Off the Wall
[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]
The middle-aged women are in something of a frenzy. There are three of them here at Intermedia Arts, and they're clustered in front of a painting from the "Minneapolis 55408" show, a free-for-all celebration of pieces created within the local postal code. Granted, the walls of the three galleries are so packed with loud art and the rooms so laden with visual stimuli that it is easy to understand how someone could become overexcited. In fact, the women ejaculate with such abandon over what they see that I can't help but listen to them. "There are so many talented people in this city," one of the women shouts. "I just can't get over it." And as I watch--what else can I do?--the woman is drawn forward, her arm outstretched zombielike, and she is compelled to pet and stroke a painting on the wall as her friends gape.
Perhaps she is right, I think, that there is a lot of artistic talent in the area around Lake Street and Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis where Intermedia Arts is situated. Though I would add you have to sift through a lot of dross to find it in this orgy of art. The decisions of curators John Marshall and Michael Hoyt seem akin to the modern theories of public-school education. That is, you must include everyone; everyone is worthy; no one stands out above the rest; everyone passes. Because of the inclusive bent of the show, the curators have proven themselves unwilling, or unable, to separate the wheat from the chaff here, as hundreds of artworks, many not very distinguished, fill three rather tiny galleries. There are more than 90 local people represented--painters, sculptors, video- and filmmakers, and craft artists--and their work is hung in a kind of übersalon style wherein almost no white surface in the galleries is allowed to remain uncovered. Which is all to say that "Minneapolis 55408" will take the breath away from some and horrify others.
After the women settled down to a low roar, I did eventually find several gems among the profusion of work. Todd Peterson's "After the Flood," for instance, is a collection of five framed pastel drawings that fan out across a cramped section of wall. Its imagery includes all manner of carefully represented flora and fauna--birds, tropical fish, roses, twisting vines--floating and swirling around the elusive figures of two young girls. These subjects seem from their dress to be copied from early-19th-century photographs. But it is Peterson's technique that makes these images compelling: He coaxes rich colors from the pastels and applies thick glazes of varnish and metallic pigment that give the images an unworldly and gorgeous sheen.
Tucked away amid the chaos of a nearby gallery, Heather Willems's "The Camera Adds Ten Pounds" is a fascinating spread comprising eight small photographs of a mirror hanging in a plain, white-walled room. In each image a young and beautiful model can be seen in the mirror alternately primping and fretting as she examines her body, and then bingeing on a bowl of salad with a look of distaste. While such gender and body issues are now reaching passé status in the art world, Willems's skill at telling a story while using only scant details allows her work to capture the viewer's attention and imagination. Both of these artists deserve much better: Sufficient wall space to frame their ideas would be a start. One hopes these two will soon be given solo shows.
Still, this exhibit perhaps should be given credit for its realistic portrayal of a changing neighborhood. Once a center of sorts for the hip and artistic, Lyn-Lake, Uptown, and their postal environs have rapidly become a bastion for upscale young professionals. Rents have skyrocketed, generic retail and lifestyle consumer stops have proliferated, and cars rush here and there at high speed through the traffic corridors. As in the show, there is too much going on and not enough space.
Of course, not everyone is happy about the gentrification and the high rents. Artists in particular seem upset: Much of "Minneapolis 55408" is given over to vitriolic and excessively strident political art. There is not much need to describe this work; it tends to be the same kind of high-volume clamor that was current 40 or 50 years ago: lots of electric yellow and acid blue and dripping red painting, lots of writhing and flat, cartoonlike bodies, lots of too-obvious titles ("Global Warning," "School Desegregation Mural"), and lots of juvenile and excessive imagery (sample: An African-American man is served up like a raw ham, while Uncle Sam, Colonel Sanders, and a Klansman smile out at us with blood running down their jowls). And though these folks may have a point, it's so badly stated it makes one pine that someone with just a touch of subtlety would move into the neighborhood.
The Circa Gallery is located just a few miles away (zip code 55403), but it might as well be another world for all the difference in its approach to art. Circa is that rarest of Twin Cities birds--an art gallery devoted to finding, promoting, and selling the work of (mostly) local artists. It does nothing else to make its money, and it has been successful in doing so for about ten years now. Part of the gallery's success lies in the clarity of its artistic vision--one knows a Circa Gallery artwork when one sees it. Consider the gallery's annual celebration of its stable of 15 or so artists, "Summer Salon," which features walls that are stocked with placid and tasteful art of the kind often found in high-end hotels and office buildings.
Still, it did take me a brief while to figure out what pieces stood out from the mass of work here. Part of the problem, again, was the confusion of the salon style of hanging, in which works filled the space from floor to ceiling. But what was truly lacking here was any kind of information about the selections, as there were no wall labels of any sort. (According to the gallery attendant, the labor involved in installing these is too great to justify the effort.) The result, however, is that the show feels like a clearinghouse display, or a kind of department store of art, rather than a proper exhibition.
But this may be appropriate, considering the calculated nature of most of the work. David Boggs, for instance, paints elegantly rendered images of fruit and flowers (who doesn't like fruit or flowers?) in light and warm-toned washes atop the rough surfaces of his canvases. Paintings such as "Mangos/Wall Fragment" and "Avocados/Guacamole" are cheerful wall candy that, in style at least, evoke the work of the Renaissance. In this way, they seem weighty enough to make for good conversation over tea or coffee, but not so weighty as to bum out any of your guests.
The same goes for most of the artists in this show, who rely on a pleasing and modulated color palette in keeping with the shifting demands of the design world. There are lots of nonclashing earth tones, secondary and off-key colors, tasteful and soft pastels; this stuff goes with the furniture. The artists also keep to the middle range in size and dimensions--which is best suited to a modern upscale parlor--and they strenuously avoid any imagery or ideas that may be controversial. There is little nudity, no blood or dismemberment, little of a jarring nature. Overall, it should be stressed that this show is a pleasant, summery affair.
This outward pleasantness does not discount the possibility that several of Circa's artists deserve more careful consideration. Check out the work of Monica Reede, represented in this exhibition by several paintings with obscure and puzzling titles (I had to ask the attendant). They have names like "Nothing About the Moment," "Prayers of a Secular Nature," and "Striving Towards Being." Her mixed-media paintings are filled with equally obscure and puzzling images laid side by side or atop one other to make an obscure kind of visual rebus: a black crow in relief plus a refractive pool of water plus a pair of legs suspended in air plus several seedlike objects equals...the answer lies just beyond our reach.
In the end, though, it is Reede's mastery over an intriguing mix of techniques that makes these images stand out. Realistic and mysterious conte crayon drawings lie beneath thin layers of beeswax. Shapes cast in relief in the beeswax and then rendered in rich oil paint seem to pop from the surface of the images. Bits of metal, wood, and other materials are adroitly integrated into the surface of the paintings. Overall, Reede's work, for all its obscure imagery, is of the highest quality in its composition, design, and rendering.
Terry Waldron's faux-naive paintings, which look like the scribblings of a typical six-year-old child, also stand out from the mostly neutral artwork in the "Summer Salon." While at first her style appears clumsily juvenile, a careful study of the artist's motifs and the words scrawled on the images reveals a more adult sensibility. Crudely rendered monsters and dive-bombing airplanes with tongues of flame appear in several pieces, as do houses and crosslike birds with cartoon-style fret lines around their heads.
The words, meanwhile, evoke primal emotions and archetypal concerns from literature and psychology. One painting includes the words slaying of the firstborn and a list of the seven plagues of Egypt; another includes the text "daddy had big hands/daddy had no one to talk to." The monsters, it seems, may be the artist's effort to describe childhood trauma inflicted by an emotionally distant father; the planes may be an indication of the doom and destruction that an unhappy child (or childlike adult) expects at any moment to fall from the skies. Or they may have nothing to do with that at all. We will probably never know exactly what the artist intends--and that is not a bad thing.
Correction published 9/20/2000:
Owing to a reporting error, Terry Waldron's name was misspelled in this story as originally published. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.
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