Artists of the Year 2011

Alan Moore, Louis C.K., Bethany Larson, and more

Cottman made her strongest impression in the Walker Art Center's Momentum series at the Southern Theater this summer. Her Shared Language was the physical embodiment of a rich internal dialogue driven by her personal relationship to African-American and West African cultures. The work unfolded in a casual, rehearsal-like setting, but it poignantly revealed Cottman's deep-seated restlessness and questioning—she knows identity is not determined by a simple equation of geography plus history plus heritage. There's something more, but it's intangible, rooted in the heart and soul. Cottman didn't need to offer any resolution to that idea, just the possibility of more exploration.

Cottman also hinted at provocative new directions for her work with KATE AN OYTE in the Choreographer's Evening at the Walker in November. Drawing inspiration from the Black Greek organizations known as the Divine Nine, in just a few short minutes Cottman summoned images of discipline and pride but also hinted at a more troubling legacy as well, one that may reveal itself with time if she expands on the themes. As with Shared Language, Cottman showed us that she is engaged in a fascinating dialogue with herself, her audience, her community, her world. Hopefully she will continue to share these conversations onstage. As audience members, we're lucky to be a part of them.

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

Lynda Barry

By Mark Ehling
Alan Moore
Kelvin Chan
Alan Moore
Steven Epp
Steven Epp

I've always loved artists who seem like ambassadors to the non-art world. Ed Emberley, the master of the stick-figure instructional book, and sculptor Alexander Calder, a grown man playing ringmaster in his miniature circus, are two who come to mind. I suppose what I'm describing, though, is less of an ambassador and more of a child at heart—someone unafraid of play.

Lynda Barry is such an artist. The style and subject matter of her comics alone might prove that claim (her most popular works, such as Ernie Pook's Comeek, are drawn with "scratchy" lines and deal almost exclusively with the inner lives of children), but in the last few years she's slowly transformed herself into a missionary for creative play. Her two recent memoir/how-to books, What It Is and Picture This, somehow manage to talk about art while existing as art: Nearly every page is a collage of brushwork, found text, photos, and doodles. Her thoughts and dictums ("Be a copy cat," "Let a line lead us along itself") are jammed against more open-ended questions ("What is the difference between lying and pretending?"), and all these statements are warped by strange images in the margins: defaced yearbook photos, drawings of anglerfish, and vintage ads for "The Dramatic Story of Canning and Can Making." The result is a work that feels like real consciousness: messy, associative, and colored with emotion.

One of Barry's main points is that by keeping our bodies in motion—essentially, doodling—we calm our minds and allow for deep play. In this space, associations come alive, and traditional categories, "good vs. bad" or "art vs. essay," fall away. This is probably the real payoff: Barry helps art escape the Museum of Holy Artifacts and puts it back into circulation as the basic human activity it is.

Mark Ehling is a writer and teacher living in Minneapolis.

Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs

By Jeff Gage

To say that Merrill Garbus is the driving force behind her band, tUnE-yArDs, is an understatement. She almost single-handedly assembles her songs, piece by piece, right in front of her audience. Ukele, drums, and vocals get looped into frenzied arrangements that burst and bounce from idea to idea—one minute a soft folk song, the next a raucous Afrobeat jam.

Garbus, a former playwright and puppeteer who once lived in a Montreal artist commune, thrives on challenging her audience, right down to the spelling of her band name and album titles. That attribute infuses all her work with a joyful, childlike exuberance. But for all her experimental tendencies, Garbus's strongest, most expressive instrument is remarkably simple: her voice. Blessed with a raw gift of stunning range, she uses it with gusto, exploring everything from the most delicate whispers to full-throated wails with confidence and ease.

Below tUnE-yArDs' celebratory surface, a palpable tension binds the music together. Garbus is adept at giving a voice to those whose own voices are stifled, and she's fearless about tackling the injustices she sees. Her latest album, WHOKILL, opens with a provocation, riffing on "My Country 'Tis of Thee" while asking, "Why do you have something/When others have nothing?" By the closing track, "Killa," Garbus doesn't mince her words: "I'm a new kind of woman," she declares. "I'm a don't-take-shit-from-you kind of woman."

Yet what endears Garbus the most is her compassion. She inhabits her characters and their stories, inspired by a deep empathy and boundless imagination. Whether her characters daydream about making love to a police officer or smack-talk a wannabe "Gangsta," she never takes herself too seriously, approaching her subjects with warmth and humor. And when Garbus turns her thoughts inward, she's even more effective. "Powa," little more than a slowly unfurling rock riff, is one of the year's tenderest love songs—unguarded, uncomplicated, and exquisitely beautiful.

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