Sunday, August 12, 2012

Reliquaries, Paraphilia & Coincidence

Des Moines Art Center’s “Tony Feher” retrospective stretches the museum in more ways than one. “Tony’s done 160 exhibitions since the early 1990’s, mostly in site-specific venues. I don’t think anyone has ever attempted a retrospective of that sort of thing. And of all the places this show is traveling, Des Moines is special because we were able to invade the permanent collections. So look for the show in the Pei and Meire wings as well as in its own gallery,” explained curator Claudia Schmuckli, from Houston’s Blaffer Gallery.

Feher likes his art defies some expectations. “I was a struggling painter until one day I saw some marbles in the window of a toy store, with the light hitting them in just the right way. I bought them and put them in jars,” he explained of his style’s origin. One thing led to another. Because AIDS was taking so many lives unexpectedly, he began putting things in jars that served as memorials. Soon his jars were being exhibited and described as modern reliquaries of collective memory. Jars led to plastic bottles which he hung in trees, high enough so that his art could not slam dunked by locals. “I was drawing with rows of bottles,” he explained. He’s now “drawn” on some famous museums, discovered all kinds of unorthodox art materials, and installed living art (apple trees) in the courtyard of the city of Rockford, Illinois. Tony Feher plays through September 2.

Des Moines poet Mia L. Farrell published “Perverse Moments,” an adult coloring book that graphically and hilariously defines forty or so fetishes and paraphilia, a.k.a. sexual perversions. Her inspiration was the Garbage Pail Kids of the 1980’s.

“I loved their irreverent combination of two of my favorite qualities: huggable, wholesome cuteness and blatant, uncensored hard core, vomit inducing grossness. It made for such a beautiful thing,” she explained. Farrell thought it was time to inject sex into a similar Hegelian dialectic.

“So with the extreme wealth of sexual knowledge available on the internet, I set out to draw page after page of the cutest, kinkiest cartoons.” She succeeded. Her first printing sold out quickly and at least one big time distributor is interested. She says it’s about education.

“If something makes us too uncomfortable to find humor in it then we’re choosing to remain too afraid to ever understand it.”

Former University of Iowa art school icons Mauricio Lasansky and Elizabeth Catlett died in April, just days apart from each other, and each just weeks one side or the other from their 97th birthdays.

Touts “Exposition Henry Moore,” currently at Steven Vail Fine Arts, includes lithographs, etchings and mixed media works relating to the artist’s iconic “Mother and Child” and “Reclining Figures” series. A collaboration with Osborne Samuel of London, it’s the first exhibition of its kind in the United States. The works span 1963-1983, demonstrating a range of Moore’s working styles. The exhibition plays through July 20. … Frank Hansen’s first local exhibition in two years debuts May 18 at Moberg Gallery. Hansen’s often autobiographical explorations of Iowa’s past and present always bring out one of the year’s wilder gallery gatherings… Chris Vance has been Des Moines’ most collected painter for awhile but his latest show at Moberg set new sales records. Paintings sold so briskly that the entire show had to be re-hung with new works before it was over… “All Fired Up - Works in Clay” at Polk County Heritage Gallery presents a veritable student all star show from RDG Dahlquist Art Studio, through June 7.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

Sixty years ago art critic Harold Rosenberg wrote that Jackson Pollock had “transformed painting into an existential drama” in which "what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Pollock’s seminal painting “Mural” arrived in Des Moines earlier this month as both big event and existential drama in this, the 100th anniversary of Pollock’s birth.

To celebrate Iowa’s prime spot in the art world, Des Moines Art Center (DMAC) invited members to a pre-launch party for the unveiling of “Mural,” which is on sabbatical from the University of Iowa floodplain. Over 500 people returned RSVP’s. Many more showed up as super star art patrons John and Mary Pappajohn hosted the bona fide gala. Three cops patrolled the parking lots. Cars were parked all the way to the old Science Center. Shrimp were super sized and booze was top shelf.

Pollock was an All American cultural meteor on a crash course with destiny in real life and myth. He was born in Cody, Wyoming, a town named after Buffalo Bill whose life and mythology resembled Pollock’s in many ways. Expelled from two high schools, Pollock tagged along on surveying missions with his father to Native American reservations. A long time alcoholic, he coped with his addiction through Jungian therapy but died at age 44. Before his final fatal fling with drunken driving, Pollock also stole Abstract Expressionism from the Germans, remodeled it in epic proportions, Americanized it by synthesizing Navajo sand paintings with Jungian motifs, and shifted the axis of the art world from Paris to New York City. Those are just the non controversial highlights of his legacy.

“Mural” is usually considered the work that jump started all that transformational art stuff. DMAC Director Jeff Fleming explained. “It changed the way Americans painted pictures and in turn changed the way that western visual culture operated after World War II. A part of that was in its scale. In contradiction to easel sized painting, it was on a grand scale, full of energy, vitality and emotion. It changed what painting could be, particularly what American painting could be. And this is the painting that started all that,” he said. University of Iowa President Sally Mason focused on encouraging DMAC patrons to oppose any legislative moves to sell the painting to raise money for scholarships, or new buildings.

“Mural” is estimated to be worth around $150 million. The proposal to sell it (publicly articulated by Michael Gartner who is both a former President of the Iowa Board of Regents and an owner of this newspaper’s parent company) has garnered enough support to worry many folks who attended the Pollock party.

Everyone speaking at the gala seemed rather passionate about keeping “Mural” in Iowa, for several reasons: The painting was given to the university in large part to recognize the incredible talent that made its art school famous, including Grant Wood and Philip Guston; The University pioneered the concept of making painters into teachers; Pollock’s parents grew up in Iowa; The painting is a Hawkeye heirloom.

Art Touts

A retrospective of paintings by Byron Burford plays at Olson-Larsen Galleries through May 26. Burford came to the University of Iowa to study with Grant Wood. He left only to serve in World War II, teaching several generations of grateful students. Jazz and the circus motifs show off his lyrical perspective of 20th century America… Chris Vance, Des Moines’ most collected painter, is featured at Moberg Gallery through May 11. His paintings have been selling so briskly that this entire show might be re-hung with new works before it’s over… Former University of Iowa art school icons Mauricio Lasansky and Elizabeth Catlett died in April, just days apart from each other, and each just weeks one side or the other from their 97th birthdays.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Des Moines arts - a 25 years review

Twenty five years ago I became an arts writer, accidentally. I published a whimsical editorial (“I’ve seen the future of the arts - it looks like baseball”) in The Washington International Arts Letter (WIAL). That publication was the main guide for information about funding in the arts before the internet rendered it obsolete. My piece proposed that symphonies, operas, art museums, ballets and such would all benefit by adopting the structure of baseball’s farm system. Des Moines’ arts organization could become AAA affiliates of Chicago‘s, tutoring young prospects while increasing the marketing clout of both.

Arts non profits were becoming desperate back then. Attendance was down and so was earned income as a percentage of operating budgets. Their devoted fans and donors were aging and younger generations cared more about sports, rock bands and Broadway shows. In that climate, my idea was taken seriously. It was republished in major newspapers around the country. I was invited to speak at arts seminars and to become editor of the WIAL.

My fifteen minutes lasted less than a year. The farm system analogy sounded good in theory but died hopelessly in the real world, where unions and insurers squashed it. I continued writing about the arts for a quarter century. These were the biggest agents of change that I noticed:

Big corporate donors reorganized the way money was distributed to non profits by putting marketing departments in charge of those decisions. They demanded quid pro quo, so non profits had to convince donors that they were getting some positive return. This led to silly things like naming rights for drinking fountains and toilets, but also to far more educational services. Those programs and events recruited a future fan base and earned income rose.

Robert Maplethorpe and Andres Serrano offended social conservatives with erotic and profane art that had indirectly received grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). This led to the creation of new levels of bureaucracy, both public and private, to build walls between big donors and ultimate consequences of their largess. The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs was our state version, BRAVO and Greater Des Moines Music Coalition (DMMC) regional ones, Metro Arts Alliance a civic one.

Sociologist Richard Florida published “Rise of the Creative Class” in 2002. He theorized that successful cities of the future must pander to a new class of workers who hate suburban sprawl and love bike trails, sports arenas, skate board ramps, historic old buildings, cheap rent, trendy caf├ęs & boutiques, multiculturalism, and, above all, a lively contemporary music scene. Florida’s theories were discredited soon after they were published - his ten “most creative cities” barely created more jobs than his “ten least creative cities.” It didn’t matter, every town was afraid they‘d be left behind if they didn‘t build to Florida‘s models. Iowa hired him in 2005 to brand its Great Places program. Every seminar or focus group I attended the last decade was filled with drinkers of Florida Kool-Aid. Most artists and arts organization seeking grant money claimed to be an essential part of the Florida vision. Des Moines’ creative class - of administrators - grew again.

More interesting work was done by impresarios doing business the old fashioned way - making money by developing talent. A lively music scene arose here because club and bar owners took risks that live music, from near and far, would pay off. New gallery owners and art makers (Sticks) gave young artists a place to test the market for their talent. Some developed farm system-like alliances with galleries in Chicago, Kansas City and Los Angeles.

The role these people played has been underestimated, at least by the administrative class. Last month, a DMMO awards ceremony honored a marketing administrator, a board member, a band leader, a radio personality and a guitar maker but presented nothing to any promoter, club or bar owner. Those people made it possible for musicians to make a living here, rather than leaving town. I doubt any of them ever read Richard Florida.

Monday, March 26, 2012

You can take the boy out of the mountains…

Miguel Angel Rios grew up in Argentina’s Calchaqui Valley of Catamarca. Wielding boleadores like an experienced gaucho, he became an expert hunter by the age of 10.

“We would chase wild burros and ostriches for sport. They were experts at running through sand dunes, so we would chase them until my father sensed they were tired. Then he would look at me to signal to move in and lasso them. I was also expert at the slingshot. (Partridges) would fly in straight lines so we would chase them to the river, then line up to take shots where our dogs could retrieve them,” he recalled.

Rios left the Andes to attend the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires and to teach at the National University of Buenos Aires. Then the mountains called him home to a job at the National University of Tucuman until, at age 30, he had an epiphany.

“I realized I wanted to be an artist, not an art professor. I had to leave the Andes to do that. So I moved to New York City,” he confessed.

Artistically, Rios never left. All his work, from early collages about colonialism to his latest videos have been rooted in Andean wistfulness.

“Because of where I come from, I work with wide open spaces, not walled in spaces like Europeans. That makes sense - Catamarca is larger than Spain,” Rios explained.

Curator Gilbert Vicario titled Rios’ current Des Moines Art Center exhibition “Walkabout,” after Nicolas Roeg’s film.

“In that film, Australian school children become lost in the desert and are rescued by an aborigine boy on his walkabout. Miguel’s work provides similar guidance, to cultures that have been spiritually lost since 9-11,” Vicario explained.

In “Rooom, Rooom” Rios returns to Catamarca to observe the slings of boleadores, some wielded by his childhood friends and their offspring.

We observe only their shadows, dramatically elongated by filming at sunrise and sunset. The sound of the slings mesmerizes a black and white world, like the songlines of an aboriginal walkabout. Three videos provide the exhibition’s focus. They employ wide open spaces, and South American sports, to scrutinize human attraction to both spirituality and violence.
In “Ni me busques…No me encuentras” (Don’t look for me, you won’t find me), Rios and his cinematographer take an hallucinogenic voyage on peyote through a Mexican desert. After observing a seven piece band and escaping a train, the artist enters an adode house like the one he grew up in. He hears “the sound of my mother baking bread” before the house divides itself elusively.

“Mecha” (Fuse) observes the game “tejos,” popular in the barrios of Bogota. To an Iowan’s eyes, it looks like bocce ball with bombs. Courts are walled off within empty factories, then youthful players toss specially constructed balls at clay tablets, some of which explode when their gunpowder fuses are hit.

We never see people, just running legs and throwing arms. Explosions are beautiful in slow motion. Continuous action becomes an allegory for war lust. Hand held cameras transmit the point of view of war journalists in combat. An accompanying cutout paper drawing appears to be an abstraction until one sees that all its shapes are gun barrels.

Rios admits a nostalgic attachment to the works in the show. “I have always felt a longing guilt for leaving,” he confessed. “Walkabout” plays at the Art Center till April 22 and moves to Museo de Art Carillo Gil in Mexico City in September.


Michael Watson’s “Familiar Faces,” at Fluxx Gallery, includes 100 portraits… Yoshitomo Nara’s “White Ghost” in Pappajohn Sculpture Park was named a “Top 20 Acquisition of 2011” in Antiques and Fine Arts… Dario Robleto’s exhibition at Des Moines Art Center was named “Top 2011 Exhibition New Yorkers Won’t See” by Guernica.