Artists of the Year

Framed, penned, screened, danced, sung, shot, delivered: City Pages lauds the artistic creations of 1999

Every few years an exhausted critic who has run out of story ideas hits upon the notion of writing the perfect non-story, a piece that might be called "In Search of the Sounds of Silence." The premise is enticing in its simplicity. The writer reports feeling afflicted by the volume of information that buffets the body like solar radiation: the coos of boys promising fidelity in two-part harmony; the religious repetition of the day's Dow Jones index on the news channels; the Web-mailings for Samoan correspondence brides over AOL. Fortunately, the solution to this media-induced inebriation is familiar to all of us Americans with unchecked appetites: withdrawal.

And so the writer resolves to shun the mediated experience--the seemingly inescapable universe of celebrity magazines and pagers that flash jai alai box scores in real time--and to live in the world instead. Embrace old friends over six-hour lunches. Take the viola out of the closet. Make wormwood jam. Try a little Walden without leaving town. What we're talking about here is going native without having to give up central air.

It's this same scenario, perhaps, that propels our tittering enthusiasm for millennial disaster. We fear our rebellious machines will leave us marooned; we want very badly to be stuck on that desert island.

This issue of City Pages is devoted to whatever art we'll stubbornly set aside from the burning barrels in our living rooms just a few days hence. Or maybe these are the items we'll toss in right after the back issues of Entertainment Weekly: For most of the stories, songs, and pictures named in the pages that follow have already left the realm of being mere objects or products and have become part of us. These are the novels and movies that we've been screening over and over, for an audience of one, in the back of the brain.

Thanks go out to the few dozen writers, critics, and fellow travelers who have kindly written about the artists who defined the year. In a departure from previous editions of this issue, "Artists of the Year 1999" sets aside a special section for local artists in a range of media--theater, art, dance, music, film, and books--to recognize those who live among us. When the telephone lines go down and the National Guard closes the interstates, we'll still come out to see these talented folks--riding sleds tethered to our housepets.

 

HOMEGROWN TALENT

 

KIRA OBOLENSKY

by Peter Ritter

T.S. Eliot once remarked that no good play offers its secrets upon first viewing. I'm inclined to agree. Especially in this age of instant access, there is something delightful in the coy interplay between artist and audience, neither yielding to the other's expectations nor frustrating the other's purpose. Such was the principal charm of Kira Obolensky's Lobster Alice, which teased its way into my imagination this past September. Though Obolensky has been plying her trade locally as a journalist, playwright, and nonfiction author for some two decades now, she is still adjectivally tagged as an "emerging writer." If Lobster Alice did nothing else, it ought to make us recognize that what we have on our hands is an artist, fully emerged.

From a deliciously ripe scenario--the surrealist painter Salvador Dali visits Walt Disney's California studio to develop an "animated ballet" with the artist responsible for Alice in Wonderland--the playwright orchestrated a pas de trois among people simultaneously bound and isolated by desire. At the same time, Obolensky found a quiet metaphor for the theater itself: the audience, seeking to comprehend, and the artist, seeking to enrapture, must commingle to do the work of imagination. Art, she suggested, is born of this union.

As with all good theater, the joy of Lobster Alice lay not in the particulars of plot or theme, but in the bedeviling details of tone and wit. The accumulation of these nuances, played out onstage, was at once so irresistibly simple and so indelibly effective that, months later, I'm left still thinking and wondering and searching for the words that will pluck the heart of its mystery. There is much pleasure in the pursuit.

 

Peter Ritter is a staff writer at City Pages.

 

WARREN MACKENZIE

by Michael Fallon

Imagine you fell asleep, Rip Van Winkle-like, in, say, 1994, and hadn't awakened till yesterday. What would you think of the strange world of today? Of cell phones, SUVs, the Internet, business incubators, day traders, and the rest? Life would probably seem unbalanced and revved up to your antiquated sensibility. Is there nothing, you might ask, that one can count on anymore?

No, there's nothing. Nothing, that is, except for art, which as one of the last real activities in this virtual world, remains a profound source of solace for stick-in-the-muds like you and me. And because of this, artists like the ceramist Warren MacKenzie will always have currency no matter what the world looks like--next year or next century.

MacKenzie, for those who have been asleep for much longer than five years, is Minnesota's premier practitioner of ceramics art, a student of the Japanese folk traditions in pottery who has practiced his craft without regard to fashion and trends since landing a job as a professor in the art department at the University of Minnesota in 1954. Since 1990, when he retired as a Regents Professor Emeritus from the University, MacKenzie has continued to work competently and honestly, selling his work for a fair price from his Stillwater studio without worrying about all the trappings of fame and fortune that could be his. Too, he has generously helped other artists along the way.

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