Thursday, June 30, 2011

Gleeful Cynicism at Surface Value

During the last five years Des Moines Art Center (DMAC) exhibitions have been drawing the largest crowds ever to the institution. By no coincidence, these shows have also consistently celebrated aspects of art that stimulate our zygomaticus major, the muscle most responsible for making us smile, while also opening our eyes to somber realties. The three young artists represented in the museum’s new exhibition, Surface Value, do those things on several levels while mimicking classical art with both respect and irony.

Alison Elizabeth Taylor is a child of Las Vegas - the peripheral Las Vegas rather than mirage of neon, fountains and faux cities that attracts tourists to the Nevada desert. She simulates painting in marquetry and intarsia, which involve the cutting and piecing of wood and wood veneer to form designs. Taylor’s wooden narratives meditate cynically upon the culture of the most treeless landscape in America. Two works in the DMAC show are set in Bombay Beach, an infamous “oceanfront property” in the Colorado Desert that is half sunk in salt or dried mud.

Another work, “Roadside” studies two “hunters” shooting deer in the suburbs with automatic rifles from their woodie station wagon. “The Breeder” is a portrait of a character from the pages of the dark humorist T. Coraghessan Boyle. A sinewy man stands before used furniture he has converted into kennels for chinchilla, the breeding of which became an impractical effort at self employment during Las Vegas recent employment crisis.

In Boyle’s story, the breeder flees his rental when his inventory dies after the air conditioner stops working. A small air conditioning vent appears in Taylor’s work, looking quite inefficient as her human subject gulps Corona wearing a wife beater. Two other works in the DMAC show inhabit more darker haunts. In “Tap Left On” and “Multiple Shots with Knife Slashes” Taylor portrays houses vandalized by their owners, after Vegas‘ worst-in-the-nation mortgage crisis.

James Gobel is a child of the other Las Vegas. He credits his high school and college years amongst the kitsch icons and neon mirages for forming his aesthetic which found its true milieu in San Francisco’s bear culture. Bears are hyper masculine gay men, fond of dandified beards and long eye lashes, flannel shirts, boots, leather and alcohol. In “The Problem with Leisure; What to Do for Pleasure,” three stylish bears play musical chairs with earnest intentions. Gobel, a constituent of Nancy Pelosi, compares his sub culture to that of Weimar Republic Berlin, fostering a “golden age of open and radical dialogue before the rule of the Third Reich.” It’s hard to tell how serious he is. He “paints” his subjects in felt, “a cuddly material for a cuddly subject,” and exhibits nothing more radical than clashing argyle with camouflage.

Mickalene Thomas’ preferred medium is rhinestones. She clashes those with textiles and patterns in an unbearably gaudy manner that comments on the “power and convolution of fashion and aesthetics.” Her subjects, thrust into classical poses reminiscent of Matisse and Manet, are highly stylized African-American women, many family members. In “Sweet and Out Front” she mimics Andy Warhol’s Marilyn (Monroe) prints, by featuring the women from the film “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song,” the original blaxplotation movie that celebrated militant black men but did little for black women.

Open House

James Ellwanger, sculptor of Shattered Silence on the state capitol grounds, is busy designing interactive sculptures for Des Moines and its sister cities. With technology from Fair-Play scoreboards, visitors to town centers here and in Kobe, Japan or St. Etienne, France will be able to converse with each other by passing by his sculptures. You have to see the drawings to understand the project though, so Ellwanger will begin opening his studio one Friday each month for that purpose, and also for mini-exhibitions of his other works, which include multi-dimensional paintings and, for the first time in his career, traditional abstract paintings. The first open house exhibition is scheduled for May 20, at 304 15th St., Studio 100, (the former Fitch Gallery).

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Marvelous Month for Alternative Spaces

Alpha art collector Kirk Blunck explained his presence at a coffeehouse art show recently.

“Everybody starts out as a local artist. I bought an entire box of photographs once, mostly as a favor to a friend, for $100 a piece. The photographer was Anna Gaskell,” he said, alluding to an artist whose prints start now at around 75 times the price he paid and go up to $35,000.

This month Blunck purchased three works on paper at a Mars Coffeehouse exhibition of Jeremiah Elbel which runs through April. Elbel is a monstrously talented young artist who had a painting in a Saatchi Gallery show in London last year that drew the largest crowds of the year in the UK. He works in black and white, metaphorically and literally, painting with tar and drawing with charcoal. His subjects in the new show are portraits of decapitated humans - some Mexican drug war victims, some victims of Islamic terrorists, others of Shari'a, or French law. They are rendered in charcoal, with curved vertical lines dominating and reminding one of Egon Schiele, an admitted influence. Danny Pearl is one subject that didn’t make Elbel’s cut.

“I tried but I couldn’t. I watched the video (Al-Qaeda’s “The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl,” in which Khalid Sheik Mohammad saws off the head of the Wall Street Journal reporter) but it was too disturbing,” Elbel explained.

For now, Elbel remains a local artist. The father of two young children, he works a full time day job plus several nights a week bartending at Sbrocco. He still makes time to build a repertoire that continues to impress international collectors.

Other extraordinary artists are also showing in alternative spaces this month. Lindy Smith moved back to Iowa last summer after 35 years on the road. During the 1990’s, she documented the people and horses of the American west (“Straight West: Portraits and Scenes from American Ranch Life”) in photographs she took between the Mexico and Wyoming. In the last decade her work documented the flora of the American prairie.

For that, Smith revived Kallitype, a 19th century alternative photo process that involves iron salts and silver nitrates on paper exposed to ultraviolet light. Sometimes called “sun printing,” this process allows Smith to produce life sized images of native plants in a range of tones partially created by sunlight interacting with decomposing plants.

“I rarely know what the end result will be and that in itself holds my interest,” she explained.

Smith has done quite well in galleries of Santa Fe and New York City. She has also completed commissions for Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge in Iowa and similar places in Illinois and California. This Friday, she opens an exhibition at The Mansion with Madai Taylor, an original Iowa artist who paints with dirt, mixing different soils with gesso and scratching layers as they dry. Both artists work large. Each will show around twenty big works requiring a massive amount of wall space. With over 3000 square feet in several rooms, The Mansion has more than many galleries do.

In more traditional galleries this month, Chris Vance’s annual exhibition continues in, and outside, at Moberg Gallery. This year’s Senior Thesis Exhibition at Drake’s Anderson and Weeks galleries is the strongest in many years: Lucca Wang and Rachel Crown translate big personalities into paintings and Hannah Bloom demonstrates stunning mastery of several different media.

At Heritage Gallery “Lovers, Mothers & Their Dreams” features two sculptors, Annick Ibsen and Linda Lewis, who channel whimsy into profound, ironic statements about the human condition. That show opens April 25 with a reception on April 28. At Olson-Larsen Galleries, public art specialist Mike Baur shows small scale works along with clay vases and clay paintings by John Beckelman, and abstract landscapes and still lifes by Stephen Dinsmore.