Thursday, April 29, 2010

Making a Scene

Des Moines “Paintpushers” Defy the Odds

Des Moines‘ art scene just completed a very good decade. Sticks, a professional artistic design company, expanded in the city, creating scores of jobs for artists. The nine member rock band Slipknot maintained residences in Des Moines even after winning a Grammy and hitting the top of the Billboard charts. Public art featured prominently in new developments like Davis-Brown Tower, Mercy Wellness Center and Ponderosa Village. Record setting attendance at Des Moines Art Center continued show after show and that museum produced critically acclaimed traveling exhibitions when many museums had given that up. Hollywood film makers frequented the city. Pappajohn Sculpture Garden, one of the nation’s grandest sculpture parks, opened between downtown’s two busiest streets.
In the shadow of those ballyhooed events, Des Moines’ creative culture received perhaps its biggest boost when a group of painters gave the lie to a time honored negative cliché - that a young artist had to choose between living off his art and living in Iowa. While the World War II and Baby Boomer generations produced original artists here, their art hardly ever provided a full time profession. Richard Kelley pushed a broom at the Des Moines Register. Mary Kline Misol taught at North High School, Karl Mattern at Drake. Cornelis Ruhtenberg and Jules Kirschenbaum were rising art stars in New York but when they moved to Des Moines they taught too. Others left town. Larry Zox and Richard Bauer moved to New York City, Doug Shelton and Ellen Waggoner to the Southwest. Bill Luchsinger and Karen Strohbeen made their living solely from their art here but they were rare exceptions to the ruling cliché.

That changed last decade and the emergence of the city’s new artist community can be traced to March of 2002 when a dozen young painters, many Sticks employees, produced a trunk show that has become a local legend. Determined that Des Moines painters needed other painters for collaboration, critique and support, Chris Vance started a group that Frank Hansen named Paintpushers.
John Phillip Davis joined a year later. Paintpushers met monthly to discuss one another’s art, rented space for an annual exhibition and sold their art wherever they could - street fests, trunk shows, consignment galleries. Almost simultaneously, the destinies of those three painters were being forged by a young sculptor who felt that his art was stuck in the rut of 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 why he decided to open Moberg Gallery in 2003 with his wife Jackie Moberg.Thanks to mutual support, all four artists realized their dreams of making it in Des Moines before they turned 40. What’s more, after signing exclusive contracts with the Mobergs, the three painters did it with non commercial, personal styles that Central Iowans now recognize as brands. Bigger markets opened too. Moberg Gallery added an annex in Beverley Hills, California and the internet has given their artists a wider audience.
“People in Chicago and Los Angeles look at the Moberg website and are totally impressed at the all the good art and inevitably disbelieving that the gallery is in Iowa,” said Vance.

All four artists still collaborate, each contributing something different. The others credit Davis for teaching them to take more pride in their production values.
“I remember the first time I looked at the sides and the back of one of John’s paintings. They were more professionally produced than the canvasses of many other artists. I was so impressed by that attention to detail that I started upgrading my materials and taking care with little things,” Hansen explained.

Vance is the nurturer, the only one of this group who still goes to every Paintpushers meeting, “Just in case I can help someone younger.” When he bought another artist’s work at a Des Moines Social Club exhibition last year, the word spread so quickly that within an hour, people were coming in and asking, “Which one did Chris Vance buy?”

Hansen motivates the others with context and enthusiasm.
“When we started Paintpushers, we were all novices. Frank brought so much energy to the group that I felt I had finally met someone with real passion for their painting. Frank told stories about his work, little personal histories behind each painting that brought out that passion,” Vance said.

TJ is considered the voice of reason. He says that Vance and Hansen are more receptive to his advice than Davis.

“I tell John that a painting is perfect and a week later I will go back to his studio and see that he has painted it over completely,” he said, soliciting a response from Davis.

“If someone likes one of my paintings too much then it becomes theirs, not mine. I don’t have anything in my studio that I think is underdone,” he explained.
All four agree that their common denominator is an Iowa work ethic. Each artist said that they were familiar with 100 hour work weeks. “It’s a cliché but as different as we all are, we have it in common. We are all work horses,” said Vance.

“And as soon as I got to know them, I knew that I wanted to be part of this gallery. TJ and Jackie work harder than any gallery owners I’ve met anywhere. And TJ really has a different way of looking at art - mostly because he‘s an artist himself,” Davis explained.
Vance, Hansen and TJ say that Davis has a genius for conceptual discipline that they lack.

“John knows exactly what he’s going to do two years in advance. I am working year by year,” Vance said.

“And I am minute to minute,” said Hansen with the others nodding.
Davis thinks each artist has a distinctive brand now but that they will always feed off each other.

“Chris is the one who’s seen as a local icon. People identify his work with the city. He’s the name artist. TJ is the gallery owner and the public artist. I’m the enigma and Frank is the crazy artist. We’re packaged quite differently but we are all afflicted with the same fetish - to make that which we love making and to figure a way to live off our labor,” he explained.

The Art

John Phillip Davis, 41, paints very large, heavily layered abstractions dealing with conflict and tension - “Push and pull, chaos with a design,” in his words. The most philosophical of the group, he consciously paints to provoke ambiguous responses, both visceral and subliminal. Subjects can veer toward the holy and the demonic. Lately, Davis has been working in tactile, three dimensional paintings and sculptures. He shows biennially at Moberg Gallery.

Chris Vance, 33, is the best known and most collected artist in Des Moines. A hundred paintings often sell at his annual exhibitions at Moberg. He paints on all kinds of media in both narrative and abstract styles. Often his paintings are meant to be re-arranged as segments of an ephemeral anthology. Known for bright attractive colors, he calls his subjects a “diary of small things,” like the tribulations of raising children and pets. 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.

Frank Hansen, 40, calls his art “Emotionalism” and combines words and subjects in ironic narratives and autobiographical reflections. He deals with modern Midwestern themes, like the transformation from rural to urban life. He paints with all kinds of media, from branding irons on Buffalo hides to canvasses moved by steering wheels. His work is collected by television stars and has appeared in Slipknot videos. Hansen was the subject of Mark Kneeskern’s 2009 documentary “Thank God I Sucked at Sports.” He designs ski ware for Neve and now has a line of T shirts with Smash of Des Moines.
TJ Moberg, 34, is best known for large, realistic sculptures such as horses racing out of a wall at Prairie Meadows Racetrack & Casino and a “Race Car” at the Iowa Speedway. He says he will never do anything like them again. His later sculptures are multi faceted abstractions with identifiable themes. They include a symbolic landscape installation at Mercy Wellness Center in Clive and “The Homework Machine,” a walk-through sculpture for the Marshalltown Library.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

March 2010

Robyn O’Neil: Origins of the Universe

Wunderkind artist Robyn O’Neil (at the Des Moines Art Center through May 23) stalks both high and low culture for stimulation.

“I read the classics. Except for Cormac McCarthy, that’s about all I read. Walt Whitman, Nabokov, I just finished the complete Proust thing,” she said, before admitting a rather different influence.

“I love bad TV. I have it on all the time while I work,” she revealed, adding that her alter ego is a character from “Roseanne.”

“Darlene Connor is my hero. We’re virtually the same age, grew up together,” O’Neil explained.

The Texan resembles Roseanne‘s younger daughter in many ways. Both grew up in “average Middle American households” and were usually the smartest person in whatever room they occupied. Both depended upon dark humor to muddle through their teenage years with “jerk” boy friends, and both went off to art school in Chicago only to discover they missed their fathers terribly.

"Most people see me and assume the artist is late. They can’t believe these expressions come out of this demeanor. I work at it. I am product of polite Midwestern moral responsibility that demands one be cheerful amongst others. It‘s a good thing I spend most of my time alone, other than with my dog. I couldn’t handle a real social life with a job. I break down and cry when I am alone, for reasons I couldn’t explain to others.

"I need that. I have to pace. When this opening is over, I will not explore Des Moines, I will shut myself in my hotel room and read. That’s how I do it. Patrica Highsmith wrote that imagination functions better when you don’t have to speak to people. I believe that," she said.

Had she been real, Darlene Connor might have created the darkly humorous universe that O’Neil etched

“obsessively” over seven years with the nothing more than the smallest lead pencil and the largest commercial paper. That universe is populated by funny little men in track suits and sneakers, modeled after the death shrouds of the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult. Her men behave badly and not so badly, balancing acts of cruelty and brotherhood.

"These are my melancholy worlds, I don’t use models, it’s all my imagination. I admire the Italian Renaissance painters sense of perspective, how buildings have an unnatural awkward relationship to landscapes. My men float awkwardly like that. Unlike trees, I don’t really let them fit in, they float on the landscape, sometimes without even casting a shadow," she explained.

O’Neil gives cynical titles to her works:

“Everything that stands will be at odds with its neighbor and everything that falls will perish without grace.”

“As Ye the sinister creep and feign, those once held become those now slain.”

“As darkness falls on this heartless land, my brother holds tight my feeble hand.”

“As my heart quiets and my body dies, take me gently through your troubled sky.”

“Oh how the heartless haunt us all”

Such titles were grave enough that Artforum magazine attributed them to the “Book of Revelations.”

“That was flattering. Someone thought something I wrote sounded Biblical,” she said, before revealing that Goya’s “Disasters of War” were an inspiration for her vision.

“Who doesn’t love that?” she asked.

In O’Neil’s drawings, men are always secondary to Mother Nature. Trees, owls, bison, dogs and horses cast shadows in some works in which her soulless men do not. The latter indeed die without grace, while her trees perish in magnificent splendor and her talon-bearing oceans and skies reveal superhuman countenances.

"I am a severe weather watcher, I am obsessed with that too. I mean I am one of those geeky people who calls in weather news to the TV station. It comes from growing up in Omaha and North Texas."

Her series concludes dramatically with the end of mankind.

“That was my intention from the beginning. That’s why I never drew a woman, to remove their hope of procreation,” she explained.

Her final survivor is last seen desperately clinging to a tightrope above a sea of wrath. O’Neil thought his fate was obvious.

"I always knew I would kill all the men off. I just didn’t know when till it was time. I could have ridden off into the sunset with the men too. Could have made a nice living continuing to draw them, that’s what people want. People love these goofy guys but I could care less. They’re too goofy for me now.

"I don’t see the world that way anymore. I have a little more respect from human life now. I see the world in quieter tones, more somber and less anxious than before. I have grown more comfortable with melancholy," she explained.

The more confortable O'Neill takes others unexpected. For all practical purposes, this writer found her to be a rather cheerful young lady. She laughed when I told her that.

“People have trouble with how devastating my work is. One sweet old lady in Dallas told me that she believed he was going to climb right on up to Heaven. I guess I got what I deserved, but hat’s not how I see it,” she said.

She's not so comfortable that she wants her photo taken. After I snapped her she asked that I never publish it anywhere. Preferring to deal with the cheerful persona, I promised.

Two drawings in the Art Center show portend O’Neil’s future. One is a take on Caspar David Friedrich’s depiction of a poem by Goethe, the super ego of Romanticism and the original reconciler of high and low cultures.

"Even a purely romantic scene like that, I was drawn to the idea of a black & white rainbow - not exactly hopeful. I can’t help imposing a down note even in romance. Bird of prey die mating in free fall. That’s romantic, " she confessed.

The other places her doomed tribe within the medieval legend of Magonia - a mysterious place beyond the clouds that has inspired true believers inpredetermination, utopia, and UFO sightings. O’Neil says she’s putting her pencil down to work on an opera about that footnote to France’s Dark Ages. She brought her composer to Des Moines - Chicago singer-songwriter Daniel Knox who shares style with Tom Waits, a view point with Randy Newman and a first name with Darlene Connor’s dad. O’Neil said she’d never even listened to an opera until she was urged to write one about Magonia, by Werner Herzog. But, that’s another story in Robyn O’Neil’s brilliant career.


From Our Hands won the Niche Award for the nation’s best retail art stores… Chris Vance’s new exhibition opened at Moberg Gallery after the artist’s smash debut in Denver, where 22 of his paintings sold on the opening weekend at 44T Art Space…