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.

With the start of the new year, Jackson's work will be on exhibit at the Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis from January 14 to February 27 for the 2011 Jerome Ceramic Artists exhibition. See her work and you, too, may fall in love.

Emma Berg is the director and founder of the visual arts calendar Mplsart.com. Berg has been the in-house curator for the Gallery at Fox Tax since 2008. She is also a fashion designer, most recently showing her art-inspired designs at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Bret Easton Ellis

By Ray Cummings


Photo: Jeff Burton

Want to take a risk? Make a sequel. Whether it's a well-known movie, album, song, or book, improving on an original may be the biggest challenge in art.

With his latest novel, Imperial Bedrooms, author Bret Easton Ellis has elevated the concept of the sequel by essentially reinventing it. This fraught rejoinder to his 1985 soulless sensation Less Than Zero revisits the dramatis personae of the original novel a quarter-century later. We're back in the dark heart of Los Angeles. Blair and Trent—Zero's object of affection and bi-curious wingman, respectively— resurface as a married socialite and agent. Rip, who we knew before as a morally ambivalent drug dealer, now specializes in gruesome disappearances. Teen prostitute/junkie Julian? He's an ex-pimp who's trying to stay on the wagon. Clay, Zero's compromised-Holden Caulfield narrator, is no longer an aspiring writer, but a schlock screenwriter running away from something in New York. Bedrooms is full of loose ends connected to the dead past that suggest that we aren't experiencing the second entry in a saga, but maybe the 24th.

A lengthy opening coda acknowledges Less Than Zero the movie, its whitewashed script, and the unreliability of the first book's author as an objective chronicler of its events. Critics condemned this as superfluous revisionism, a gloss on the self-satirizing intro to 2005's Lunar Park. They missed the point. Ultimately, Zero was a fictionalization of what was already fictional reality. Ellis was mocking two widely held ideas: a) that a reader can really ever know an author's characters and b) that time—25 years, say—doesn't change people. If Bedroom's central storyline—Rip, Clay, and Julian tussling for the affections of an aspiring starlet—casts the decisions they make into stark, Zero-contradicting relief, no one has any right to cry foul. Bedrooms is Zero's sequel, but at the same time, it isn't—and that's what makes Ellis's new ironies so delicious.

Ray Cummings writes regularly for City Pages' music section. He lives in Round Rock, Texas, and is the author of two books of poetry—Assembling the Lord and Crucial Sprawl—available from Twentythreebooks.

Michelle Hensley

By Ed Huyck

Michelle Hensley and Ten Thousand Things deserve plaudits for their efforts to bring theater to the disadvantaged. Each production tours around Minnesota, playing prisons, homeless shelters, and community centers—all to reach people who may have never seen a live show before. If you strip away all that, Ten Thousand Things simply presents invigorating theater.

There's no passive sitting in the dark here. All the shows are presented with the house lights up, so you can't hide from the actor's gaze. What really makes the theater sing is Hensley's work behind the scenes. Her choices of what to present are thrilling, challenging, and even playful. After all, who would think that bringing My Fair Lady to prisons would work? But she saw the underlying conflicts, of class and gender roles, and ran with it (through the strong work of director Lear de Bessonet).

This dedication to crafting a stimulating experience draws in plenty of talent—the cast lists read like a who's who of Twin Cities theater—who relish the opportunity. The company's most recent production, Life's a Dream, ranks among the best shows of 2010. Hensley's direction and staging, combined with the performances of the entire company, made for the rare transcendent night of theater. I can only recall a handful of those experiences over the past five years, and two (the other was last year's Othello) came at Ten Thousand Things. Hensley has been well recognized this year, including a nod as Best Director in these pages and an Ivey Award, while New York's Public Theater brought her in to direct Measure for Measure and to help them launch a similar project. Now she can add another as a City Pages Artist of the Year.

Ed Huyck is City Pages' theater critic.

Brian Teare

By Juliet Patterson

Brian Teare writes beautiful, beautiful poems. Highly charged with sensual details and the action of syntax, Teare's work reminds us of poetry's ability to reinvigorate and inspire not just our speech but our whole idea of being human. That may sound like rhetoric, but it's not an overstatement. You'll be changed by these poems, by their intensity, drive, and emotional necessity.

Brian Teare is the author of three volumes of poetry. If you're a student of contemporary poetics (and even if you're not), it's interesting to read his books in order of completion (not publication) to see how much his work has advanced over the years.

His first book, The Room Where I Was Born, is a spectacular debut, and though traditional in form, it's a complex and innovative text. Teare's Sight Map (University of California Press, 2009) is one of the best poetry books I've read in many years. This volume leaves you breathless with its force of method and style—a ravishing field guide that takes the love poem to entirely new terrain. Pleasure (Ahsahata, published this year) is equally good. Technically Teare's second book (though published third), Pleasure is centered on the death of a lover to AIDS and the "God-haunted afterworld of grief." This book is not an easy read, but perhaps a necessary one, particularly in the current political (and environmental) climate.

As a poet, Teare doesn't protect us from pain, rather he seems interested in pulling us through it. On the other side, there's joy. And in the wake is stunning music.

Juliet Patterson is a poet and writer who lives in Minneapolis near the east bank of the Mississippi River. For more information, visit www.julietpatterson.com

Liu Wei

By TD Mischke

His toes move across the keys like stubby crab legs. His upper limbs are gone, have been for years. The sound from the baby grand is meditative and mournful. The audience is rapt. A new, angelic template of human art forms before their eyes.

When Liu Wei was 10 years old, his arms were amputated after he was electrocuted while playing hide and seek with friends. In his teens he taught himself to play piano using just his toes.

Last August, at the age of 23, he appeared on the TV show China's Got Talent, the Chinese version of the show that made Susan Boyle a star. The smiling, humble musician left the judges and audience in tears. He wasn't just good for an armless guy; he was good period, stunningly so.

But there was more than music going on here. A wildly driven human will was sensed dancing in the spotlights. More than this, the audience was seeing a new plant, a strange new flower, one that had worked its way through the rubble of some devastating earthquake, emerging from a last crack in the concrete, out into the open air where it preened like no rose ever has.

And the tears, they weren't for Liu. They were tears over the divine beauty of the best part of ourselves, the lofty regions we occupy when our purest light shines. The tears fell because we were reminded once more we're better than we think we are, more exquisite than we appear in the newspapers and reality shows.

Mention China in random bars in the U.S. these days and you'll sense a simmering fear. For some it's about that country's economy, for others it's the military. Is this the century the Leviathan rises and throws its shadow across the globe? Perhaps. But watching Liu Wei play, we can imagine that shadow having a different name. Suddenly it's not economic or military. Instead, it's legions of artists, unleashed from the east by the millions, coming our way with gifts we can't yet fathom.

Bring 'em on.

TD Mischke is a columnist for City Pages and host of The Nite Show, which airs weeknights from 10 to midnight on WCCO radio.

Oliver Platt

By Ella Taylor


Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Television / Ken Regan

Oliver Platt is a lot more highborn than he looks. His father was a diplomat, and word is that the prolific character actor is distantly related to Princess Diana. But Platt, who wears his tall, round frame and India-rubber features without noticeable vanity, can do just about any Everyman you can think of. He has carved a thriving film and television career out of playing ambiguous political types (The West Wing, Frost/Nixon) or partners in crime (see The Three Musketeers) who stick with you long after the movie has faded from memory. He has a face made for funny, and he can pump up the volume on a dime—onstage recently as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, or in this season's big-ticket movie Love and Other Drugs, in which he plays an excitable salesman who opens Jake Gyllenhaal's eyes to the marketing promise of a new drug called Viagra.

But Platt is an ironic minimalist at heart, which may be why he works so wonderfully well in talky ensemble pieces. He's far from detached or self-conscious, but there's a dry, understated amusement about him, as if he's rolling his eyes at the dissembling madness of human behavior, his own in particular.

In Nicole Holofcener's Please Give, released this year, he plays Alex, an affluent Manhattan antiques dealer treading water in a friendly but becalmed marriage to Catherine Keener. Watching Alex, an affectionate husband and loving father, shuffle furtively closer to an affair with the disgruntled granddaughter (Amanda Peet) of a neighbor whose apartment he covets, we see how a perfectly good man can utterly lose the rhythms of his fortunate life and court disaster with a young woman he doesn't even like. Platt gives Alex just the right balance of shiftiness, guilt, and rising panic, and it's remarkable—given that he's up to something most women hate in a partner—how much sympathy and eros this adorably odd-looking man can muster from an audience in what is undoubtedly one of the better women's movies we've seen in years.

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


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


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


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.

Over the years, I've happened on Proctor's work mostly by accident. His mysterious sculptures crafted from buckthorn but resembling giant alien dandelions swayed over the Winchell Trail along the West River Parkway in Minneapolis from 2005 to 2006. At first glance, I thought "The Buckthorn Menace" was simply a guerrilla response to efforts to clear the invasive species from the Mississippi riverbanks. It was, but it was also a transformation of botanical material into global warning.

Procter's shows last summer at the Swan Song Gallery in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, and currently at the Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis, renewed my attention to his astounding technical proficiency and marvelous—if often terrifying—creatures.

Through his sculptures, Proctor ushers us into the deep woods of our imaginations where nature and culture get tangled up with memory and image. And that's what else acorns are good for.

Camille LeFevre is an arts journalist and teaches arts journalism at the University of Minnesota, which she writes about on her blog, Mélange (camillelefevre.wordpress.com).

The Playwrights' Center

By Mo Perry


Photo: Kevin McLaughlin

When I graduated from college, I watched dozens of my fellow theater majors fling themselves all over the country, with the great majority landing in actor-magnets New York City and L.A. Over the past seven years, I've observed their accomplishments with affection and pride, but never once have I wished that I had followed suit.

The Twin Cities offers something you can't find in the bigger markets, a certain je ne sais quoi that can't be attributed simply to its smaller population (or else Des Moines would share our reputation as a Midwestern theater mecca). "Community" is often cited as that elusive something, and that is surely part of it, but what is it that nurtures that community here as opposed to elsewhere?

One of the reasons is organizations like the Playwrights' Center. For nearly 30 years it has attracted theater writers and directors to the Twin Cities, kept local actors working on exciting, paid projects between full productions, encouraged networking and collaboration with artists from all over the country and beyond, and generally put Minneapolis on the map as a fertile breeding ground for new theatrical works. 

This year, Polly Carl stepped down as producing artistic director, handing the reins of the institution she helped create to Jeremy Cohen. The transition didn't slow down the ambitious daily work of the center, which, in its 2009-10 season, employed 179 actors, conducted 68 workshops and readings, offered 13 classes and seminars, added its 1,000th member playwright, re-granted $200,000 to playwrights and theater artists, and worked with 33 colleges and universities.

As one of the actors the center employed this year, I know firsthand how invaluable it is to the theatrical landscape. A paycheck for acting, rare and wonderful as it is, pales in comparison to the more ineffable quality of community, creativity, innovation, and vibrancy one feels, for instance, working on a new play by an Obie Award-winning New York City playwright with eight of the finest actors in the Twin Cities. The Playwrights' Center's contributions to local theater are immeasurable, and the next chapter in its legacy, under Jeremy Cohen, is ready to unfold.

Mo Perry is an actor and writer.  In early 2011 she will appear in the Children's Theater Company's production of Babe the Sheep Pig and in Gremlin Theater's Uncle Vanya.

Madlib

By Nate Patrin


Photo: Chris Woodcock

A dozen albums in a year? It's a good start.

Madlib—hip-hop producer, musical curator, and the hardest-working marijuana enthusiast in recorded history—cut through the pretense of social-media-era content churn and mixtape overload by creating Madlib Medicine Show, a proposed album-a-month series that brought a new idea to the table with every installation.

You don't spend as much time hoarding LPs and building beats as he does without learning the nuances that make different genres tick, and the mixes in this series were a curriculum of exhumed vinyl curios that all bore his unmistakably concentrated, cleverly absurd imprint. Wig-out Tropicalia and MPB (No. 2: Flight to Brazil); heavy, bleary-eyed reggae (No. 4: 420 Chalice All-Stars); eccentric, comedy-addled psych rock (No. 6: The Brain Wreck Show); the outer edge of post-bop and fusion (No. 8: Advanced Jazz); suit-and-tie disco-floor R&B (No. 10: Black Soul)—they all bristle with the simultaneous thrills of deep contextual knowledge and archeological discovery.

That sensibility carries over into Madlib's original production showcases, the odd-numbered entries in the series. These collections are a microcosm of his style, from the West Coast backpacker prototype years (No. 5: History of the Loop Digga, 1990-2000) to his current underground abstract phase (No. 11: Low Budget High Fi Music) and his sideline in chameleonic one-man, cut-and-paste jazz ensemble work (No. 7: High Jazz).

On top of that, he somehow found the time to produce excellent records by Strong Arm Steady (In Search of Stoney Jackson) and Guilty Simpson (OJ Simpson). Oh yeah, and a new Madvillain single, "Papermill," that's the most dirty-funk-ass track MF Doom has graced with his presence in a long time.

With the 2010 agenda he just pulled off, Madlib has earned himself an extended break for the next 12 months. Maybe he'll slow down a bit and only release a half-dozen records.

Nate Patrin is City Pages' clubs editor.

Marina Abramovic

By Eric Lorberer


"Golden Mask," courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery

Viewing art is usually about bearing witness to a thing made, be it an object, performance, or even an environment. But what if it's the artist herself on view? That was the seed of genius behind Marina Abramovic's recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Artist Is Present. The flat title perhaps belies its Zen accuracy: In the midst of a career-spanning retrospective, Abramovic placed herself, seated in a wooden chair, in the center of the museum's atrium, evoking the bullfighting ring as much as the art gallery. Opposite the artist was an empty chair, which exhibit attendees were welcome to inhabit as long as they wished, for the sole purpose of staring into the artist's face. No words, no movement, just two figures in full gaze: one a towering figure in the art world and the other, you.

Some viewers of this strange installation lasted only a minute, others a full day, but people lined up in droves to do it (with the line itself becoming a unique community and thus an extension of the piece). The unique work created a new peak in the Yugoslavian-born artist's four-plus decades of groundbreaking art, in which she has famously placed her own body in physically tense situations: She has been on the receiving end of a taut bow and arrow and a loaded gun. But those sound simple next to 700 hours of her audience's fixed expression. Perhaps not surprisingly, The Artist Is Present broke attendance records at MoMA and became a cultural phenomenon that bled beyond the boundaries of the rarefied museum walls—which is what art is supposed to do. The performance is discussed in the exhibition catalog of the same name and documented in video feeds and Flickr portraits on the web, all evidence of the exhilarating thing Abramovic has given us this year, perhaps the very thing we'd been missing: ourselves, watching.

Eric Lorberer is a Minneapolis poet and writer who edits the award-winning quarterly Rain Taxi Review of Books and directs the Twin Cities Book Festival.

Joanie Smith

By Linda Shapiro


Photo: V. Paul Vietucio

When Joanie Smith lost her husband, Danial Shapiro, to prostate cancer in 2006, she also lost a working relationship unique in the dance world. While choreographers often collaborate with their dancers and other artists, they seldom work together as symbiotically as Shapiro and Smith did. Together they created highly theatrical dances that ranged from What Dark/Falling Into Night, a work about the Holocaust, to Anytown, a folk opera about working-class life set to music by Bruce Springsteen.

Four years after Shapiro's death, Shapiro & Smith Dance thrives on Smith's rigorous and passionate dances, and on her indomitable spirit. This year's premiere of Bolero, a work of relentless emotional architecture, demonstrates that Smith can fly solo. Can she ever. Shapiro's spirit invades this re-imagining of an earlier work the two created. To Ravel's much used and oft abused score, Smith molds a dance that sparks references to everything from 1930s expressionism to a 21st-century zeitgeist spinning out of control. Walking, stalking, jogging, catapulting, and catching one another, seven dancers shape a fluid, constantly shifting group dynamic. Sometimes they resemble heroic warriors, sometimes people cast adrift in an anarchic world where terrorism, global warfare, and cyberspace anxieties collide. For all the Dionysian frenzy bubbling beneath its surface, Bolero flaunts an Apollonian formalism and athletic grace that brought exhilarated audiences to their feet.

But Smith has taken the maxim that hope springs eternal further than her own creative output. She has created the Danny Shapiro Fellowship in Dance (a.k.a. the Dannys). Starting in 2011, a Danny will be awarded annually to a choreographer to work with a composer or visual artist, or to pay dancers' salaries. And as a faculty member of the University of Minnesota's Department of Theatre Arts and Dance, Smith continues to infect students with her wit, wisdom, and multifaceted artistry.

Linda Shapiro is a Minneapolis writer and co-directed a dance company in the 1980s.

Cantus

By Brian Newhouse


Photo: Curtis Johnson

I saw it happen again a couple of weeks ago. Cantus sang their signature piece for the holidays, Franz Biebl's lush "Ave Maria." Right after verse two, the air ringing with a big, silvery chord, they paused for a second and took a breath for the third verse. I looked around and everyone in the audience seemed to be holding their own breath.

That doesn't happen often enough in classical concerts—an audience hanging on a syllable. But the nine guys of Cantus make it their job every time they take the stage to ensure we get that kind of thrill.

They started 16 years ago in a St. Olaf dorm—just for the pleasure of knitting together harmonies as tight and warm as the stitches of a Norwegian sweater. A lot of the faces have changed since the group has gone pro, and they tour all over now, but they call Minneapolis home. This year they're Classical MPR's artists-in-residence.

Their repertoire ranges over 900 years of music, including what they arranged last week for themselves. I love that reach, and the fact that they use classical techniques to make all kinds of music come alive. Case in point: If you want a guaranteed great night out, don't miss their "Covers" concerts at the Ritz Theater in June, when they sing pop songs of all stripes. Last year I nearly laughed myself out of my chair, was brought close to tears, and had that familiar breath-holding moment—all in the first half-hour. The fact that they rehearse and perform without a conductor gives new meaning to the word harmony.

They're hopping in a van this winter and heading over icy roads to give outstate concerts and classes with high school choirs, and doing a variety of on-air and online projects. Those are the basics of the MPR residency: surprising audiences with classical music. But because Cantus gets a little career boost out of the deal, last month the guys came to MPR to sing for the staff for an hour for free. Just to say thanks. That's class.

Brian Newhouse is managing director of Classical Minnesota Public Radio.

Emily Johnson and Blackfish

By Caroline Palmer


Photo: Cameron Wittig

The November performance of The Thank-You Bar, created by Minneapolis dance maker Emily Johnson with musicians James Everest and Joel Pickard of Blackfish, didn't begin inside a theater. Instead, audience members entered a gallery space in the Northrop Auditorium building. The exhibition on view, curated by Johnson with Carolyn Lee Anderson and titled "This Is Displacement: Native Artists Consider the Relationship Between Land and Identity," set the tone for a deeply personal examination of the constants and changes that shape an individual's relationship to home.

The next phase of the work took place on the Northrop stage, the site of so many transformative moments throughout the evening. Johnson wove together stories from her childhood in Alaska with connections to her Yup'ik identity and broader metaphorical observations about geographic dislocation. Along the way the choreographer even changed the way we looked at the theater itself as she shone a light into the rafters or danced in and out of the shadows. Throughout, Everest and Pickard supplied a texturally rich, live soundtrack, at times evoking mournful shouts from a distant past or a sense of rhythmic chaos appropriate for a restless, but not rootless, soul.

The Thank-You Bar showcased once again the eloquent, witty, smart, and singular perspective Johnson has shared so generously with the local dance community over the past decade. The performance's movement, music, storytelling, and video generated an entirely new sense of place that anyone would want to visit again and again.

Caroline Palmer is a freelance dance writer and attorney living in Minneapolis.

M.I.A.

By Peter S. Scholtes

M.I.A.'s stunning third album, Maya, has been widely panned by music critics, their momentum fed by a prominent takedown of the singer and rapper in the New York Times. Part of the backlash stemmed from an old difference: Either you agree with Maya Arulpragasam that "fighting terrorism is affecting the world more than terrorism" (as she put it in 2005) or you don't. And if you don't, her rebel gestalt might seem like poser noise, from condemning military atrocities back home in Sri Lanka to lyrics evoking empathy for the terrorist. ("I really love a lot," she sings, pronouncing "a lot" like "Allah," "but I fight the ones that fight me.")

The bigger issue with Maya was noise of the more literal kind: an industrial clamor cut with dubstep and whatever else was blasting through her Los Angeles home studio at the time (bands like Suicide, Spectral Display, Sleigh Bells, Gucci Mane, and the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers). Which explains the dip in sales but not the surprise of reviewers. Interscope had something on its hands that it didn't expect and couldn't market: a great punk album, sung-spoken like Siouxsie or Kim Gordon or Heather from Beat Happening in a wobbly faux-singjay for the ages. Nobody had tried anything like it since Public Enemy or the Clash. But had it been too long for punk gestures in the mainstream? The righteous "Born Free" ("manmade power stood like a tower...and the higher you go, you feel lower") looked like a Muppet jamboree when she performed on Letterman with Suicide's Martin Rev.

The smaller audience will suit her. The heroic thing about M.I.A. is that her defiance of the rulers of the earth is garbled and felt rather than articulated. She suggests the process of realization as people actually experience it, sputtering publicly. Naturally, she loves the internet. "The Google connected to the government" babble opening Maya isn't so much about the company but "the Google" of your great-grandmother's fears—the internet as an inversion of Orwell's 1984, with everyone willingly surrendering to surveillance because that's how you connect in an era of social networking and reality stardom. "All I ever wanted was my story to be told," M.I.A. chants over the sound of a jet piercing the sky. It's the loneliest sound of the year.

Peter S. Scholtes is a Twin Cities writer and teacher.

Robyn

By Steve McPherson

"It is really very simple," intones a robotic voice at the beginning of "Include Me Out," the second track from the second of three albums (Body Talk, Pts. 1, 2, and 3) Swedish electro-pop pixie Robyn has released this year, "just a single pulse repeated at a regular interval." And when it comes to the dance-floor bangers that Robyn turns out with startling consistency, it truly is that simple. The elements are basic: a spiraling or churning synth line, a kick and snare pattern so propulsive it threatens to break necks and ankles, and, above it all, Robyn's clear, crystalline voice, slicing its way into your subconscious, leaving earworms more pernicious than the ones from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

By itself, such a combination isn't exactly revolutionary. Meat dress and drama aside, Lady Gaga's music could be described in much the same way. What separates Robyn is the absolute control and fierce empowerment her music both embodies and promises. Not many pop divas could stand toe to toe with Snoop Dogg—as Robyn does on "U Should Know Better"—and come off like a badass. And while "Fembot" kicks off with a cutesy hook ("I've got some news for you/Fembots have feelings, too"), when Robyn drops in on the verse, her voice doubled and warped into something mechanized and alien, she spits a rapid-fire litany of sci-fi patois that breathes fire while seeming cool to the touch.

This effortless control makes her music feel inevitable, as if the giant hooks of "Dancing on My Own" or "Hang With Me" were only waiting to be excavated from blood and flesh and transplanted into the digital guts of a drum machine. This contradiction at the core of Robyn's music breeds tension, but we never feel lost. "I'm yours, you're mine," she assures us on "Indestructible," "two satellites, not alone/No, we're not alone." In Robyn's neon mechanical future, the dance floor may be a ruthlessly efficient place, but its heart remains resolutely human.

Steve McPherson is a St. Paul-based writer and musician.

Kevin Kramp

By Jen Boyles

Like a junior high school student still trying to figure out her personal style, the newly minted Minneapolis fashion community is still finding its aesthetic. What comes down the runway here is commercially focused, purposefully demure, or, at its best, apprehensively edgy. Each fashion show is more of the same: Oh, here comes another A-line dress in a quirky color with a statement necklace. And there's a retro-looking skirt with a matching top that definitely did not come from JCPenney. What could save it all rather easily is a liberal dose of perspective, perhaps on loan from menswear designer Kevin Kramp.

The inspired twentysomething world traveler and graduate of London's Central St. Martins College is a knitwear wiz. His daring but temptingly comfortable winter line of bulky scarves, maximum oversized sweaters, and bold harem pants in stunning yellows, reds, blues, and greens received gasps of delight from the audience at a local show recently. These are the kind of pieces you'd get stopped on the street about.

"Woven fabric is boring," Kramp explains. "I didn't design it, I didn't manufacture it, and I barely control it when making a garment. All the work is already done. Whereas with knit, I start from the beginning and control everything."

Perhaps it's taking that kind of ownership over one's creations that led to Kramp's successes as a creative visionary and as someone whose name is on the lips of fashion-forward designers locally and beyond.

"My life is not separate from my design work; they are one and the same," Kramp says. "I'm inspired and enthusiastic to create objects of beauty and moments of joy, continually paralyzed by insecurity while simultaneously taking bold steps in daring directions."

Jen Boyles is City Pages' web editor.

Hammerhead

By Zak Sally

The ongoing run of "reunion" shows from "beloved" '90s bands in the past few years (see the bloodless pony shows of the Pixies, Pavement, etc.) seem to come about for a number of reasons—nostalgia, money, whatever. But Hammerhead was just about the last band one would have expected to get back together.

The original lineup transplanted here (via Fargo) in the early '90s. They recorded three full-lengths for Amphetamine Reptile Records and did bunches of touring before their split in '96 (guitarist Paul Sanders left the band, while bassist Paul Erickson and drummer Jeff Mooridian Jr. formed Vaz). Plenty of folks were witness to their ridiculously intense (and kind of terrifying) shows back in the day, and their records hold up extraordinarily well, but...reunion show? Why?

Ostensibly it was for the big AmRep 25th anniversary party, so that rules out big money and possibly nostalgia. So...a comeback? Seems kind of silly; after all, the particular stripe of sound these guys trafficked in was (and is) far too ugly, scary, and fucked up to have any wide appeal. So, why? I don't know, and I don't care—and neither did anyone else in the crowd at one of their reunion shows at the Turf Club this past summer. Watching Hammerhead after a 15-year hiatus was witnessing that machine come back to life. It wasn't just good, it was really good.

Maybe it's usually true that you can't go home again, but I'll be damned if these guys didn't pick it up where they left it. It gave me faith in something. I don't know what, exactly, but it was there. Maybe it was proof that shows like this can be done, that they can be beyond just a walk down memory lane. It was far from a love-in, it wasn't "fun," and it wasn't a party—but who the hell ever said it had to be?

Zak Sally is a cartoonist (Sammy the Mouse, Like a Dog), publisher (La Mano 21), and musician (Fear of Song).

Banksy

By Michelle Orange


courtesy of Banksyfilm

A street artist and stuntster whose persona is defined by the absence of persona, Banksy went through the art-world looking glass a few years ago when his iconoclastic work became part of the excess he was skewering. He responded by making one of the debut films of the year, Exit Through the Gift Shop, a testament to his ambivalence about success and a perfectly calibrated response to the inquisitive furor surrounding his mystique.

How much of Exit Through the Gift Shop is "real" and how much is part of a larger punking of the documentary form is both a big part of the thematic picture and entirely beside the point. Taking a French Los Angeles resident and chronic documenter named Thierry Guetta as its central subject, the film arranges Thierry's footage of the street-art boom of the '90s and early '00s into a kind of brief history of the movement and its stars. When that history reaches the moment when people like Banksy and Shepard Fairey hit the big time, the film segues into the construction of Thierry himself as an art star, someone capitalizing on the frenzy for this new, "authentic" style. Big on cultural appropriation, non sequitur imagery, and antithetical iconic mash-ups, Banksy considers himself a "quality vandal," someone whose strikingly visual work (as opposed to that of high-concept wanksters like Damien Hirst) traffics not in empty provocation but a clear, if often ironic, engagement with issues like pollution and poverty. That his aesthetic is easily appropriated and exploited for commercial gain is part of Gift Shop's mordant self-reflexivity; anyone can do it, and anyone does.

Having satisfied the old "But is it art?" cranks—for better and worse—the main question now bound up in the artist's work is: "Who is Banksy?" Ubiquitous and unknown, maintaining his mystery while marking the walls of the world's cities with his work has secured for him, in these personality-peddling times, a Zorro-like legend. The director teases out that question by appearing in the film as a hooded cipher with a distorted voice before offering his heart-of-the-matter reply: Who isn't?

Michelle Orange's fiction, essays, and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney's, The Village Voice, and other publications. She is the author of The Sicily Papers and the editor of From the Notebook: The Unwritten Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a collection published by McSweeney's. She lives in Brooklyn and is at work on a second book.

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