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.

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