Artists of the Year

Hurricanes, war, avian flu, locust plagues, that annoying song you couldn't get out of your head. It wasn't the greatest of all possible years. Nor was it halfway decent. But to prove that it wasn't all bad, we asked 29 writers to rave about the ar

Caroline Palmer is a Minneapolis attorney and regular contributor to City Pages.

 

Ryan Sweere
By Karl Raschke
There's an image that's been stuck in my head since I first saw it last May. It's a little painting called Asian Girl by Ryan Sweere. It's part of a series of pictures he's been making since 2002 of people riding the bus. The paintings all share a hazy quality that replicates the glazed-over, don't-talk-to-me look that's so common in close public quarters. For the series, Sweere has situated himself within the crowd so viewers get images from unconventional angles--the backs of heads, feet jutting out into the aisle. The emphasis is on body language.

In Asian Girl we see the subject in profile. She's sitting in the sideways seats at the front of an MTC bus holding the pole in front of her with her arms and legs extended, leaning way back. The lines are soft. The colors are muted blues and greens except for her warm skin tones and the orange and tan of a rectangular panel that blocks our view of the bus driver's seat. She's alone in the frame and seems lost in a slow reverie.

The anonymity of the subjects in this series and the pictures' generic titles (Blind Woman, Man in Athletic Shoes) belie Sweere's close attention to the posture and gestures that make each of his subjects unique. The paintings ask a simple but important question: When does the person sitting next to you on the bus change from faceless and anonymous to individual and human? Does it take a Hurricane Katrina-sized tragedy to flip that switch and make you empathize, or can something smaller do it?

Karl Raschke is a Minneapolis photographer and musician.

 

Neil Gaiman
By Rod Smith
Anyone who insists that literary fiction is somehow more worthy than its genre-based counterparts needs to be neutered and put in a home. Even at its most middling, the latter is fast, fun, full of ideas, and perfectly receptive to any displays of brilliance--technical or otherwise--that don't impede the story. Exhibit A: Anansi Boys. Neil Gaiman's first book for the voting-age set since 2001's award-hogging American Gods happyslaps narrative Newtonian mechanics every bit as soundly as Finnegan's Wake, and with a lot more laughs. Manners, errors, horrors, critters--the novel is a comedy of all the above and more--including (but not limited to) romance and limes.

While in Florida for his estranged father's funeral, Londoner Charles "Fat Charlie" Nancy--a nebbishy bookkeeper with modest expectations and a virgin fiancée--learns that said paternal embarrassment generator and intransigent lech was West African trickster/spider god Anansi incarnate. As the revelation sets Nancy's life to unraveling, Gaiman folds fantasy, horror, and myth into a Hollywood-grade mélange of mistaken identity and conflicting agendas with a chemist's precision.

More importantly, the writer treats plot, places, and people as permeable entities, peppering the action with traditional Anansi tales while letting character traits seep among his inventions like nitrous oxide. Rooms shrink and grow. The dead dance among the living. While Nancy's first trip to the divine realm (the end of the world or its beginning, depending on how you look at it) requires a whole lot of hoodoo on the part of four Caribbean dowagers, the barrier between worlds later becomes as impenetrable as a bead curtain. Despite Gaiman's claims regarding its lightness, Anansi Boys stands as a delectable show of force--hilarious, heartwarming, harrowing, and profound--sometimes all at once.

Rod Smith is a Minneapolis writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.

 

Jonathan Nossiter
By Georgia Brown
Jonathan Nossiter's Mondovino raised the hackles of not a few people. The hyper camera made them seasick. Zoom, zoom, over the shoulder, under the desk, off to sniff some doggie's behind. Frisky, merry, nosy--a lens with the curiosity of a puppy. And not deferential, no--not respectful at all. Realize, there are very important personages in the mondo of vino--real aristocrats like the Antinoris and Frescobaldis, appointed ones like the family Mondavi or king of wine critics Robert Parker. There are reputations to burnish (or at least to protect), faces to flatter.

Nossiter is not in awe. Some accuse him of tricking his hosts--those who bestow precious time, trusting the flattery (e.g., heavy editing) that has always followed in the past. So, yes, in this sense they were tricked. For who was to expect a real reporter? Who knew, for that matter, that there were real reporters left in the world? ("You really get a better picture of people being themselves instead of trying to act like they're themselves."--A. Warhol.)

Besides being fearless, Nossiter is a true democrat--in the way that Dickens or Balzac were democrats on the page. He treats the wealthy and powerful as if they are on a par with laborers in the vines. He seems convinced that all of us, high and low, are mere characters--frail, foible-plagued players, foolish and dignified in turn, inhabiting for our brief moments the vast human comedy.

Skipping nimbly between France, California, Italy, and South America (Nossiter himself speaks all the languages), Mondovino rolls out in a series of glorious vignettes (French word that comes from vine) that I wish could go on and on. If the movie undercuts pretense, mystification, posturing, its heart is in what it loves. What it loves, of course, is wine--which it presents as a beverage that even poor people drink. It loves the earth that gives us wine, and wants desperately to preserve the earth's wonderful variety. It loves earthy people, some of whom actually work on their own land and grow the grapes that have grown on that land in the past. (And the earthy people, wouldn't you know, are far more gifted at expression than the people from the palazzos.) Finally, the movie loves dogs, giving over a subplot (call it Mondocane) to celebrate dogs high and low, pedigreed and mutt. Although the prizes go to the mutts.

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