Friday, August 7, 2009

Art in Des Moines 2nd Quarter 2009

June 2009
The Art of Living Dangerously
Ignatius Widiapradja’s home and studio shelter shards of shattered histories — skulls, taxidermy freaks, body organ models, religious relics, ancient books, Salvation Army dolls and mutilated mannequins. That’s not too unusual for a contemporary painter. After Damien Hirst institutionalized morbid realism (and became the richest living artist in history), young painters began hooking up with existentialism and accessorizing their lives with gothic props. Widiapradja is anything but a poseur in this territory. Like the reptiles and Bible stories that dramatize his paintings, he is himself transformational. Even his name is an adaptation.

“I was 5 years old in 1965, ‘the year of living dangerously.’ The Suharno government fell to a coup that managed to blame the Chinese. There were horrible reprisals everyday. Fortunately, a powerful village leader gave my father an Indonesian name to protect our family. That’s when I became Widiapradja,” he said.
“The Year of Living Dangerously” is an Oscar-winning Peter Weir film about 1965 in Indonesia. Made in 1982, it identified the CIA, not the Chinese, as masterminds of the 1965 coup. In America, it’s known as probably the best work ever by actors Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt. For a 5-year-old ethnic Chinese boy in West Java, “The Year of Living Dangerously” was an ironic understatement. It lasted much longer than a year, abruptly ended childhood and began shaping a worldview that would desperately clawed its way into artistic visions.

“Indonesian schools closed in 1965, for two years. Daily demonstrations continued even longer. Between the ages of 5 and 12, I was never allowed to leave the house without bodyguards. For a while I saw dead bodies floating in the water every day. Friends were killed for voting Communist. Friends were killed for being Chinese. Fear makes one aware of his utter vulnerability. I became acutely aware and constantly reexamined my life view,” he recalled.
Widiapradja attended a strict Roman Catholic school and was trained for 12 years in the dogmatic Old Dutch school of drawing and painting. Yet ethnic Chinese students were admitted to Indonesian universities in such limited quotas that art school was impossible. He moved to America in 1979 to attend the University of Texas in El Paso. Widiapradja didn’t think he could learn much there about drawing and painting, but the jewelry department impressed him. His grandfather had been a master goldsmith, so he took up a family tradition.

By the mid 1980s, he was on the fast track to international recognition as a jewelry artist — featured at the American Craft Museum and included in their world tour exhibitions. Drake hired him to teach jewelry, but that discipline was becoming frustrating.

“Education kept leading me to more doubts and investigations into the nature of living. I wasn’t able to see the history of civilization as progressive. Persecution still exists, brutality and torture even. Evolution moves in baby steps, at least measured emotionally. The ideas that entertained my mind were too big to be expressed within the discipline of jewelry so I started painting again. I rejected abstraction, for the same reasons. I returned to old Dutch realism because abstraction couldn’t accommodate expressions of individual struggle that I was feeling,” he said.

Widiapradja’s paintings today, mostly seven-foot squares, can accommodate big ideas. Many are riffs off themes drawn from sacred texts.

“When you’re forced to the edge of the cliff, you lose the luxury of entertaining options. The Old Testament is full of hard decisions from the edge of the cliff, brutal ones even. Abraham had to decide whether to kill a son,” he said. Then, as if to illustrate the regressive history of civilization, he jumped to the New Testament.

“The crucifixion is the most potent image of all time. Imagine, at the moment of his apotheosis, Jesus asks, ‘Why hast Thou forsaken me?’ What a moment,” he mused. Ignatius Widiapradja‘s new paintings comprise “Vanity of Vanities, All is Vanity” opening Friday, June 19 (running through Aug. 1) at Moberg Gallery.

May 2009

Des Moines’ Gang of Four

Des Moines’ artist community morphed this decade from an oxymoron to a distinctive civic asset. While the boomer generation produced its share of original artists, their art hardly provided a full time profession in Des Moines. Richard Kelley pushed a broom at the Des Moines Register. Bill Luchsinger and Karen Strohbeen made television shows. Mary Kline Misol taught at North. Others left town. Larry Zox and Richard Bauer moved to New York City, Doug Shelton and Ellen Waggoner to the Southwest. Today a growing community of artists under the age of forty is posed to make it, in Des Moines, solely as artists.

With respect to Sticks (a West Des Moines company that recruited and employed artists in the production of a fine arts brand), the emergence of the city’s artist community can be traced to March 2002 when a dozen young painters, many Sticks employees, produced a trunk show that has become a local legend. Chris Vance determined that Des Moines painters needed other painters - for collaboration, critique and support.

Frank Hansen named the group Paintpushers.

John Phillip Davis joined a year later. About the same time, destinies of those three painters were being forged by a young sculptor who felt that his art was rut-stuck by his own success.

“For seven years I had worked back to back to back on commissions, mostly out-of-state. Each one took six months to a year. But I was recreating the visions of my clients and I was tired of it. I hoped that owning a gallery was a means to more artistic independence,” TJ Moberg explained how he and Jackie Moberg decided to open Moberg Gallery in 2003.

Des Moines’ young artists were so splintered six years ago that the Mobergs didn’t even know Vance, Hanson or Davis. Vance was in a regular rotation at the short lived Art House Gallery, Davis at the shorter-lived Bauhaus and Absolute while Hanson showed occasionally at Art Dive. All three sold at trunk shows and street fairs.

“I saw Chris’ work at Art House and I coveted it. I ran into John Phillip at various events. Jackie saw Frank’s work at Art Dive and told me I would love it. Frank didn’t have a contract with Art Dive, so I told him I wanted to give him a show but that I wanted exclusive rights to represent him in Iowa. You can’t print what he told me to do,” TJ recalled.

“About a year later, we were hosting a Kansas City Gallery event and Frank showed up.

Today, this gang of four under age forty forms the core of the new artist community here. Recent and current shows demonstrate new directions for them all. Vance has moved from abstraction to figurative, narrative paintings and is using more non traditional media on which to paint.

The only one of the group who still shows at street fests, Vance has won best in show, or best in class at every major festival he’s entered. He had his first museum show last year at the South Dakota Art Museum.

Hanson (“All Franked Up” currently plays the Ankeny Art Center) still creates narratives on canvass with wry humor but his paintings are more layered and labored now. They appeared on MTV in a Slipnot video this year and Texan Mark Kneeskerns debuted a film biography of Hanson last year.

Davis (currently showing at Moberg) has moved from his trademark - heavily layered, existential meditations on large canvass - and is now creating similarly earnest tactile sculptures, his best work but not easy stuff to sell.

TJ Moberg (currently showing at Moberg) has been creating sculptures that evolved from mental therapies based on chromatic auras.

March 2009 "Artist in the Studio" Jules Kirschenbaum

Making a Difference for 30 Years

Marlene Olson

Olson-Larsen Galleries’ 30th Anniversary Exhibition highlights this spring’s Valley Junction Gallery Walk, Friday, April 17. Marlene Olson’s gallery has always represented mostly Iowa artists and it has legitimized Iowa art as much as anything has over the last three decades. Olson reflected on her exhibition, her artists and the changing art scene in Iowa.
“Thirty years ago when we opened, everyone wanted wildlife art. Not just Maynard Reece either, there were lots of others. Of course, most of those thirty year old reproductions have turned blue now or faded away. So people have learned the difference between original art and factory reproductions. No one calls about that anymore,” she said, smiling.

The gallery’s opening three decades ago closely followed the passing of an Iowa law that prescribed one half of one percent of state construction funds be set aside for art. Olson credited that law with keeping her business afloat, saying that University of Northern Iowa and Iowa State University have been significant clients ever since.

“There’s a need now for more set aside money. In most states it’s a full percent because money is needed for maintenance as well as purchases and commissions,” she added.

Olson says the biggest change has been public awareness of Iowa art. “Thirty years ago, most Iowa artists had full time jobs. Most of our artists taught, or painted houses in the summer. Even (full time artist) Doug Shelton did murals to subsidize his paintings. Today, Byron Burford has been working on one painting for well over two years. Karen Chesterman paints around the clock and only does 10 paintings a year. That kind of layering and detail didn’t exist here back when we opened. No one could afford the time for it,” Olson explained, before reeling off a dozen names of full time artists she represents.

Olson credited former Des Moines Art Center directors James Demetrion and Peggy Patrick for giving Iowa art a boost. “They were both tremendously supportive, at a time when that was crucial. They bought Iowa art for their collections and they directed clients to us. Julia (Brown Turrell) bought a lot of Iowa art too. Jeff Fleming is a real pleasure and shows sincere interest in the local scene,” she said.

Olson also noted that the Iowa State Fair Art Show helped boost visibility, as did competitors to her business.

“Now there are so many more galleries and that’s good for everyone. For years it was just us and Percival (Gallery). When they closed, there was an opportunity to open things up. I suppose when I am gone there will be another big opportunity like that.”

Some things have not changed. Traditional landscape art is still the most popular style with Olson’s clients. “Gary Bowling is our best selling artist. Bobbie McKibbon, John Preston, Bill Barnes, Jack Wilkes and Sarah Grant have been steady, dependable artists too,” she added.

Asked about her biggest obstacles in 30 years, Olson mentioned losing Robert Bauer to Forum Gallery in New York City and Ellen Waggoner to Arizona. “All our artists have always come through with their promises. No one ever failed to deliver what they said they would. So, whatever problems we’ve had, they’re minimal compared to the stories one hears elsewhere,” she summed up.

"Cornelis" by Jules Kirschenbaum

Asked about her favorite artist, Olson played the “mothers can’t have favorite children” card.

"Life, Earth" by Cornelis Rutenberg (portrait of the aritst with Jules Kirschebaum)

She admitted that no one today has the gravitas of the recently deceased Cornelis Rutenberg and Jules Kirschenbaum, both still represented by the gallery and in the current show.

Art Touts

Artdive's Annual Spring Open House will be Friday, April 17 with graffiti artist Jordan Weber featured… The Des Moines Art Center Film Competition will be screened at 1 pm Sunday, April 26, in Levitt Auditorium (4700 Grand Avenue).

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