Monday, November 22, 2010

Design Fresh, Design Local

Remember when local developers thought the only way to impress people was to beg “big name” architects from out of state to design Des Moines buildings? Maybe the disappointments such outsiders delivered with the downtown library and the Wells Fargo Arena have ended those days forever. If not, the annual Institute of Architects (AIA) Iowa convention might have.
This year, four Des Moines firms swept AIA’s top awards (Excellence in Design Awards of Merit). Invision won for Stacey’s Prom, Bridal & Lingerie in Urbandale, which jurors declared “ a model and inspiration for what can be achieved in forgotten strip mall landscape.”

Stacy's Prom photo courtesy of Invision

BNIM Architects won the same award for Retreat, on a 70 acre restored prairie in rural Iowa. Jurors lauded its “strong relationships between site and building.” HLKB Architecture took the same award for its Iowa State University (ISU) Multicultural Center, commended for its “masterful interior in spatial arrangement and detail.” Jurors added it “shows that even a modest commission can achieve spectacular results.” And Substance won for 322 Reinvented in Iowa City, which was called “a strong project which explores a new house model for the suburban house.”

Invision added two Awards of Honor: for the Whiteline Lofts on SW Fifth St.; and for their own offices on Watson Powell Way. One juror called the lofts “a model project for urban redevelopment on the industrial fringe.” Another described Invision’s offices as “understated yet elegant.” OPN Architects, also won an Award of Honor for their own offices on Court Avenue, described as “a beautiful dialog between new and old.” RDG Planning & Design won two awards for sustainable designs. Their Cradle to Cradle for ISU’s Morrill Hall rehabilitation was praised for “amazing longevity” that should give another 100 years of life to a 100 year old building. They also won a sustainability award for Hope for the Future in the ISU College of Design expansion. Jurors called the stack effect on that building a “beautiful articulation of sustainable architecture.”

Local artists also continued stifling old notions that regionalism quit mattering with Grant Wood. Two Des Moines artists reveal nuances of transition, as well as familiar themes, in their current exhibitions.

Fred Truck’s anaglyphic and stereographic photography at Steven Vail Fine Arts (through Nov. 6) is providing visitors with a new way of looking at art. His anaglyphic conceptions stitch six photos together to present 360 degree panoramas of Des Moines’ Locust Tap, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s rotunda, and art collector Jim Hubbell’s home. Truck described stereographic (3D) images, which require special glasses to view, as a “very active” niche in modern photography. “There are five or ten new things every day on Flickr,” he said. That’s where Truck‘s work has been viewed by 50,000 people this year.

Frank Hansen’s “World Class Poseur” at Moberg Gallery (through Nov. 13) shows new directions, some literally. Master painted Richard Kelley complimented Hansen’s “Dubuffet qualities” particularly in “The Boxing Monacle.” Several paintings are actually painted over older Hansen paintings. In some, the artist explores meditative abstractions without his usual cast of characters from Iowa‘s wild side. For the most part though, Hansen’s signature bug eaters, Medusas, “pimpwitches,” freaks, and whores still walk the Planet Frank.

Works of two new artists will join that of Kim Hutchinson for Olson-Larsen Galleries’ Art Walk exhibition beginning Friday. Brian Roberts is a repeat “Best in Show” winner at the Iowa Sculpture Festival who usually references agricultural architecture in his work. Lee Emma Running uses simple tools (projection, tracing, stenciling and cutting) to characterize her observations of ephemeral things like animal hair, leaf veins and root clusters. Hutchison is among a growing number of former Grandview University artists making a scene. She is a painter who sews, sourcing materials from garage sales cast-offs, to explore quest themes filled with mysterious pathways and doors.

Escaping the Nazis and Hollywood too

Some are born artists, some achieve great art and others have art thrust upon them. Like a romantic character from historical fiction, Jeanne Mammen walked all types of the artistic life. In fact, her career was so tangled in the 20th century’s greatest dramas that it’s hard to believe her biography escaped Hollywood‘s clutches.

Born in Berlin in 1890, Mammen moved to Paris at age five with her wealthy family, absorbing French culture, particularly Flaubert. She studied at legendary art schools - Académie Julian in Paris, Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and Scuola Libera Academica in Rome. Toulouse Latrec and the visionary Franco-Belgian symbolists were mentors. After a promising debut exhibition in 1913, World War I devastated her family. Jeanne caught the last train out of Paris before German nationals were sent to internment camps, waiting till the last minute for a character player by Ingrid Bergman.
The Great War moved her from privilege to destitution. After swearing she would never go hungry again, Mammen eked out a living on the mean streets of Berlin, forging close ties to the streetwalkers and thieves that also fascinated Bertold Brecht. By 1919 she had saved enough money to rent a studio on the Kurfürstendamm, the Broadway of Europe in the cabaret era. She designed posters for the German film industry in its glory days and her watercolors appeared on the covers of every notable fashion and society magazine in Germany. Her more serious work was validated with a successful exhibition in 1930. Then she illustrated Pierre Louys's "Les Chansons de Bilitis," depicting variations on the theme of lesbian love. Along came Hitler.
The Nazis didn’t know what they didn’t like, but they knew they didn’t like Mammen’s art. So they branded it “Jewish.” Refusing to work for magazines or films that that been sanctioned by the Nazis, she made her living for twelve years as a street cart vendor. Mammen resourcefully kept making art, building sculptures out of wire left behind by the Soviet army and with Care package materials sent from California. Stylistically, she turned to Cubism to suggest the dislocation of the better angels of human nature. After the war, she joined the legendary existentialist cabaret, "Die Badewanne" (The Bathtub) as a designer, but painted and lived reclusively till 1976.

Unlike her more famous male contemporaries (Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and George Grosz), Mammen viewed the social injustices of her era without dramatic malice, exaggerated satire or condescension. A new exhibition of thirteen of her watercolors focusing on independent women plays at the Des Moines Art Center through December 10. It also contributes to the museum’s growing reputation for significant twentieth century German art.

Drake’s Anderson Gallery opened its season with “A Fork in the Road: The Time and Place for Local Foods” by Hilary D. Williams. Like several previous exhibitions at Drake, the show preaches politically correctness without acknowledging opposing points of view. The message this time is that scale of America’s industrial food system begets dire consequences. Estimated statistics and slick designs remind viewers that most of them consume food that makes an obscene carbon footprint by traveling long distances to Iowa. One display even prompts visitors to change their consumption habits for the common good, providing pledge cards to be filled out in duplicate, so that those of us who aren’t yet enlightened can remember what we were prompted to pledge.

Williams talks the talk better than she walks the walk. An exhibition brochure was printed on just one side of slick, heavy (80 #) paper. It was 21 inches tall and 18 pages long. At the exhibition reception, refreshments were served in disposable, non-compostible plastic.
ArtFest West, a fall complement to ArtFest Midwest, moves to The Village of Ponderosa October 9 and10. In addition to providing a venue for 100 artists (40% from Iowa, 96% from Midwest), the show promises affordable art and free music.