Des Moines Social Club - the Play’s the Thing
The Des Moines Social Club (DMSC) opened this month with ribbon-cutting fanfare and a revival of Karel Capek’s “R.U.R.” That futuristic play premiered in 1919, the same year that Kruidenier Cadillac cut the ribbon on the Jack Hatch building that now houses DMSC. Coincidences like that are not accidental with this not-for-profit organization. From its conception, DMSC distinguished itself from other want-to-be scene makers by composing dissonant noises into contrapuntal harmony. It now represents the holy grail of civic aspirations -- a place for the elusive “creative class” to hang its beret.
For those of you outside the not-for-profit art world, “the creative class” is a precious term coined by Richard Florida, sociology’s pop star and the super hero of not-for-profit organizations everywhere. Florida’s theories have been used, and misused, now for a decade to convince cities that their futures depend upon the abilities to attract young urban professionals to their arty cores. Florida is so politically correct that his name intimidates the people and organizations who control seed money for new enterprises. It’s used to justify this argument: “If you don’t give (fill in name of arts organization) your money, your real estate values will fall, your city will die and the rest of the world will laugh at you, you philistine.”
DMSC impresario Zach Mannheimer took a different tack. He built a cohesive artistic mass before pitching his idea. The Club combines an art gallery, an education center and a free, live theater under one roof. The theater is home to The Subjective Theater Company, which has 20 local members and affiliation with a nine year old New York City company. Everything is supported by rent (a for-profit bar subleases space from DMSC) and by a patchwork of over 30 funding sources - public, private, foundational, civic, state, etc. Few longtime locals have built such eclectic support groups - Harry Bookey and Jack Hatch ( there are no accidental coincidences) come to mind. Mannheimer is a New Yorker and that makes his achievement a signal that Des Moines acknowledges the new millennium.
DMSC’s superior angels are the Kruidenier Foundation, the Bedell family and the Iowa Arts Council. Over a thousand volunteer hours were donated to remodel the building. DMSC has a one year lease, at a generous rent, with an option to renew for just one more year. I asked Mannheimer if that didn’t scare him.
“It’s a leap of faith. This whole thing is an outrageous leap of faith. Most good things that get done require a will to take some leaps,” he said.
Opening night assembled an odd band of brothers: homeless dudes rubbed shoulders with politicians from three parties. More encouraging for the true Florida believer, the turnout represented a youthful demographic - more like a rock concert than a serious theater audience.
DMSC’s education center will be offering classes in circus performing arts, money management, dance and theater. Its Instinct Gallery will produce monthly shows “for the underground and pop-surrealist art movements.” The first was a populist all-female exhibition of very traditional media - a couple sculptures and things that hang on walls. The Gallery also plans to retail limited edition designer toys and figures.
The theater is the star here with 21st century sound and light technology amplifying such cutting edge fare as Steven Gridley’s “The Twelfth Labor” and an original play based on the works of Des Moines activist Evelyn Davis. Mannheimer plans to recruit both theater and music talent from New York for other future shows.
Three early Spring exhibitions show off the state of the Iowa art scene.
Olson-Larsen Galleries’ 30th Anniversary exhibition opens Friday, March 27 and features a work by every gallery artist… The Des Moines Art Center’s Iowa Artist Exhibition, through May 22, features self taught, magical painter Timothy Wehrle, memory explorer Larassa Kabel and inquisitional printmaker Phillip Chen… Chris Vance, Des Moines’ most popular painter, exhibits his latest amusing narratives on life in Iowa at Moberg Gallery through April 25.
Return of the Parodical Son
Already drawing record numbers of visitors, scholars and national media, the Des Moines Art Center‘s (DMAC) “After Many Springs: Regionalism, Modernism & the Midwest” is that museum’s grandest original creation in ages, perhaps ever. At a time when even the nation’s biggest museums are backing away from “blockbuster” exhibitions, DMAC mounted a one-museum show that redefines a major genre of American art. Superstars of Midwest art history are represented with their finest works, including Iowan Grant Wood with his iconic “American Gothic.” Other Wood paintings in this show look ridiculously idyllic, as if the Great Depression didn’t phase Iowa. “American Gothic” though is placed in a context that makes one wonder, in curator Debra Bricker Balken words, “Is it earnest, or a parody of Midwestern middle class values?”
Regionalism’s other major figures appear less ambiguous. The exhibition includes some obviously racist commentary on the 1930’s, such as Jim Jones’ “Roustabouts.” That suggests that viewers see John Steuart Curry’s most famous paintings not as historical commentaries but as political analogies. Curry‘s “Manhunt” and “The Mississippi” clearly editorialize on lynching and pains of the Jim Crow era while his “John Brown” looks more like a savior than a madman.
Despite Wood’s celebrated homecoming, Tom Hart Benton is the star of this show. Balken gives him both the first and last words in a narrative that treats Benton as Regionalism’s movement maker, a bigger-than-life character who reinvented himself from a Clark Gable wannabe to the American Picasso - while defiantly spitting in the eyes of: the eastern art establishment; Modernism; and economic realities of the Depression. The exhibition’s title painting even becomes Benton’s concession speech in the mid 1940‘s - Regionalism, and its rose-colored bounties, are dead and buried behind 40 acres and a mule.
“After Many Springs” appears with eerie timeliness. Though planned four years ago, in the high flying days of economic exuberance, it explores American angst after the stock market crash of 1929. The hard scrabble decade of the 1930’s is also recalled (and/or dramatized) by America’s greatest photographers. Margaret Bourke White dominates that group, much as Benton did the era’s painters, by transforming herself in a creative reaction to her subject matter - the Midwest in the Great Depression. First we see White as a card-carrying Modernist who photographed heavy machinery solely for its abstract lines. Then she’s reborn as a documentarian with a bleeding heart and an eagle eye. Russell Lee and Arthur Rothstein come off more like “Hollywood realists.” We discover that both were comfortable restaging their subjects for dramatic effect. Staged or not, the dust-blown visions of these photographers contrast utterly with the idealist Midwest that Wood, Benton and Charles Sheeler painted.
The exhibition tries to build bridges between Modernist and Regionalist visions. Benton’s student Jackson Pollack (bet you didn’t know that) presents the first stage of that synthesis, glimpsed in Pollack’s work prior to his Abstract-Expressionist epiphanies. The recently rediscovered John Rogers Cox and Philip Guston (who replaced Wood at the University of Iowa) comprise stage two. According to Balken, they both incorporated “aspects of surrealism in their paintings that transport the viewer to places where both the landscape and humanity have been irreparably altered by the harsh realities of the previous decade.”
In today’s dark light, Joe Jones steals this show with his “American Farm.” That painting appropriates a medieval landscape that looks like it might have inspired Hollywood’s later visions of America after nuclear war. “After Many Springs” plays through May 17, though “American Gothic” will be here only till March 29.
Olson-Larsen Galleries new exhibition features two contemporary landscape photographers who interact with their subjects much as the Great Depression cameramen did. New Englander David Ottenstein has been chronicling the dust blown remnants of vanishing Iowa farmscapes for five years. Last frontier photographer Stuart Klipper lugs, huge heavy equipment to the most challenging places on Earth, from Antarctica to the Sahara. Both exhibitions continue through March 21.
Return of the Great Depression
Iowa philosopher-artist Bill Luchsinger says that some artists are canaries in culture’s mine shaft - they sense things long before anyone else can and alert the rest of us. Our mid winter arts calendar makes one suspect that gallery directors also have canary nerves. The Des Moines Art Center’s (DMAC) entire winter program, planned when the stock market flew in the 1400’s, reminisces the Great Depression. The print, drawing and photo show “Different Realities” opens Friday Jan. 16 and contrasts different approaches to art between world wars while warbling a prelude to the symphonic boom of “After Many Springs.” Opening the end on the month, that DMAC blockbuster exhibit will bring ”American Gothic” home to Iowa while examining Midwestern art in the 1930‘s.
Moberg Gallery’s first ever “Works on Paper” appears similarly divined by canary feathers, providing the now timely “affordable art” from that gallery’s growing stable of emerging regional artists. It’s also Moberg’s biggest show ever, taking over the entire gallery. Drawings, prints and photos range thematically from the au current of academia to old fashioned Iowan. That contrast also mirrors the DMAC retrospectives of art in the Great Depression. Drake prof Ignatius Widiapradja contributes the most beguiling works at Moberg. His “Rose Series” comprises complex paintings in which pop images (Lindsay Lohan mugging Marilyn Monroe) are superimposed over metaphysical themes and religious imagery. Widiapradja also shows some of his “Buddha Series,” complex storytelling without the pop. Despite the simplicity of paper, this show relishes process. Des Moines’ Larassa Kabel contributes drawings of nudes easily mistaken for black & white photographs. Wisconsin sculptor Richard Taylor manages linocut prints that resemble his giant outdoor sculptures. Californian Tracy Duran weaves photo skins into collages. Kansas City’s Diane Henk’s mixed media collages emphasize written words. Kansas City’s James Woodfill plots ink drawings on velum. In more traditional approaches: Bradley prof Heather Brammeier contributes gouache drawings; Des Moines’ Jeffrey Thompson shows drawings from his pop art portraits of cartoon characters; Des Moines’ Catherine Dreiss brings classical wood cut prints; Davenport’s Leslie Bell shows his signature female characters, mostly adults this time; Oregon’s Therese Murdza exhibits watercolor and graphite works; and Wayne Norton shows his trademark photographs of rural Iowa.
Gallery stalwarts John Phillip Davis, Richard Kelley, Nancy Lindsay, Bill Luchsinger, Toby Penney, Anthony Pontius, Karen Strohbeen and Chris Vance all contribute familiar work. Vance adds a new element of buyer interaction - cut out figures that can be rearranged. Environmental sculptor John Siblik brings drawings related to his outdoor installations.
At press time, TJ Moberg said the gallery had “no idea what Noah Doely and Frank Hansen were contributing,” but that he never has a clue what those two artists would do next. This show is the Iowa debut for Brammeier and Henk. Penney and Dreiss, two extraordinary process artists, will give a free gallery talk Saturday, Jan. 24 at 11 a.m.. An opening reception will be held Friday, Jan. 23 and the show will run through March 7.
Much of Olson-Larsen Galleries’ marvelous anthology show “Shelter,“ is being extended into February. That exhibition gave gallery artists freedom to interpret its theme. Deanna Wood and Tim Frerich’s went with strictly symbolic shelters. Bill Barnes and Ted Lyddon Hatten employed utilitarian symbols - umbrellas and roofs. Thinking like agricultural commodities, Gary Bowling painted silos and barns. Intuiting a birds’ points of view, Tilly Woodward drew nests and human hands.
Joan Hentschel Gallery’s “Father & Son; The Lake Pieces” matches pere Gene Hamilton with fils Bill Hamilton, dealing with similar subjects. There’s one generational contrast: Bill sees boating as rowing and Gene as motoring. Bill’s rowers move toward their future while facing their past, particularly in mystic portraits of his father. Gene’s boaters power forward without ever looking back. Gene is now painting characters from “The Little Woody Talk Show,” a Des Moines production that recently won the Mammoth Film Festival’s “Best TV Talk Show Pilot” award. Check it out on You Tube -www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=8194BC65265699B8. The Hentschel show plays through Feb. 19.