Just as the equinox passed, and eggs stood on end to defy common wisdom on that subject, Des Moines watched high and low culture show off without clashing as the town's old and new guards celebrated shining moments, if not generational statements. The PSG opened with dignitaries present. Shawn Crahan and Fank Hansen opened shows and celebrations with indiginitaries rife as clowns at a Slipnot concert.
The PSG Brands Des Moines
Des Moines’ Pappajohn Sculpture Garden opens next Sunday like a methamphetamine injection of civic pride. Asked if anything like it exists elsewhere, Des Moines Art Center (DMAC) Director Jeff Fleming cited Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Those are not hyperbolic comparisons. By one measure or another - value of sculptures, acreage of park, renown of the works - the Des Moines park can stand with each of those. In fact, “The PSG” kicks Minneapolis’ butt by all measures.
“These are all blue chip artists and each of these pieces are amongst the most important works of each sculptor,” Fleming explained.
With sculptures bearing $31.5 million of appraised value, 24 hour security and the most conspicuous venue of any such park in America, the PSG also fulfills a Princeton professor’s 17 year old vision with a remarkable touch of irony. Mario Gandelsonas, controversially asked to create a vision plan for Des Moines back in 1992, has become known in theoretical architecture as the disciple of “unplanned urban dynamism.” Yet his original suggestions for Des Moines’ future have been dogmatically followed - riverfront development, airport improvements, Fleur Drive beautification and the creation of Gateway West. Gandelsonas’ firm was even made the principle architect for the installation of the sculpture garden in Gateway West Park. The actual sculptures are a rare unplanned dynamic, given to the city and DMAC by John and Mary Pappajohn.
Wild enthusiasm is as hard to hold down as a fiber glass frame. Fleming thinks the PSG will become a civic brand like the Gateway Arch or the Golden Gate Bridge. At a time when anyone with a cell phone becomes a photojournalist, this garden park has instant branding potential, multiplied by the power of tweet. Fleming says Catalan artist Jaume Plensa’s “Nomade” could become iconic. Underground artists entertain similar expectations for Martin Puryear’s “Decoy.”
Barry Flanagan’s “Thinker on a Rock” is already the most popular piece in the park. That pensive rabbit, precariously perched on a sharp edge, suggests defiance of the wind-blown laws of dynamics. That is still Gandelsonas’ point.
Breaking Laws Like Gravity
If sculptors were not compelled to obey laws that govern gravity and thermodynamics, Michael Brangoccio would likely be one. His paintings are all about grand scale and magnificent effort.
On his web site, “Default” even looks like an epic sculpture. Brangoccio’s magical realism instills a sense of wonder and grandeur rarely seen outside the special effects labs these days. His subjects, things like floating elephants, defy laws like gravity.
“Floating is nearly always about grace - that unearned quality that just happens if you are in the right state,” he explained.
His new work is being shown at Olson-Larsen Gallery, along with new works by Dan Mason and Richard Black, through October 10.
Frank Hansen openings always flirt with lawlessness. This year his show will feature a painting that needs to be driven like a car.
“I am a moment-to-moment artist. “Charlie Button's Hobo Dude Ranch” happened because (The Mansion owner) Ted Irvine gave me a whole buffalo hide. So I learned how to paint with a branding iron and here we are. My brother was junking a car and he gave me a steering wheel. I thought it would be cool to build a painting that could be driven and unveiled itself to the driver like a highway,” Hansen explained.
“Frank Hansen New Works” premieres Sept. 25 and plays through November 14 at Moberg Gallery.
John Sayles is closing the design firm that bears his name and will pursue a fine arts career, debuting a line of paper mache sculptures soon… Chris Vance signed for a one man show in Denver and for a two person show with John Phillip Davis at Sioux Falls’ Washington Pavilion… The Very Reverend Cathleen Bascom of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul recently delivered a sermon based on her impressions of the Tara Donovan exhibit at DMAC. Dean Bascom sees deep spirituality in Donovan’s manipulations of disposable commodities.
Taking Comfort in Pearls and Bombs
The programmers of Des Moines’ art scene are now working in Metamorphic Code. Just look what they’ve done to August. During its first 150 Augusts, the arts communities in this city shut down like a French bureaucracy. One art critic wrote that the Iowa State Fair was the only cultural thing happening here between the opera season and the fall. Just a few years ago, Iowa galleries didn’t bother opening new exhibitions between mid July and September. This year, six smashing new shows have reinterpreted August and the local art scene.
Fred Truck is a thoughtful iconoclast whose work is deadly serious humor. “Ten Year Sandwich,” at Heritage Gallery through September 18, includes some of his best takes on corporate images, individualism, war and terror. All intertwine in his exploration of identity and its dissolution. In a bomb series, Truck arranged sculptures in a medicine cabinet — because “terrorists believe that a bomb can make everything well.” The artist noted while observing the Enola Gay and Big Boy exhibition at the Smithsonian, that early atom bombs were quite imperfect showing hammer dents on their skin.“They were just handmade items — they were a lot like art,” Truck said.
Former Des Moines painter Anthony Pontius is another original stylist who meditates on war and the way it’s perceived. His “Casual Calamity” at Moberg Gallery includes “every available painting in America” by the artist after his successful exhibitions in New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington D.C. this year. In Pontius’ hands, technique becomes symbolic. He lays “fat paint over lean paint, intentionally painting badly” in his words — so that his paint will chip prematurely, effecting an Old Master’s look on which he scribbles, doodles and assaults with green shoots, sun rays, Mardi Gras streamers and other statements of youthful hope. Moberg curators included Pontius’ preliminary sketches with his paintings showing how the artist reworks a concept. On landscapes, which almost always look like battlefields or concentration camps,
“Bubble Gum Cowards” morph into piles of amputated limbs and the Statue of Liberty’s torch changes into Medusa’s severed head.
“I really don’t mean to be intentionally ironic. I just can’t help but go there sometimes,” Pontius explained.
Also at Moberg, a “New Artist Exhibit” shows off bright, gypsy abstractions from Therésè Murdza, Heather Brammeier and Diane Henk; sunny realism of Larassa Kabel and the dark wonderland of Mary Kline-Misol. Both Moberg shows play through September 19.
Dan McNamara exhibits his latest Jade Buddha meditations on universes within riverbanks at Olson-Larsen Galleries through Aug. 29.
An out of state museum director once told me that this most stylized of Iowa’s landscape artists possesses “astonishing vision that would dominate an exhibition, if the nature of his vision was not so peaceful.” Om to that. Abstractions from Jeanine Coupe Ryding and animal prints from Paula Schuette Kraemer complement McNamara’s serenity in this current show.
At 2Au, Ann Au explained the subject of her dazzling show “Pearls” playing through August. “They are comforting. They are warm, you can fondle them and they go with everything, with or without color. They become part of the body. I suppose that’s why they were associated with the 1930s and why they are comforting today.”
At Des Moines Social Club (DMSC), Michelle Holly has gathered the most eccentric flock of artists seen here in years for “Animal Nature” through Aug. 29. Several of these artists have professional names befitting an underground venue — Bosko, Macix, Rudy Fig, Netherland, M@r$h, Kettlefart, etc. Some go for double entendre jokes like Macix’s “Shaved Beaver” and others for the shock value of anthropomorphic animals (Christopher Umana, Rudy Fig), parasitic insects (John Stuart Berger), teddy bears on crack (Chris Bent), mythological hybrids (Jeremiah Kettner) and Kafkaesque nightmares (Jason Scott Hoffman). At DMSC they hang their hats on the same rack as more traditional artists like Vanja Borcic and Jamie Fales, who contributed a meticulous triptych of Keane-like girls modeling living hat wear.
Tara Donovan: Don’t ask this woman, “How many?”
The Des Moines Art Center’s (DMAC) “Tara Donovan” exhibition drew the second largest opening fortnight crowds in decades and has been particularly popular with younger audiences. What’s more, those crowds are lingering longer than usual, taking time to check out Donovan’s sculptures from multiple perspectives. That’s exactly what the museum hoped for three years ago when it scheduled Donovan.
Though she was little known at the time, DMAC committed their prime summer season and also, for the first (and last) time in museum history, both there Grand Avenue and Downtown galleries to the same shows. The exhibition’s multiple, untitled sculptures examine everyday objects while restoring both beauty and interpretation to the eye of the beholder. Everyone sees that Styrofoam cups, toothpicks, Mylar sheets, drinking straws, buttons and Scotch tape are the media stars. To different eyes, those same things might become coral reefs, stalagmites, mushroom clouds, sepia tone kaleidoscopes or instruments of torture. Officially, this is Donovan’s first ever “museum survey.”
“‘I think that’s a polite way to say it’s a retrospective without implying that I’m old,” she joked about a career that has taken off faster than even she imagined.
Six years ago, Donovan was in her 13th year working the bar and restaurant business to help support her art. Today, she employs a full-time crew of five people and owns a 1,500-square-foot studio in New York City. Her life changed after a sensational debut show at New York’s Ace Gallery in 2003. That led to bigger gallery representation in New York and London, a one-person show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first ever Alexander Calder Award and a 2008 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, a legendary “Genius Grant.”
Because a single sculpture might include hundreds of thousands of identical objects, Donovan dreads quantifying questions.
“How many? How long did it take? Those questions annoy me. I have receipts and I could go through them to supply the answers, but that’s silly and it misses the point. No one asks a painter how many tubes of paint he used, or how many days he spent applying paint. My attraction to materials and to their quantities comes from how they absorb and reflect light. I don’t see a straw; I see a tubular construction that sucks light. I work as much as a scientist as an artist. It’s all a process of experiment and discovery for me,” she explained.
Donovan doesn’t like the words “found object” either. “I don’t call it ‘found art’ because I don’t scavenge. I work with accumulated materials. That has led to this because mass-produced materials are readily available and inexpensive,” she said.
Cheap mass-produced materials are not the easiest media to handle. Everything Donovan creates must be built or rebuilt for each display. The Des Moines show took two weeks to assemble on site after months of pre-assembly in New York. She can never work outdoors — Scotch tape for instance is a “vampire medium” — it turns hard and becomes something else when exposed to daylight, losing the “misty, foggy artistic essence” that attracts her.
“I live in the zone between nature and the plastic realm. Materials do things beyond my control. That’s the mysterious part of the experience — how can one thing become something else? That separation drives me to explore,” she admitted.
Donovan also confessed that everyday materials assist another motivation.
“I like that I make art for guys from Home Depot, guys who don’t think they care about art but find out they appreciate this stuff. They get it. They find a carnal way, a Gestalt way of identifying. I like that breaking down of attitudes of elitism associated with art,” she said.