Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Art of 2011

A Year of Unexpected Strangeness

“The unexpected strangeness of the moment.” Artist Dario Robleto used those words to explain the qualities he sought in his art, exhibited in the Des Moines Art Center’s (DMAC) “Survival Does Not Lie In The Heavens.” His phrase works just as well though as an explanation of the year 2011 in Des Moines’ art scene. It was a year in which unexpected media such as dirt, projected light and neon often stood in for paints, when green eggs and lasers became sculpture, when worldly artists like Bill Luchsinger unexpectedly turned their visions upon local subjects, and when Stephanie Brunia’s girls in white underwear, Tom Jackson’s children with guns and Jeremiah Elebl’s decapitated humans became subjects of exceptional exhibitions.

The year ended with an unexpectedly strange controversy. Half a century after Andy Warhol placed low culture’s signage (Campbell‘s) on the walls of high culture’s grandest palaces, local paragons of elite culture raised a public fuss about Subway’s signage on Subway’s own venues, at least when they were visible from the perspectives of high culture. Still excellence stood out amidst the strangeness:

Artist of the Year - Sarah Grant’s exhibition at Olson-Larsen demonstrated a new clarity, as if the artist simply intuited when less had become more. Her new work was also more narrative and less abstract than in past years. A ten year retrospective of Paintpushers, almost all artists who were recruited here and employed by Grant, further demonstrated her extraordinary influence on the city’s entire art scene.

People of the Year - TJ and Jackie Moberg nearly doubled the number of artists in their Moberg Gallery stable, salvaged the defunct Art Store’s inventory, saved all the jobs of that company’s employees, opened Moberg Framing, Moberg Editions (an online gallery selling inexpensive art) and Moberg Consultations (a full service firm that directs clients from design to installation of artworks). TJ also worked on a major installation at Prairie Meadows.

Painter of the Year - Matthew Kluber’s series of abstract “paintings” in his DMAC exhibition fused color, line, digital formations, and projected light to create dramatic visual spaces that embraced new technologies.

Exhibition of the Year (museum) - German Anselm Reyle’s exhibition at DMAC introduced Iowans to the contemporary German scene, where in the artist’s words “Cologne is the past. Berlin is the future.” Chrome, bronze, piano lacquer, plinth, aluminum, glass, neon, electric cables, rust, plastic, LED lights, and wood veneer hung out with more traditional Modernist media.

Exhibition of the Year (gallery) - Travis Rice’s “Contamination” became the largest one person show ever at Moberg, taking up the entire gallery plus an outdoor wall. It was inspired by a sci fi film was about alcoholism, green eggs and coffee, in which the green eggs plotted to take over the world.

Exhibition of the Year (non-traditional venue) - “Jeremiah Elbel” at Mars Coffeehouse exhibited a monstrously talented young artist’s black and white, tar and charcoal portraits of decapitated humans - some Mexican drug war victims, some victims of Islamic terrorists, others of Shari'a, or French law.

Design of the Year - InVision’s two story, glass and steel addition to the Iowa State Veterinary Teaching Hospital glowed like a sanctuary on a storm-plagued prairie. It finally presented a coming home platform for Christian Peterson’s iconic statue “The Good Doctor.”

New Artist of the Year - Madai Taylor painted with earth, red dirt of the South and black loam of Iowa, mixed with gesso. That paint was applied in layers on which he scratched while they were drying, much like the plows of agriculture scratch at the same dirt in its natural environment. He process becomes a unique form of shorthand - a primitive scripture.

Rising Star - Stephanie Brunia, a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, became DMAC curator Gilbert Vicario’s latest discovery. That museum showed a series of her prints that mimicked classics like Leonardo‘s “The Last Supper,” Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” and John Everette Millais’ “Ophelia” with decidedly modern, edgy takes of young girls in white underwear.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sarah Grant

Des Moines’ Art Mama

Sarah Grant is the mother of Des Moines‘ ar scene. More than any person, agency or organization, she gave birth to it, bestowed an identity on it and nurtured its growth. When Grant started Sticks in 1985, as a one person studio, committed artists in Des Moines had to choose whether they wanted to be artists, or to live here. Her company let them do both, by giving full time jobs to some 100 artists at a time. They formed the creative core that snowballed into a legitimate art scene. Sticks makes furniture and art that is now sold in fine galleries and art museums all over the country. Its design work has become as recognizable as an icon, making it easy for tourists from Des Moines to spot it in Los Angeles or New York and feel some local pride.

Grant’s personal art career is also best known in large scale. She constructed, with Michigan architect Stephen Fry, a 30,000 pound kitchen table atop downtown Grand Rapids’ Blue Bridge.

Her giant murals “What I Love About Iowa State,” “We Shall Know Iowa State University by Its Myriad Parts,” and “My World Is So Full of Many Things,” grace Iowa State’s campus. She won an Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects.

Grant has also chronicled her emotional life in abstract paintings. Her annual shows at Olson-Larsen Galleries have been distinguished by moody colors that have made her fans either happy or sad for her. Whether dark or sunny, Grant’s paintings have always been characterized by heavy layering. Even in gay years, they revealed a compulsiveness that almost seemed penitent. One fan called it “the yin to the carefree yang of Sticks.”

Her current exhibition of new work is remarkably restrained. I’m tempted to say it’s better edited. However, painters don’t have an editor’s luxury of going back and subtracting the superfluous. So it’s more as if Grant has attained a new clarity and now simply intuits when less is more. This year’s work is also more narrative and less abstract. She even pushes narratives with playful Sticks-like titles such as “With Bloodhounds, Band-aids Don’t Work,” “Is It Good News?,” “Four Guys in Sports Coats & Ties.”

Most of the new pieces focus through frames within frames, as if the artist is looking reflectively through windows of perspective. “Just an Old Printmaker,” a painting added to the show at the last minute, is autobiographical. (Grant holds an MFA in intaglio printmaking from the University of Iowa.) It is also the most restrained work in the show. All Grant’s work begins as black on white. This painting adds little additional color and yet makes a most dramatic impact.
This exhibition plays through Nov. 26 along with shows of new works by printmaker Paula Schuette Kraemer and painter Thomas Jewell-Vitale. Kraemer exhibits visual prayers, for nurseries and kennels, that have long distinguished her career. Jewell-Vitale reveals a dramatically different palette within his familiar medium of oil and wax. He deserts his trademark cool colors for a sunny excursion to new emotional territory.


Paintpushers, a group of past and present Sticks artists, are holding their tenth anniversary retrospective at Heritage Gallery through December 1… Jeremiah Elbel, a Des Moines artist who won England’s Saatchi Prize, is exhibiting in Iowa State University’s Memorial Union Pioneer Room through Dec. 5. An artist reception will be held Nov. 30, 5 p.m. - 8 p.m.… Robyn O’Neil, who rocked the Des Moines Art Center two years ago with her black & white visions of Armageddon, is currently exhibiting a single drawing, “Hell,” which took two years to complete and includes 65,000 characters, at New York City’s Susan Inglett Gallery… Des Moines painter Alex Brown has begun work on next year’s return exhibition at Feature Inc., a renowned New York City gallery. He will show drawings as well as paintings this time and a new, retro style.