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

Influential artists of 2010

Ella Taylor is a Los Angeles-based critic who writes for NPR.org, Village Voice Media, and other publications. She is a frequent contributor to City Pages.

Lena Dunham

By Melissa Maerz

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Photo: Joe Anderson

This year Lena Dunham made the best coming-of-age movie of our generation—you know, the generation that refuses to come of age. As an unemployed, recently dumped college graduate who'd just moved back in with her parents, the 24-year-old New Yorker wrote, directed, and starred in Tiny Furniture, a hilariously deadpan fictional feature about (yes) an unemployed, recently dumped college graduate who's just moved back in with her parents.

If that sounds painfully true-to-life, it is: Dunham cast her own mother in the movie, reads pages from her mother's actual endearingly awkward diary, bares her own real pinot noir gut on camera, and uses lots of very authentic-sounding lady-talk like, "This outfit just screams 'I've been living in Ohio for four years, take me back to your gross apartment and have sex with me.'" It's that rare comedy for all the smart, young, ambitious women out there who keep putting off marriage and babies so they can achieve their own dreams—even if the only dream that matters is the one where they'll never be too old to stay up all night popping recreational Ambien at loft parties. For better or worse, the movie suggests, this is what going back to your childhood apartment will do to you: It will make you feel like you'll never grow up. The problem isn't that you can't go home again. The problem is that, deep down in our tiny girl-hearts, most of us never left.

Melissa Maerz is a New York-based writer.

Ryan Olson

By Andrea Swensson

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Photo: Graham Tolbert

His labor is constant, his output prolific. To call him an artist is to limit the full scope of his aggressively ambitious yet coy, secretive endeavors. In addition to his roles as producer and arranger, Ryan Olson is an aggregator of talent, a facilitator of moments, a curator of the very best ideas.

In the fertile field of Midwestern talent, Olson plucks the ripest and weirdest crops for concoctions that only he knows the recipes for and not even he fully understands. With his shape-shifting improvisational group Marijuana Deathsquads, Olson slinks in the shadows, camera-shy but never gun-shy, conducting a roar of squalor on his hands and knees in front of a laptop and inviting high-profile guests to shed their fans' expectations at the door and take a chance on something brooding and bizarre. And with Gayngs, Olson pays straight-faced tribute to slow and ambient pop, twisting soft-rock melodies over steely, sonorous beats and cobbling saxophones and voices and bass lines together with alien murmurs and rapturous roars. Again, he cultivates a cast of contributors popular with indie fans, many of whom would likely never consider delving into the underworld of experimental rock or noise.

That Olson's Gayngs songs, most spanning five minutes or more, are played on the radio is a joke in and of itself; if there is one feat Olson has pulled off in 2010 that is greater than the rest, it's that he's conned mainstream listeners into taking a chance on ideas that are quite strange indeed. He's challenged our Current-fed, indie-heavy scene to show up on a Wednesday night at Nick and Eddie and have their eardrums blasted out by an inexplicable cacophony. He's removed the hostile divide between those who long for melody and those who long for the unknown, if only temporarily. That's an art in itself, and one that deserves to be celebrated.

Andrea Swensson is City Pages' music editor.

Jim Proctor

By Camille LeFevre

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Photo: Ted Hall

Any Midwesterner who, as a child, idled away long hours in the woods knows what an acorn is good for. The hard nut with the rough little cap is food for squirrels, and it's the seed for the mighty oak tree. Remove the cap and you've got a fairy hat, a doll beret, or a tiny cup for sipping water. Which is why Jim Proctor's exquisitely crafted sculptures are deceptive—initially.

At first glance, his acorns, seedpods, and twigs—displayed in black shadow boxes—may seem to be the findings of a dutiful Audubon by way of Emerson or Thoreau: Here, they quietly declare, is a botanical remnant of the natural world. But look again. Those acorns have grown squirrel-like tails. This one's bristling with long thorns. Proctor has inverted the flora-fauna relationship with new biomorphic forms.

Elsewhere in a Proctor exhibition, an acorn has sprouted a ridgeback of plate armor like a stegosaurus. Six acorns in another box have grown lethal-looking spikes, so with their bulbous middles and jaunty caps they resemble toy soldiers lined up for battle in some fantastical world.

The fur-lined stick, the wing of twig and seeds: Proctor's exquisitely rendered fabrications are specimens from the far reaches of the imagination. They're the discoveries of an artistic explorer that bridge the realms of science and science fiction, the whimsical and the weird, the medieval and the post-modern, surrealism and hyper-reality.

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