Alec Soth, Kevin Kramp, Robyn, and more: Artists of the year

Influential artists of 2010

"Why do people think artists are special?" Andy Warhol once asked. "It's just another job."

It's hard to know if Warhol was being honest or deliberately provocative, but the truth is that artists have always held a special place in society, and for good reason.

To answer Warhol's question, we hold artists in esteem because accountants, dental hygienists, and bus drivers rarely stir our souls by confronting us with the exquisite beauty and ugliness of life. Bank managers and chemical engineers don't often connect us with the transcendent. Cashiers and carpet installers can't pierce us with the unspeakable poignancy of what it means to be alive and human.

Artists, almost alone among the world's professions, have the power to move us to tears, to challenge us to think and feel, to make us see life, and ourselves, from a new perspective.

And so once again we honor the special role of the creatives among us with our annual Artists of the Year issue, as a way to thank them for their unique contributions to the world.

All work has value, of course, but being an artist isn't just another job, it's a calling. And with all due respect to Andy Warhol, we're not sure readers would look forward to an issue called Plumbers of the Year.

Alec Soth

By Marlon James

Photo: Alec Soth

The thing about photographers, particularly brilliant ones like Alec Soth, is that they have a gift for capturing people in the increasingly rare act of being people. I'm not sure how he does it, especially in this age in which reality itself is up for grabs and everybody is a performer. Maybe he starts shooting at the point where most photographers stop. There is a casual intelligence here, the honesty of outtakes even though there was probably nothing casual in the process of taking them.

What's the opposite of posed when even that itself is a kind of pose? I think Soth knows that the camera can make the most out of things not given normally: intimacy without familiarity, invitation without access, openness without friendship. As is evident in his show at the Walker (through January 2), this is a different way of knowing people, an associative way, in which we really don't know them at all. I think he likes the mystery, the not knowing. Maybe all we need to know about the naked bald man in the creek is that the bare hint of a swastika tattoo shouts, "Don't step too close!" Maybe all we need to know about the aging flyboy is that behind the twinkle of those glasses is a world of wonder.

It almost seems as if Soth has found the last real people in America. If nothing else, Soth puts a tired cliché to rest. There are no 1,000 words here, which might be why the pictures unnerve a little. There are codes, and signs, and messages told. But there is also silence, unease, and unarticulated tension. There are women in the midst of trying to make do, and men right before they fly off the grid. It adds up to an open secret history of America: the America that happened when everyone but Soth quit looking.

Marlon James's second novel, The Book of Night Women, won the 2010 Minnesota Book Award and Dayton International Literary Peace Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and NAACP Image Award. He lives in St. Paul and teaches at Macalester College.

Roxanne Jackson

By Emma Berg

"Hoof Heels," Photo: Peter Lee

When I first saw Roxanne Jackson's work last year at her solo exhibit "We Believe in Something" at the MAEP, I fell in love. Jackson's strange ceramic creatures were dark and moody, yet romantic and beautiful. The heads with protruding animal mouths and the fragile but contorted calves were stained in glazes that were thick and porous or covered in flocked pigment. It was morbidly uncomfortable, a far cry from the vases and delicately painted tea sets you might associate with ceramics.

Roxanne's creatures represent those moments when ugly reveals itself within each of us: the stretched, open mouth and burning eyes of outrage, the contorted mouth and crumpled, shaking chin right before the tears start. According to her artist statement, "This investigation reveals the honesty of humanity. Embracing all aspects of ourselves, taking a closer look at the 'shadow side' of the human condition is my attempt to discover truth." In this reflection we all become more aware of our inner savages and learn to control them. Hopefully we also become more compassionate toward others who hide those same savages.

The Twin Cities saw little of Jackson's work in 2010 outside of an artist residency at the now closed Art of This and a handful of pieces on display in a back room at the Rogue Buddha. The lack of Twin Cities exhibitions did not mean she was idle. In 2010 Jackson had a solo show at the Dubhe Careeno Gallery in Chicago and showed at exhibitions in Milwaukee, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia. She was awarded the Jerome Ceramic Artist Project Grant and an artist residency at the Ceramic Center in Berlin, Germany.

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