We cannot always explain why a certain artist or work of art moves us: Capturing the ineffable is the province of great art to begin with. But sometimes it's enough to recognize who or what stirs something within us, and in doing so, we point to the collective experience of art, a sense that "there is something there." Though we appreciate musician Ali Jaafar's succinctly professed interest in "natural sounds made by humans in real places," we know that the work our local artists produce is so much more than the sum of its parts. From dancers hijacking creative spaces to a comedian making a career comeback, our list of artists just scratches the surface of the Twin Cities arts scene, but it's a look at who and what moved us this year.
Chances are, if you've been to any arts events in the metro, you've seen the petite artist Emma Berg and her jet-black bangs floating around. Maybe you've caught her eye for art as the in-house curator at the ultra-trendy HAUS Salon, where she chooses works of art to scatter on the white-washed walls that'll challenge and awe even the most bored salon-goer. Or you might have seen her brainchild, the visual arts calendar mplsart.com, a collection of the must-see, must-do art and gallery events in the Twin Cities. Berg is ubiquitous in the Twin Cities, celebrating the local arts scene with passion — whether it's showcasing her own art or championing others' through curation.
The fashion designer's latest collection, Yin-Yang, premiered in full for one night only at an event benefiting the Friends of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, demonstrating her knack for pairing dissimilar textures to fantastic effect. Hard silhouettes and soft fabrics, stitched structure and weightless flow, bright colors and muted hues — these elements permeate Berg's collections, as if she challenges herself to make dynamic creations out of such disparate parts. It's not difficult to see why she was hand-picked and commissioned to create a gift for Lady Gaga a couple of years ago. Berg doesn't shy away from provocation.
At the end of her Spring/Summer 2013 line last year, Berg made more than a sartorial statement, bringing politics onto the runway. The collection drew inspiration and symbolism from Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" and ended with two male models kissing while a female model wore a "Vote No" tee. Berg earned an ovation for her apparel and her unspoken manifesto, which were validated with this year's legalization of gay marriage. While Berg's artistic vision borders on haute surreal, she's grounded in her dedication to being truly unique.
The collaborative dance team of Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder, known as HIJACK, celebrated its 20th anniversary by taking on Walker Art Center. In "Hijack at 20: redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye," this duo respectfully paid tribute to the Walker as a bastion of modern/post-modern art.
Wilder and Van Loon joined forces and moved to Minneapolis in 1993, where they formed HIJACK in response to the occasional boring dance concert they encountered. They had fantasies about leaping onstage with a boom box and hijacking the performance, something these gracious and generous-spirited women would never do. Instead they have continued to develop a brand of radical movement theater that layers familiar images from art and popular culture, creating collages that are both finely calibrated and wildly inventive.
Through their rambunctious compositions, these women ask serious questions about the nature of aesthetics and performance, and the way the imagination works to find connections between disparate elements. They share a mission to highlight the kind of edgy art they and their colleagues create. As managing artistic director of the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater, Van Loon has helped to transform this small cabaret into a hot spot for the local avant garde, as well as visiting new wave artists. Long may they continue their buoyant art-making.
By Ed Huyck
Presenting one new show at a theater is a big thrill for any playwright. Presenting three in a single day? That's tremendous. Aditi Brennan Kapil showcased a trio of premieres this fall at Mixed Blood Theatre. The works, under the umbrella title Displaced Hindu Gods, found Kapil digging deep into her Indian heritage (she is of Indian-Bulgarian descent, and grew up in Stockholm), while still finding time to explore other obsessions — from comic books to standup comedy — for a singular theatrical experience.
"There are so many things that are in my head about that side of my heritage. There is a whole lot of colonial history and contemporary South Asian youth culture in the United States," she said last fall before the shows opened. The resulting trio of plays was a particularly stunning personal achievement. Brahman/i looked at gender and cultural identity by way of an extended standup routine. The Chronicles of Kalki merged the final avatar of Vishnu with a coming-of-age tale and a superhero with a secret identity. Shiv, the most personal of the three, delved into the playwright's relationship with her poet father.
That Kapil found a home for the shows at Mixed Blood isn't a surprise. She and the theater have had a long, fruitful relationship over the past two decades. Kapil has acted in, directed, and written shows for this Cedar-Riverside theater, and is the playwright-in-residence there. Her past work includes 2011's Agnes Under the Big Top and acting in the likes of Next to Normal and Learn to be Latina. Kapil's work has been seen throughout the country and earned plenty of accolades, but the sheer audacity of creating, presenting, and pulling off three high-quality brand-new works is what makes her a clear choice for a local artist of the year honor.
Here in the Twin Cities, we live at the edge of a geography with a mythic, desolate, and exhilarating potential that once inspired European pioneers to Go West. The wide-open spaces still romance us, but the abundant natural resources — the birds, fur-bearing mammals, rich black soil, and American Indians who called the Great Plains home — were summarily sacrificed in the name of progress. Areca Roe's photographic series "Oh Pioneer," exhibited at Gallery 122/Hang It this fall, brilliantly inverts that mythology with devastating humor and lamentation.
Roe's pictures are of dioramas she assembled, in which miniature people, trains, windmills, tents, bison, and trees stand among waterfalls, mountains, and monoliths covered in plush, fake fur. A eulogy for Manifest Destiny, "Oh Pioneer" speaks of what was lost — and continues to be lost —in its wake.
A 2011 graduate of the University of Minnesota MFA program, and the recipient of a 2012 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative grant, Roe also showed her "Habitat" series at SooVAC over the summer. Her luminous images of zoo animals (and sometimes their keepers) capture moments of poignant stillness that render both habitats and inhabitants more elusive than mere prison or prisoner. In short, we are rendered fallibly human by Roe's work.
By Sheila Regan
The question isn't what Heid E. Erdrich has been up to lately, it's what she hasn't been up to. A poet, curator, playwright, and now filmmaker and cookbook author, Erdrich has been all over the place in 2013, making the most of the 2012 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant she received last year.
As an award-winning author of four books of poetry, Erdrich employs rich imagery in her work with a clear, unencumbered style that is rhythmic and musical, reflecting on aspects of Native identity, family, desire, and nature.
This year, several of Erdrich's poem films, created in collaboration with other artists such as Elizabeth Day, Jonathan Thunder, and R. Vincent Moniz Jr., received multiple screenings all around the state and even Canada. One of the films, Pre-Occupy, won the Judges Award and Best of the Fest at this year's Co-Kisser Film Festival.
This fall, Erdrich co-directed and curated a multi-disciplinary exhibit and performance called "Artifact Traffic," produced by Pangea World Theater and presented at Intermedia Arts. Erdrich also juried "Untitled 10: SooVAC's 10th Annual Juried Exhibition" along with Jennifer Phelps.
Finally, just in time for Thanksgiving, the Minnesota Historical Society Press published Erdrich's new book, Original Local: Indigenous Food, Stories, and Recipes from the Upper Midwest. The cookbook features indigenous recipes and native ingredients — everything from berries to manoomin (wild rice) — and includes a lot of storytelling from her own life, as well as a lot of background information about food justice for the Native community.
By Ed Huyck
Craig Johnson has become the Twin Cities' go-to actor for playing Oscar Wilde. A couple of seasons ago, he played the famed author and wit at Park Square. This past season, Johnson starred as Wilde in Walking Shadow Theatre Company's Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. The production as a whole was one of the best of the year, and it all centered on Johnson's nuanced, insightful, and moving performance as Wilde. Johnson, who has made Wilde a topic of study throughout his life, understands the man to the core, and it showed in his performance. Plenty of others noticed, and Johnson earned an Ivey Award this fall, though this performance was only the latest in a long career that has made Johnson a key performer and director in the local theater community.
The care and depth he brought to Wilde could be seen in his performance last summer at Girl Friday's Camino Real for another famous character — fictional, this time — as he brought the dreamer Don Quixote to life. His caring touch is evident whenever Johnson takes time to direct, be it for Theatre in the Round, Girl Friday, Torch Theatre, or any
B number of other companies in the area. Oh, and Johnson does all of this with a full-time day job working as the manager for the James J. Hill House in St. Paul. Color us impressed.
By Tatiana Craine
If you used your hands to count the projects Neil Gaiman had this year, you'd need a couple extra arms...and with how much the author has accomplished in 2013, it's a wonder he hasn't actually sprouted more appendages himself.
This summer, Gaiman had devotees across the nation scrambling to attend his last-ever signing tour as he promoted his first novel for adults in eight years, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Later, The Sandman returned to the shelves with the highly anticipated prequel to Gaiman's seminal graphic novel series that began 25 years ago. Then Bard College announced that the writer will join the faculty next year as a professor. Gaiman also released a couple of children's books, brought back the Cybermen on Dr. Who for this spring's "Nightmare in Silver" episode, performed several live shows with his wife, Amanda Palmer, revealed he's been developing a video game, and through it all, maintained constant contact with his fans.
Like groupies to a rock star, his nearly two million followers constantly flock to Twitter to catch a glimpse of Gaiman's life outside the stacks, and he delivers. Devoted to his supporters, the author answers questions and provides updates at all hours of the day, which makes us wonder when — if ever — he sleeps.
By Reed Fischer
Ecstattic Studio — literally an attic in south Minneapolis — is owned and operated by Ali Jaafar. In 2013, countless bands lugged their gear all the way up the stairs and put their trust in a guy who professes on the studio's Facebook page to be "interested in natural sounds made by humans in real places."
"As opposed to charging a lot, I just record a lot," Jaafar tells City Pages during a tour of the space earlier this year.
Some of the best punk and garage rock coming out of the Twin Cities right now was hatched with help from Jaafar. In 2013, we saw the release of memorable new Ecstattic projects from Kitten Forever, Crimes, Diver Dress, and France Camp. According to France Camp's Jay Simonson, Jaafar kicked them out mid-session because they were too drunk. Recording continued once the guys sobered up, and the results are skinned-knee brilliance.
In addition to his recording, mixing, and mastering credits, Jaafar writes prolifically for himself. The best album emerging from Ecstattic this year comes from his own shoegazey pop trio, Hollow Boys. With distorted guitars ringing up to the rafters, and bitterness dripping down to the cellar, It's True shows this Sade fan had plenty of inspiration left over after aiding others.
By Sheila Regan
Adam Hamilton came out of nowhere this year with a brilliant exhibition at SooVAC called "Fluctuating Capacity" that promised great things to come. The show, strung together with a narrative structure about time travel, family relationships, and fate, featured a large contraption made of books, magnifying glasses, wires, bottles, and other curiosities as a sculptural manifestation of a time-traveling machine.
Currently a student in the MFA program at MCAD, Hamilton received his BFA in Communication Design at Metropolitan State College in Denver. He exhibited in a number of galleries around the Denver area and also received several awards before moving to Minneapolis. "Fluctuating Capacity" was his first solo show in the Twin Cities. This fall, he was part of a team of MCAD students that put together a pop-up exhibition called "Larval". Recently, Hamilton's work flew off the shelves at the MCAD Art Sale, and he made a strong showing at the MFA Open Studio night.
One magical week this November, Dave Chappelle bombarded the Twin Cities with jokes. In his eight shows at First Avenue and four at Pantages, Chappelle brought powerful, on-point standup that hit on everything from Uptown's proliferation of mustaches, to Paula Deen's unsurprising acquaintance with the N-word, to Lil Wayne's growly rapping.
The comedian's skills haven't waned since he departed Chappelle's Show and his bajillion-dollar contract with Comedy Central in 2006. He's become a bit of a J.D. Salinger since, returning to the scene now and then with a four-hour set here, a half-hour pop-in there, and has become renowned for reacting with little tolerance to rude audiences.
Minus a drunken heckler or two, his Minneapolis audiences were pitch-perfect. On the whole, that week of comedy, when it seemed Dave Chappelle had moved into the Twin Cities, and when he even joked about shacking up with a big-bootied jogger near Lake Calhoun, seemed once-in-a-lifetime. A "how are we so lucky to have this in our city?" sort of occurrence. Credit the "Purple Rain" allure of First Avenue. On Chappelle's penultimate night, he tempted his audience to go on a treasure hunt to his post-show hangout. On his final night, he staged a 2 a.m. charity basketball game that included a pancake dinner, and that Prince himself attended.
Chappelle is a comedian who has an uncommon rapport with his audience. He's not only hilarious, he is trusted as a personality and as a Voice of His Generation. In short, anybody who shouts "I'm Rick James, bitch!" at him will continue to deserve a punch in the face.
By Camille LeFevre
Look. Look again. Karl Unnasch's sculptures — whether as large as farm machinery or small as a cowpie — beg for closer viewing. Anthropomorphic figures of black cast-metal have their provenance in cow poop. His "vignettes" merge a Zen-like, bonsai-inflected quality with an intractable whimsy due, in part, to Unnasch's use of animal carcasses found on his rural Minnesota property. In "The Ruminant (The Grand Masticator)," a corn combine was repurposed as a place of worship, complete with stained-glass windows, for the Farm D-tour in Wisconsin in October. With that piece, Unnasch's farm-to-public art upcycling of a rural icon reached a kind of apotheosis.
A Minnesota native who earned his MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, Unnasch is an adjunct professor of sculpture at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, and directs the Standard Issue Metal Casting Workshop in southeastern Minnesota every year. His public art commissions include installations, mosaics, and sculpture throughout Minnesota. His clever aesthetic is popping up everywhere. Look for it.
By Tatiana Craine
If you're a fan of Project Runway, chances are you probably know Christopher Straub. He competed on the show back in 2009, and though he didn't win, he certainly took back some bragging rights and killer technique from his time on the program. These days, the homegrown designer is a regular fixture at fashion and arts events around the metro, most notably at Minneapolis-St. Paul Fashion week.
Straub's work balances on the edge between playful and chic. In his first collection of the year, he ramped things up with a sugar-coated fantasy that combined tightly silhouetted dresses with a mid-century feel and — of all things — gummy bear-printed fabric and bear-shaped bomber hats. During Minneapolis-St. Paul Fashion week this fall, he debuted a more casual collection that featured a splash of seapunk and a dash of street-wear chic that wowed on the catwalk.
While most local designers can safely say they work on paper first, then fabric, Straub stuck with paper for the whole affair at a holiday event at the Mall of America's Papyrus location this season. Putting his creative talents to the test, he created a collection and a series of wigs made of ornately cut and tailored paper with some of the skills he honed on Project Runway. But that's not the first time he's wielded his knack for design and execution under weird circumstances — he once made a dress out of cabbage on Rachel Ray's show.
With all of this fully fledged local designer's talent, imagination, and heart, we can't wait to see what's up next season.
By Camille LeFevre
In January, a much anticipated — and ballyhooed — new art gallery opened in northeast Minneapolis. Public Functionary was heralded as a new model for exhibition, patronage, and community.
In April, the gallery opened with the auspiciously titled "Victory," an exhibition of work by Chicago-based Puerto Rican artist Dzine (a.k.a. Carlos Rolon). Blingy and baroque, the show was a kustom-kulture-infused spectacle of mirrored surfaces, glittering trophies, and spangled and costume-jewelry-encrusted installations that ushered in a new era of fabulousness to the arts scene.
In May, New York magazine's curmudgeonly and highly entertaining art critic, Jerry Saltz, talked with Dzine at Public Functionary in the first of what will hopefully become regular forums. New York artist Sougwen Chung's first solo exhibition, "Chiaro/Oscuro," inspired late-night visitors' performative investigations of ethereal installations. Los Angeles artist Patrick Martinez's "Buy Now Cry Later" examined mainstream consumerism using neon, the medium with which enticements are often proclaimed.
Not bad for its first year. Has PF, so far, lived up to its hype? If the branding, openings, dance parties, and other inventive lures to the shows are any indication: yes. And, as Public Functionary's curator, Tricia Khutoretsky has injected a refreshingly idiosyncratic aesthetic into the local scene that celebrates artists, and work, just below our radar, where the vernacular, conceptual, digital, and traditions high and low meet at a new nexus of creativity. As the beneficiaries of Public Functionary's bold foray, we say: Carry on!