Pole to assemble an installation for a summer solstice photo shoot. Thank the National Science Foundation for funding and logistics and thank Lita Albuquerque for the vision and stamina.

Volunteers of the Year - Mary Muller, Sue Sweitzer and Don Dunagan
Collectively this trio of art teachers took art therapy into the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women and the Iowa Veterans Hospital and produced three exhibitions of their students’ works.

Restoration of the Year - Oreon E. Scott Memorial Chapel at Drake University by Substance

An Eero Saarinen classic was treated with due respect.

Runner-up. Azalea Restaurant by Mike Hutchison and friends.

November 2007

Bill Luchsinger & Karen Strohbeen:
The Way It Was

It isn’t easy being Bill Luchsinger & Karen Strohbeen. The couple’s collective nature is private, meditative and rural - that of philosopher and earth mother mutually bonded into one soul. Yet within many public parts of America, Strohbeen is a celebrity. Their PBS television series “The Perennial Gardener with Karen Strohbeen” stole their freedom to travel anonymously. People perceive Karen as some kind of divine authority over the green realms where bishop’s hat and crane‘s-bill need tending. Luchsinger confided that even though the couple keeps the location of their rural studio a secret, fans find it and just drop in on them without warning.

The TV series was a detour these artists took with different intentions in mind.

“We wanted to share the ephemeral moment with others - that blink or you miss it second, when a growing thing meets the perfect moment. Or when Fall turns lovely and you so badly want other people to be there, but they can‘t be there. That’s why the documentation became important,” Strohbeen explained.

A detour within that detour turned the couple into pioneers of digital art, years before David Hockney and the mainstream art media “discovered” it. Some quarter century ago, the couple wanted to add graphics to video. So they bought a computer.

“The computer represented a tool. It was a tool developed by the military industrial complex. From the beginning we’ve been interested in softening the applications of that technology, and expanding its possibilities,” Karen explained.

“Our first IBM computer came with a graphics package that could be operated with a brand new technological tool called ‘a mouse.’ Karen thought that was the nuts,” Bill recalled.

When they began mousing around, digital art was painstaking work. Just to make a first generation color transparency they had to carry an 80 pound computer into a state of the art photo lab. In the mid 1980’s, they tracked down a company in Omaha that was making complex graphics cards for AT&T. They hired a University of Nebraska computer engineer and taught him everything they had learned about graphics technology. Then they bought a prototypical computer drawing board from Chrysler Motors. That was still several years before software that allowed direct printing would be invented, so they often photographed images off their monitors.

Karen was rather famous for her single line drawings - she never picks up her pencil when making an initial design. Early graphics software was geared to create in series of dots or impressions instead of in a continuous line. A digital print that represented her method had to be broken down into eight separate parts, because that was all that a computer could handle memory-wise.

“The first digital print took six months to complete. It took us longer to make a digital print then than a lithograph. We’d work around the clock, in shifts. Our computer never shut down,” they recalled.

“With this medium, more than any other, you have a direction that gets you started and only gets you started. What happens next is filled with possibilities and that’s what’s creative and exciting,” Luchsinger explained.

They have stayed ahead of “what happens next” in digital art ever since. Their new show at Moberg Gallery (November 27 - February 9, reception November 30) will be divided into two sections: new works; and a retrospective. Among 30 new digital works are some that show Strohbeen back at her old drawing board. Older works include some huge canvas paintings that have never been exhibited before in Des Moines.

Touts and Deadlines

Friday and Saturday: “Catalyst State: Iowa Design Weekend” brings designers with an environmental focus to town for a series of fashion shows, discussions, parties and films at various venues. Contact: Mary Muller, 278-2083,
marymuller@mchsi. com
Saturday: “Lita Albuquerque” debuts at Joan Hentschel.
November 30. Olson-Larsen’s long awaited “Birds” exhibition debuts. Bill Barnes, Michael Brangoccio and Wendy Rolfe are among eight artists using birds to represent concepts as diverse as freedom and confinement, hope and despair.
October 2007

John Phillip Davis: Vanity of Vanities

John Phillip Davis is the godfather of a young mob of Iowa artists who created an art scene in Des Moines in the last decade. Along with colleagues such as Chris Vance, Frank Hansen and T.J. Moberg, Davis built an art career without leaving Iowa. Doing that was a long-odds proposition when this gang began showing at street fairs and festivals in the 1990’s. Davis emerged as the ringleader with unusual discipline. Early on, he determined to create a limited number of large, heavily layered abstract paintings, rather than falling to the temptation of fewer and smaller, which are also much easier to sell. His works have always been characterized by a professional attention to details. The back ends of Davis paintings look like the finest furniture and even canvas edges are painted. His explanation recently for moving into a new studio showed similar focus and discipline.

“My other place was too comfortable. I was afraid it was becoming a distraction from the work. Plus, I’m not restricted size-wise now by the dimensions of the freight elevator,” he said about exchanging a studio with north-light windows and a dramatic view for a stark, dark one on the ground floor of an old warehouse.

Hanging prominently in public places like Des Moines University, Mercy Hospital and Trostel’s Dish, Davis’s abstract paintings have become a Des Moines art brand. Because they sell for mid-five figures, he’s aware that he may saturate this market.

“I do have to consider the next step,” he admits, adding that the internet has helped him sell to an international audience, so “moving on” isn’t as urgent as might have been for other generations of Iowa artists.
Davis is already moving on stylistically. “Magnus Red,” his new show at Moberg Gallery, presents figurative, almost narrative, paintings that comment on the excesses of modern times. “Razorback” is a portrait of young “master of the universe.” “Casanova,” “First Born,” “Rogue” and “Apollo” all reveal human vanities on other bonfires. Davis admitted that the new show is “liturgical” and a natural segue for an artist who was raised by theological scholars. It’s also Davis’ Iowa show for at least two years. Just as he outgrew street fairs, he’s now matured beyond the annual exhibition cycle.

All-Iowa Exhibit at Olson-Larsen

Five of Iowa’s best known artists are featured in Olson-Larsen Galleries Fall exhibition through November 24. John Beckelman develops distinctive ceramics, with an excavated appearance. He throws bowls, bottles, and vessels on a potter’s wheel, fired to about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a residual salt atmosphere. Karen Chesterman’s large oil paintings deconstruct both color and texture. For this show, Carlos Ferguson introduces sculpture into his repertoire, with multimedia installations of airplanes in flight. He also shows several small, minimal landscape paintings. Thomas Jewell-Vitale’s abstract oil and wax compositions suggest a birds-eye perspective. Joseph Patrick, an Iowa icon as a painter, shows photographs that dramatize the glories of Oaxaca’s legendary market.


Des Moines Art Center’s “Enrique Chagoya: Borderlandia” is the first American retrospective of the Mexican-born, Northern California painter’s 25 year career. It’s perhaps the most political exhibition in DMAC history, taking a nasty swipe at a litany of villains of the left wing, from Jesus and the Conquistadors to Pete Wilson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney. Francisco Goya and Philip Guston are updated in service of the cause… “Apes Helping Apes” at Zanzibar's (October 21 - November 24) features mostly acrylic paintings by orangutan and bonobo artists-in-residence at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa. All proceeds help preserve the wilds of apedom from Sumatra to Rwanda… The women of Iowa Correctional Institution for Women will exhibit their work at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Urbandale through November, with a public reception November 2... Metro Arts Alliance’s 20th annual Two Rivers Expo will be November 2 - 4 at Hy-Vee Hall with 130 artists from 14 states represented. The event is MAA’s major fundraiser and helps support the group’s good works.

September 2007

The Month of Punning Dangerously

September is New Year’s Eve for the art world, where even grown ups mark time on the school year calendar. To insure champagne-worthy kick-offs, most museums and galleries schedule some of their strongest shows in month nine. This year, the arts communities of greater Des Moines (minus Drake, Grandview and Ankeny) created a co-operative new September event, Art Stop, bussing visitors among their various venues. Despite sporadically timed busses, the event was a good idea that could develop into a genuine tourist attraction.

To accommodate Art Stop, Frank Hansen previewed his new exhibition “Using What I Got to Get Where I Want,” which runs through October 6 at Moberg Gallery. Even Hansen’s film biographer Mark Kneeskern showed up from Texas, sometimes filming people reacting to a film of Hansen painting obsessively. Hansen openings are unlike other local art events. One first timer said last week’s reception reminded him of “a shelter house during a thunderstorm at a biker picnic.” The gallery catered to this rather different crowd by persuading Hansen to create limited edition T-shirts, titles of which can not be printed in this column. They sold like six packs at closing time.

The emotionally autobiographic nature of Hansen’s paintings hits people with very different punches. “A Sad Bear Waves Goodnite” made one person tear up and another laugh. At least two of the new paintings are contemplations on Hansen’s wife, the artist Holly Hansen. One of them also graced the exhibition invitation, which one art lover returned it to the gallery, complaining that it offended his mailbox and asking to be removed from Moberg’s mailing list. Yet many others thought Hansen‘s “The Mystery of Wife” was a sweet ode to his spouse.

Several of the paintings are visual puns: “And The Whore Ran Away With The Spoon” is painted on found objects, making the whore is a real dish; “Idle Time On The Devil's Day” was created entirely from items found after a Halloween party; “Pocahontas Moneyshot” is a story of cross-species pollination painted on Disney memorabilia; “Lookin’ for Love ” has several puns walking in a pair of striped pants, the likes of which have not been seen in public since the days of Sergeant Pepper. Hansen said these were his favorite pants at age 3.

Humorists also plays with puns at From Our Hands Gallery (FOH), through September 22, and Heritage Gallery (HG), through October 5. At FOH artists collaborated on ceramic creations. Linda Lewis and Sharon Nelson Vaux always deliver layered Reginald Marsh-caliber comedy with their sculptures, this time they play on other artists’ stages. HG’s “Lucia Hwang and Joyce Lee” debuts Hwang’s original style, which in one case employed the hand-dipped lifetime egg production of a factory hen - in a comment on high fashion. Which came first, the chicken, the egg or the Louis Vuitton purse?

The Veterans Hospital recently hosted an exhibition of the best paintings produced by veterans working in a hospital art workshop. Many were painting for the first time and almost all were painting for therapy. Most created idyllic, comforting scenes of mountains, lakes and such. One anonymous painted confronted his demons head on, painting crocodile jaws in intriguing close-up.
“Our hope was that we could engage veterans who have not had an opportunity to express their talent or to put voice to their problems or pain,” explained Project Director Don Dunagan. This program is totally funded by private contributions (515-223-1982).

Blair Benz and Bonney Goldstein star in a new group show at Olson-Larsen Galleries, through October 6. Charcoal master Benz follows up on his last psychologically charged exhibition of troubled souls with some calming delicacies. Intricately detailed shells, insects and flowers are framed and cloistered like monks on retreat. Other artists call abstract painter Goldstein “an artist’s artist” and check out her new works from all sorts of strange angles. For this exhibition, she delivered a new, darker mood to her “diary“ technique of layering, scratching and scarring canvasses into records.

August 2007

The Bloodroot Whisperer

August is the dark hole of the art continuum which makes it the appropriate time for Mary Kline-Misol to shine. Even within the eccentric orbit where artists circulate, Kline-Misol is a breakaway comet lighting her own way. The painter brightens the month this year with two big shows: a mammoth career retrospective; plus a separate exhibition of all new works.

“I have ‘little person complex,’ so I need to do big work,” she laughed.
Kline-Misol is best known for her 20 year cycle of reflections upon Lewis Carroll’s “Adventures in Wonderland,” but her more recent subjects have been as down to earth as forests, gypsies, livestock and the wild west. Last week a Kline-Misol retrospective opened at Octagon Center for the Arts in Ames. The show, which runs through October 7, also includes a few new paintings. One is a companion for her Bosch-like “From the Faerie Queen Garden,” which was her homage to Richard Dadd, “the most psychotic painter in history” according to Kline-Misol. To balance Dadd’s schizophrenic fantasies, she has now created a William Shakespeare dreamscape dedicated to other aspects of the same fairy world.

Kline-Misol also painted some new abstract paintings of “women renegades” to play with her portraits of old “buffalo girls” like Annie Oakley, which were inspired by the painter’s grandmother, a real buffalo girl in her day. Altogether, the Octagon exhibition includes 36 large paintings covering her entire career. Any connection among these diverse, fantastical subjects is hiding in Kline-Misol’s consciousness, which operates on a purer blend of ether than yours or mine.
“Bloodroot speaks to me,” admits an artist who paints 10 hours a day, six days a week, sometimes with her fingers.

“I inherited the obsessive-compulsive gene and I need to paint, to layer paint on canvass, to stretch heavy canvasses. I wish I could paint on burlap. Just going into the studio gives me the most joy I think I can experience in life. It’s a good thing that I paint,” she admits.
All her big subjects seem suspended between consciousness and dreaming. But don’t expect any clues about how that relates to the artist.
“I am not a confessional artist. It breaks the spell,” she said, before tossing us a bone.

“I think my paintings occupy a static stage in which images seem frozen in time - a moment of suspended animation. Perhaps, it is a glimpse into the realm, not of the senses, but of dreams and childhood visions,” she said.

Last winter Kline-Misol began working earnestly on a painted history of performing chickens. “Chicken Act,” a series of six such paintings, will fly the coop this Thursday at Hentschel Art Gallery. 

“My father used to take me to Riverview (Park in Des Moines, which closed in 1978). After he died I started experiencing memories about it and one of the most vivid was of these chickens that would play piano and sing opera, for a dime. I started painting a piano-playing chicken and then I did a chicken that rides a unicycle. Pretty soon I had a whole carnival full of performing chickens,” Kline-Misol explained, matter-of-factly.

Because the artist moved to Clive recently from thicker woods outside Panora, we asked if the suburbs effected her art.

“Oh definitely, but only in positive ways. I am much happier here. But we still have a large backyard and I still rescue animals,” Kline-Misol said.
She explained that a cardinal which had been left for dead last winter now flies around her bedroom and her rescue cat, Conscious Pilot, has adapted well to Rizzo, a retired racing greyhound.

“Conscious Pilot likes to jump on Rizzo’s back and ride him,” she said, perhaps shedding some light on the inspiration for her circus-class chickens.


“Frank Hansen” will open at Moberg Gallery August 21. The official opening (always an walk on the wild side with Hansen fans) will be September 14... A show of new works by Blair Benz, Sharon Booma, Dan Mason,Jan Zelfer-Redmond and Bonney Goldstein will open at Olson-Larsen Gallery September 7.
July 2007

Larger than (something derived from) life

WHO TV covered an art show recently! That doesn’t happen very often and the station showed great instincts for recognizing a significant event. Moberg Gallery’s “Sculpture” is a coming out party for Robert Craig, a Des Moines artist with monumental talent. I’ve seen his sculptures before on college campuses, but before this show not even Craig had ever seen more than one of his “skeuomorphic” works in the same place at the same time.

“Skeuomorph” is a word academic designers use to scare the rest of us. Basically it means “derived from as opposed to copied.” These sculptures may resemble familiar objects like teapots, et cetera, but it would be so very Oldenburg to call them teapots, et cetera. Still Craig’s sculptures fit Des Moines like the form of a glove-like thing. Our town rests in the Crusoe Umbrella shade of the Oldenburg prairie, half way between the “Shuttlecocks” and the “Cherry Spoon.” This is the perfect place for a post-Oldenburg, post-Calder re-construction of sculpture. And it’s about time someone showed us that Craig is attempting that.
One powerful small piece amid several giants appears to make a statement on industrial age fishing. An amphibious boat-tank hauls gargantuan tusks, as if forbidden walrus ivory has been snared in it’s maniacal coat wire nets. That’s how these sculptures perk my imagination anyhow.
Three well known painters also brought sculpture to this party: John Phillip Davis shows his first ever free standing piece; Toby Penney introduces vegetable sculptures real enough to bite; and Chris Vance has some new wall pieces. TJ Moberg, Stretch, Bob Cooper and Tom Moberg all contributed new work too.

“Shades of Greatness: Art Inspired by Negro Leagues Baseball” is a mixed media presentation as dazzling and tragic as its subject. There’s a commendable local historical angle too - displays feature the Sioux City Ghosts, the Iowa Colored Cowboys and the Des Moines Hot ‘n Tots, who featured football Hall of Famer Johnny Bright on their national runners-up team of 1952. “Hot ‘n Tot” I learned is now considered racist because it mimics African American speech patterns. I guess such a team today would be called the Ebonics.

The museum deserves credit for not glossing over Cap Anson, who is described in the show as “a major influence among major league elitists to ban blacks from the game in the 1890’s.” In 1886 Anson refused to let his Chicago team play until Fleetwood Walker was removed from the Toledo lineup. “Get the nigger off the field” was how Anson‘s “influence“ was reported. That’s not included here though. Nor was that part of the old boy’s “influence” included by the Des Moines Register when it saw fit to induct Anson into its hall of fame.

Anson‘s historical depth is shortchanged on a second count too. The exhibition describes his “strong racist views” as “unquestioned.” In reality, some people find Anson’s racism dubiously enigmatic. In his autobiography he revealed deep respect and remarkably un-racist attitudes toward Native Americans, especially considering that Anson was the first white child born in Marshall County.

But we came for the art not the sociology. There’s a fantastic art show lurking amid some poster art and some caricatures. Minimalist symbolism powerfully serves Larry Welo, John Ferry, Rob Hatem and Raelee Frazier. Bonnye Brown captures the joy of the game with her portrait of prototypical groupies. Kadir Nelson knocks the socks off the definition of role models, with his portraits of Willie Foster and Andrew Rube Foster. This game lasts through October 28.

Heritage Gallery opened Iowa Exhibited 22 with a lot of refreshing, first time artists being shown. For once, there’s not a single watercolor tulip or iris in this exhibit. Among highlights: Watercolorist Arjes Youngblade works in three dimensions; Peggy Jester shows inexpensive minimalist embossed prints that stopped person after person their tracks; Larry Gregson shows three works, in three different styles; The judge’s favorite works, by Jeff Rider, revealed good senses of humor and style.

June 2007

Summer Blockbusters

Like a state fair for shoppers, Des Moines Arts Festival (DMAF) will pack the city’s hotels and restaurants next weekend. This three day event in Western Gateway Park brings enough music and fireworks to turn art shopping into a source of civic pride. We’re number 3! (Or number 25 if you rank by total sales instead of by less objective criteria). DMAF will attract an estimated 200,000 visitors. That equates to more than 330 battalions, or half-again the number of troops stationed in Iraq. These soldiers of commerce will converge on a bivouac of 160 tents that require 62 hours to reach full erection. They will service 20 food concessionaires and 179 art vendors, most of whom are equipped to accept major credit cards. Plus two interactive mural billboards - based on true paintings by Van Gogh.

Local hotels will be further stressed by the fan base for Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO), whose 35th season begins this weekend. DMMO’s cosmopolitan audience comes from some 35 states and 3 foreign countries. This year the company detours its traditional program with not one, but two “the slut-must-die” classics (“Carmen” and “Otello”) plus a rare melodic modern opera ( “A Midsummer Night‘s Dream.”) “Carmen” will be a coming out party for local girl Janara Kellerman. She’s been singing lead roles for a few years, but this will be the Simpson grad’s first Carmen, a role she will also cover next year for New York City Opera.

In “Dream” rising star and counter tenor Randall Scotting will sing Oberon to longtime audience favorite Jane Redding’s Titania. Their duets are so lovely they have changed the way people think about 20th century opera. Alan Glassman brings a rangy tenor to Verdi’s tragic Otello, who will be fooled again by the wily Iago, while former DMMO apprentice Dana Beth Miller returns to sing Verdi’s drop dead gorgeous “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria.”

The city’s brick & mortar art scene is also alive around the hottie solstice. Moberg Gallery’s “New Artists” show brings Davenport’s storied painter Leslie Bell to Central Iowa. Bell’s magical realist narratives explore innocence, and its evil twin, in a most contemporary style. Recent UNI grad Noah Doely reveals a new phase of his prodigious talent. Doely sculpts mythic creatures with perishable materials like paper mache, then records them photographically. In previous work, shown at the Des Moines Art Center, he used digital color photography which exposed the illusions. At Moberg he’s working with ambrotype backed with ruby glass, a medium that gives sea monsters the authentic look of a Mathew Brady photo. It’s appropriate summer entertainment in a galaxy not so far away. Wayne Norton, a photographer with an eye for Iowana, and Jeffrey Thompson, a graphic pop artist with an eye for subtle irony, complete the cast of this show, through July.

Olson-Larsen Gallery exhibits its purest Iowa Landscape show in memory - no Arizona deserts, nor Montana sierras this time around. Just the beauty of Midwestern summer. Hung side-by-side, the works of two artists contribute a trompe d’oeil to the show. The venerable Genie Patrick exhibits oils as softly smudged as Mary Cassatt pastels. Patrick said she “scumbles” the paint on the canvass, wearing out three or four paint brushes per painting. Her works share a wall with Bobbie McKibbin’s high definition pastels, which seem more like oils. Gary Bowling, Dave Gordinier and Betsy Margolius join them, through July 14.

Des Moines’ newest gallery, Hentschel AG, opens a full rainbow exhibition by Brazilian Edson Campos’ and Floridian Kathleen Brodeur. "Post-Romanticism" will run June 27, through August 11... Art Dive and Fitch Gallery, less than a block apart in Gateway West, will both host opening receptions Friday June 22. Rob Reeves, Jena Klanrenbeek, Kevin House, Dan Schuster, Bekah Ash, Christine Mullane, Judy Wipple, Jack Wilkes, Dana Schaeffer, and Timi Snyder will be one place or the other, but not at this year’s DMAF… Fort Dodge’s Blanden Museum reprises a legendary New York City art show of 1947 - a veritable Alfred Stieglitz’s greatest hits, through July 6.

May 2007

Orientation of Iowa Art

It was not an ordinary evening at the Des Moines Art Center Downtown. African-Americans played jazz riffs on woodwinds while South Asian percussionists backed them on tablas. Musical scores alternated between eight and twelve note scales. That fusion of raga and jazz was symbolic of the opening of the Iowa Artist Exhibit. Artistic creativity depends upon the clash and synthesis of displaced ideas and Asia is the most displaced of all continents in Iowa. For this year’s exhibit, the Art Center invited three artists whose work is filled with Asian inspirations.
Charlotte Cain lives in Fairfield, the most Asian of Iowa towns, and treks through India and Nepal about half of each year. Her art is mostly Indian, but on a simple symbolic level, it brings together disparate South Asian concepts as only a traveler-artist can. Cain mixed the curly, leafy contours of Dravidian motifs, from tropical southern India, with the cold chiseled scripts of Sanskrit and Hindi, Aryan languages of the north. She synthesizes folk rituals, such as kolam and rangoli, into her iconography. Even her choice of media is fusionist: she paints with Italian gouaches on traditional hand made paper of Rajasthan. George Lowe lives near Decorah, the oddest of Iowa towns both geologically and culturally. He shows a collection of clay pitchers, jars, teapots and bowls which flaunt their imperfections with the “wabi-sabi” honor of a Japanese aesthete. Flaws distinguish and enrich each work, a concept which is best understood in Iowa by stamp collectors.

Susan Chrysler White lives in Iowa City, the most cosmopolitan of Iowa towns. Her work reminds one of Hindu-Buddhist flux and the oneness of being. For the exhibit, she dramatically installed a “waterfall of bugs” in a corner of the gallery - silk screened Plexiglas wings evolving into paper and graphite doodles that add a dimension to their buggy cousins in her large canvas paintings. Those paintings remove mandala art from its circular confinements, reminiscent of both hippy era graphic arts and Mughal iconography, but with Western techniques including painting with ketchup bottles. Through August 3, at DMAC downtown.

The best new works in Olson-Larsen Gallery’s current exhibit also have Asian accents. Paula Schuette Kraemer has been producing significant monoprints for decades, but her new art seamlessly adds photogravure techniques to her process. Her Eastern metaphysical statements are more subtle than those White and Cain brought to town. For instance, Kraemer uses butterflies literally to illustrate their metaphoric meaning - anxiety. In a series about catching and releasing butterflies, she commits mystic psychology. She also shows a Zen-like series of squirrels mindful of dogs, and vice versa. Also at Olson-Larsen, Dan McNamara returns to his famous green meditations on shorelines. As usual, they are as meticulously designed as a Japanese rock garden.

Also in Valley Junction, Chinese artist Goujun Cha appears this month at Kavanaugh Gallery. Cha shows water colors, oils on canvas and oil pastels on paper. At Ritual Coffeehouse, Singaporean-Iowan Kem Bappe illustrates jazz instruments with calligraphic minimalism.

Roosevelt Reincarnation

Joan Hentschel opened Des Moines’ newest gallery this month, in the former Karloyn Sherwood space in the Shops at Roosevelt. “New Beginnings,” Hentshel’s grand opening exhibition, will debut May 20 and will feature works by two Iowans, Mary Kline-Misol and Nancy Purington, plus seven national artists. Searching coast to coast, Hentschel attracted some names, notably celestial painter Lita Albuquerque of Santa Monica, plus several interesting academic artists. She will also represent Iowans Travis Rice of Norwalk, Linda Flaherty and Pam Sanders of Fort Dodge, and Hilde DeBruyne-Verhofste of Cumming.

Milk Boat Cometh

Boaters on Lake Panorama are finding a new shore side attraction this Spring - Fred Truck’s sculpture “Mr. Milk Bottle Contemplates…” Upgrading the lake’s art from chainsaw wildlife levels, Jim Hubbell commissioned Truck’s installation.


“Tom Sachs: Logjam,” the artist’s first one-person museum exhibition in the United States, opens May 25 at the Des Moines Art Center.

April 2007

Arts Spring Back

Winter dumped several storms of anxiety on Iowa’s arts community beginning in early January when Anita Walker was passed over for reappointment to head the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA). Officially Walker resigned but layers of political coincidence suggested she wasn’t wanted on new Governor Chet Culver’s ark: She was replaced by her deputy, Cyndi Pederson, who came to DCA from former First Lady Christy Vilsack‘s staff; Pederson’s newly appointed deputy, Mary Jane Olney, came from 18 years in the state’s agricultural department, just about the only bureaucracy Democrats lost in the last election; Walker was quickly hired by Earthpark, which had figured prominently in Culver’s election campaign. The Governor belittled his opponent for favoring federal funds for that “Iowa rainforest.” Normally Iowa Democrats support all federal pork for Iowa, but Earthpark is dirty with notable Republicans from Dave Oman to Robert Ray.

From any point of partisanship, Walker accomplished important things in what had been a powerless office. Notably. she established new associations connecting artists with state departments of economic development (ED) and tourism: Cultural Trust legislation, Cultural & Entertainment Districts, Iowa Great Places, etc.. Those justified the arts community’s public lifelines to the legislature.

In bureaucracies, any new power creates disproportionate envy. Pederson’s DCA will be challenged on three fronts: DCA’s budget is flat-lined but must absorb significant salary increases; ED boys play hard ball with public money; and the arts community easily lapses into a sense of entitlement. A recent arts advocacy forum at DCA did not include a single person from ED. Only one legislator showed up and he left expressing dismay about “preaching to the choir.”

When asked about her challenge, Pederson reminded us that Walker recruited her to DCA to initiate, “and to lobby for Iowa Great Places.” That program probably impresses ED types more than anything else the DCA has ever done. In Sioux City, Great Places aegis quickly led to an Iowa State University College of Architecture Satellite Design School, a year-round indoor farmers market and relocation of the Sioux City Museum. Pederson suggested Great Places is a model for how she wants DCA to move forward.

“Mason City’s Park Hotel is an opportunity we can’t afford to lose - the last Frank Lloyd Wright hotel anywhere,” she lobbied, adding that $20 million was needed to restore the hotel.

Another anxiety storm hit in January when The Art Store, bulwark of art infrastructure since 1970, announced its building on MLK had been sold. Spring brought the good news it will relocate in June, just off the interstate on 73rd Street. In March Karolyn Sherwood announced she will close her gallery, leaving several prominent local artists without representation. Again, there was good news at press time: Richard Kelley signed with Moberg Gallery; Bill Luchsinger & Karen Strohbeen, the pick of Sherwood’s litter, followed him there a few days later; Fred Truck was too busy preparing for two upcoming shows in Japan to worry about it; Joan Hentschel announced she would take over Sherwood’s lease and open a new gallery in May; Mary Kline-Misol said she will show her larger paintings there, while keeping small works at From Our Hands.

After a winter of stress, Valley Junction’s Gallery Night brought Carnival-like relief last week. Olson-Larsen Gallery debuted new work by eight artists including the venerable Sarah Grant, Scott Charles Ross and Dan McNamara. 2AU exhibited new gold and silver work by Ann Au and Sara A. Hill and newspaper/pearl constructions by Kiwon Wang. Through May 26.

Anthony Pontius’ new show, which opened last week at Moberg, will be his only Iowa show this year. It’s squeezed among two in New York City and one each in Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Indiana. It might well be Pontius’ last Iowa show. He can’t paint fast enough to sell his works and his stint as artist-in-residence at the Des Moines Art Center is winding down.

Last Drop

Bondurant’s Chris Vance won a tough competition to provide art branding for the Des Moines Art Festival billboards and T-shirts.
March 2007

Designing Winter

Des Moines Playhouse’s John Sayles retrospective precipitated a winter storm of graphic arts. Sayles has probably won more advertising awards than all the other graphic designers in Iowa combined, still the four-decade scope of this exhibition was a revelation. Even Sayles admitted he was overwhelmed to see his entire “family of work together.” A keen sense of ambiguity distinguishes him as both an ad-man and an artist - he knows how to grab your eyeball and then fool it with an unexpected twist.

Karolyn Sherwood Gallery’s “Once Upon Our Time in America“ followed the Playhouse show like snow after freezing rain, exhibiting another application of graphic designs. In a previous career, Tom Jackson quickly rose from illustrator to Creative Director at Stamats, which is eastern Iowa’s approximation of the Meredith Corporation. He still employs a graphic designer’s sensibility for surprise.

“I am intentionally ambiguous because I want viewers to have enough information to see new ways to make connections,” he explained.
Even his methods are drenched in ambiguity - oil paintings look like photographs and watercolors look like digital prints. A more obvious duality comes from original technique. In a series called “Spammed,” he combines familiar symbols with unsolicited e-mail titles, posing two questions: “What does it mean to be a man, or woman, in America today?;” and “What’s the easiest route to happiness?”

Answers come in iconic forms. For instance, two images from “The Wizard of Oz” - ruby slippers and a tornado cloud - accessorize “where would you find anything better?” Significantly, the slippers are made of red rhinestones and have high heels. They reappear in another work with less innocent, but more contemporary, modifications - even higher heels and fish net stockings.

“I just wanted to say something about the American myth in contemporary terms,” Jackson explained, adding that you can’t do that without cowboys.

“Lost America” is little boy’s cowboy dream, wearing a pink polka dot bandana and riding a horse that has all four feet impossibly off the ground. At the other end of innocence, “Half Cocked” shows a Colt 45 revolver built entirely of pharmaceuticals. In the photographic montage “Smoking Cowboy,” Jackson juxtaposes a stubble faced Marlboro man with the fully cocked plastic cowboy mascot for a family restaurant plus a cocktail waitresses’ midsection. The most ambiguous work is “Cowboyin‘” which shows a man in black riding his white horse out of New York’s Central Park and away from a romanticized skyline that could evoke any decade in the last 100 years.

“Des Moines’ Painter”

Chris Vance is surely the most collected contemporary Des Moines painter. Because of that popularity, Vance pushes himself into contradictory, non-commercial territories. In “Hinged,” at Moberg Gallery, he goes out of his way to make some things non-functional - even nailing doors and drawers shut in wall sculptures. At other times, he makes an opposite point - an odd candle in one installation suggests the utility of a shelf.

Vance has often called his paintings “my diary.” In that respect, the narrative is becoming that of a maturing, family man. The anxieties of any father of 14 year old girls come through in “Teen Aged Boys in America.” And “Baseball Careers Cut Short” tells of parental interference from two sides of the backstop. Vance’s palette has also matured this year, away from bright colors and toward earth tones. “Table Top” demonstrates a wizened Japanese aesthetic, barely accentuating the beautiful flaws of the aged wood (“sabi”) upon which he paints.
“In the past, I would have probably painted over it several times, I don’t need that kind of control now,” explained a man who always keeps an eye open for flowers in the garbage.

“Probably 90 per cent of the woods in my sculptures were pulled out of dumpsters,” he admitted, adding that he ardently admired an old wooden locker door that artist John Philip Davis kept in his studio.

“Finally, John got tired of me asking what he was going do with it and gave it to me,” Vance confessed. It’s part of the show now, through April 6.
February 2007

Michelangelo‘s Fastball

Life in a Triple A town like Des Moines is blessed by access to uncut talent. I’ve been to several World Series, but my greatest baseball thrills came at Sec Taylor Stadium watching teenagers Vida Blue and Bert Blyleven go “mano a mano” on successive nights. As when hearing rising stars in the intimate confines of the Des Moines Metro Opera, local aficionados have opportunities “to see them when,” meaning before their unpolished glow is overwhelmed by the spot light of fame.
Greater Des Moines Exhibited is a kind of an all star game for Iowa artists without agents. This year’s 13th annual event brings its usual eclectic mix to the Heritage Gallery. Meridith Tenney, Andrea Gage and Vicki Adams show off master technique. Tenney seems to be an artist to watch when she finds her own style. Vic McCullough won “Best in Show” for his acrylic and pencil still life of an antique store display. That work expertly crossed over the dominating themes of this kind of show, which in Iowa invariably mines nostalgia from family history, art history and the idyllic grange. Steward Buck and Diane Hayes are other stars in that regard.

The strength of this exhibition is also a distraction. Steve Greenquist’s sculptures dominate the gallery. Technically, they aren’t part of the show, they are left over from his previous one-man show.

“They’re just so good, it was decided to leave them up so more people could see them,” explained docent Mary Brubaker.

No artist seems to have more irreverent fun than this Ankeny art teacher. His works meticulously mess with Leonardo da Vinci, Mantegna and Michelangelo. He builds intricate Leonardo-designed machinations out of antique (of course) kiddy toys such as alphabet blocks, monopoly boards and rulers. Several sculptures comment upon smiling. While Greenquist brings classical genius down to size, he also overwhelms the other artists here - like young Vida Blue’s fastball. Through Thursday.

Concetta’s Slow Pitch

Concetta Morales, Des Moines’ medium of tropical colors, unveiled her grandest work to date in January - a 16 piece narrative mosaic covering 4000 years of Florida Panhandle history. Comprised of 144 painted tiles (fired at Dahlquist Studio in Des Moines), the work was installed in a series of butteries in Alys Beach, Florida. Public art advocates note that Morales was commissioned by Florida businessman J.T. Stephens after he saw her mosaic mural at the Des Moines International Airport.
Grand Avenue Gravity

Des Moines Art Center’s new group show “Meet the New You” explores the dynamics between humans and their ideals, particularly that of perfection. Dutch photographer Ruud van Empel digitally clones babies from various perfect body parts, yet the results always add up weirdly short of any ideal perfection. Brooklyn sculptor Bryan Crockett embalms the myth of Persephone, in resin, to remind us that perfection is as ephemeral as a point of view. Swedish animator Magnus Wallin transforms a cloned sheep into the Biblical golden calf, keeping us as wary of new millennium science as of Old Testament laws.
Within this otherwise heavy dose of futurism, levity comes from an unlikely source- Sabrina Raaf. The Chicago photographer explained that she grew up in a family of doctors where autopsy results were the normal breakfast table conversation. Yet her work supplies the only lightness and hopefulness, suspending the laws of gravity in her meditations about cosmetic surgery, murder and housework. Through May 2.

Rocketship on Mars

University artists opened a show at Mars Coffeehouse with earnest efforts in familiar modes of expression. Charlie Evans demonstrates a good sense of minimalism, showing that an etch in time saves nine. Cat Rocketship, we kid you not, brings sardonic humor, mixing notions about nature while making some cultural puns. Tianchu Ge is the eyeball-grabber, showing an original sense of color and pattern. A Ge skyline is a full-prism Rorschach test that morphs with the viewer’s perspective. That takes talent as rare as a Blyleven curve ball. Through February.

January 2007

Patricia Piccinini - Moderating Outrage

Patricia Piccinini grabs your attention with six-inch claws. And because her best-known art solicits responses from those parts of the human brain shared with reptiles, some people try to dismiss it. The cover shot on the Des Moines Art Center’s announcement of Piccinini’s exhibition “Hug,” for example, drew complaints that it exploited shock value as a gimmick. It didn’t. Gimmicks shock for the sole purpose of shocking. Piccinini’s shocking creatures are visionary solutions to frightening real world problems.

Within the debates about the morality of cloning, genetics and stem cell manipulation, Piccinini is an extreme moderate. That makes her as odd within the worlds of art and politics as any of her creations are within nature. She articulates both sides of the debates with dramatic, but even restraint.

“We can genetically engineer a certain kind of protein in milk to feed all the children in Africa, which would be a wonderful thing. Or we might patent a new form of grain and then sell it at such a high price that it will be impossible for African farmers to remain, or ever again become, self-sufficient. That would be terrible,” she posed.

After 15 years of artful mediations about such human interventions in nature, the Australian artist now accepts a quantum range of possibilities.

“I am interested in outcomes, particularly in failures — in doing the wrong thing for the right reason,” she says. “When we intervene in nature, it is always with good intentions, but thinking we are in control is always the problem. We can’t ever control the consequences of the intervention. In Australia, we imported foxes and rabbits in order to look like England. They turned instead into the biggest pests on the continent. I try to create narratives, to tell stories that demonstrate our inability to control outcomes. Maybe this is part of evolution? Maybe this is how it goes from here?”

In “Hug,” one of those stories concerns a nearly extinct bird beloved in Australia — the HeHo, or golden helmeted honeyeater. They’re dependent upon gum trees and possums to tap their food. The controversial photo on the Art Center invitations depicted a Piccinini sculpture of a genetically engineered “Bodyguard” for the HeHo — fierce enough to frighten predators and with jaws to tap gum trees. Ferocious and repulsive at first sight, the clone becomes maternal and sympathetic on closer inspection — “more like us, than unlike us” in the artist’s words.

“My Bodyguards aren’t necessarily a real solution,” she says. “Maybe the real solution is waving goodbye to many endangered species. That’s nature, too. My work hangs on that structure.”
Another story in “Hug” concerns an issue more down to the Iowa earth. “The Young Family” is based on a chimera with dominant pig genes.

“I am interested in animal organs that can be transplanted in humans and since pig organs are the least likely to be rejected, I spent some time with pigs,” she says. “I wanted to be around a sow giving birth and it was an experience I will never forget. She delivered 13 piglets, but she sat on six of them. That’s nature.

“I’m a city girl like most people in Australia and most people in the world for that matter. So it was a bit of a revelation to see that she’s full of human qualities. The disturbing thing for us is that that reflects us in a lowly point of view. Then we have to think about how we treat pigs and other animals. They are more like us than unlike us,” she reiterated.

As if to dramatize that, Piccinini explained that “The Young Family” is partly autobiographical.

“This work is about a mother thinking about her children and their future. My mother was sick from the time I was 13 until she died many years later. I would have done anything to help her. So, I don’t find it problematic to consider organs transplanted from creatures that aren’t genetically all human. Confronting a pig mother and her own dilemma of destiny is just as emotional for me.

“I am pregnant now. My sister is depressed and her mother was depressed when pregnant with her — depression prevents the transmission of seratonin to the fetus. We never know to what extent we interfere with the outcomes of others. But when we do know, it evokes new questions about how to behave. It’s all about education. Letting people know so they can make good choices about how to behave. Education is part of nurturing and nurturing is a big, big part of my work,” she says.

Piccinini and her clones will be nurturing Des Moines at a lecture Jan. 17 at Levitt Auditorium, at a preview party Jan. 18 and at her opening Jan. 19, both at the Downtown DMAC. “Hug” runs through April 6.


Karolyn Sherwood’s “You Are Here” features affordable works by household names, from Donald Judd to Cecily Brown, Claes Oldenburg to Roy Lichtenstein, through Feb. 12… Other group shows open Friday at Heritage Gallery (“Greater Des Moines Exhibited”) and Drake’s Anderson Gallery (faculty art); and Feb. 2 at Mars Café (Drake student art). The Ankeny Art Center hosts a quilt show through March 2.