Find the Smurf in this photo: Tao Urban's "mobilemoduleleisurelandscape"

Find the Smurf in this photo: Tao Urban's "mobilemoduleleisurelandscape"

Just as the Nineties' economic boom seemingly turns to bust, the Twin Cities are at last seeing signs of a revival of interest and energy in the grassroots of the local art scene. In the past six months, a newly arrived group of aspiring art impresarios from such places as New Jersey, Delaware, and Georgia have seeded a small crop of vibrant new art galleries. These Young Turks have dedicated their new spaces to displaying excellent emerging artists and attracting a new and younger audience. One of these new venues, the Midway Initiative Gallery in St. Paul, opened its first show, "On Location," the last week of January, while the four-month-old Waiting Room in Northeast Minneapolis opened a group show, "Nothing and Everything (Part 1)," on February 2.

On the surface, everything seems to be falling into place with these upstarts: There are brand-new white walls in rough-hewn gallery space--the venues are located amid a spare, brick block of shops, and in a northeast Minneapolis chair factory, respectively--and the young and hopeful gallery owners are eager to show novel and edgy work. On the whole, the shows are good: In fact, the work exhibits instances of inspired beauty and eloquence, while occasionally wielding a rhetorical sledgehammer to drive a message home.

In "On Location," for example, four artists address the concept of landscape art as a means to examine the mediating effects of popular culture on the countryside. That is to say, the artists here view a landscape as a loaded symbol that is primarily understood through the filter of our shared experience (i.e., via the media or commerce). This is most clear in the work of Tao Urban from Los Angeles, whose "mobilemoduleleisurelandscape" is the centerpiece in the show. Filling about a quarter of the gallery, this open, interactive work comprises one-foot-tall green vinyl trees, cartoony plastic clouds hanging from the ceiling, green felt cushions that squeak when stepped upon, and gray knee-high gumdrop-shaped mountains. The installation is more akin to the fantasy setting of Willy Wonka than to the breathtaking mountain scenes of Caspar David Friedrich or most such traditional artists. Tao Urban's creation ultimately comes across as what might be called a prefablandscapelite--made up of eminently marketable components, with each item readily reproducible and easy to reposition in new configurations to match any lifestyle. There is even a lounge-like musical soundtrack to accompany us as we remove our shoes and don bunny ears to enter the space (following the instructions set out in front of the piece). We may well ask ourselves, as each step brings a squeak: Are we in on the joke here? Or are we the joke? Just be glad that there are no strategically placed mirrors to make this spectacle any more self-reflective.

Despite the too-cute attributes of this art, it does seem to have a point: In our world, everything is packaged--even the landscape. We experience the "natural" realm as a prefabricated object doled out to us in small parcels as we drive through "wilderness" parks or visit zoos and natural-history museums. The other three artists in this show advance this same notion by creating slick objects that reduce the landscape to a neat, hollow, and easily purchased package that stresses the artificiality of our interactions with the natural world. New York artist Adam Henry's surreal patchworklike landscape "Phantom Limbs" portrays the countryside as though it were organized along the lines of a computer-generated grid. Jan Estep of Chicago, whose fascination with Antarctic exploration has led her to depict the subject in drawings, photographs, video, and sculpture, designs her own line of what she calls "Survival Wear"--sporty faux leopard-print mukluks and expedition suits based on explorer's outfits. And Minnesotan Jeffrey Dugan's small, iconic photos of snowflakes--created with great effort by the artist--present an ordinarily unseen aspect of the landscape as a full-blown fetishized object.


Although the artists in "On Location" have turned the commercially compromised wilderness into salable art, the gallery owners at Midway Initiative claim they have not gone into the exhibition business to make money. In fact, the gallery's executive director, John Rasmussen, shrugs when asked about his business plan.

"The theme of the gallery overall is to expose local artists to national artists," Rasmussen says. There is as yet no plan to try to push sales of the work on display--this is art-as-idea, not art-as-commodity.

The three co-directors of the Waiting Room, who are all artists, and all new to town, share this questionable business strategy. Oddly enough, the art of "Nothing and Everything," a somewhat sprawling collection of work by 13 national and local artists, is again replete with references to the trappings of material culture. In this case, the artists seem intent on portraying industrial and utilitarian objects. They bring to this project a minimalist and reductive aesthetic that reflects the show's title; Part 2, opening on March 2, will examine opposing notions of excess and saturation.

Most impressive among the numerous works here is Minnesota artist Charles Lume's "Wish." This is an ethereal 15-foot-high work composed of small glass lenses, optical fibers, and clear plastic Secur-a-ties attached directly to the wall. These items are arranged in a swirling arch pattern in a corner of the gallery from floor to ceiling. Small and seemingly insignificant, these objects have been re-envisioned as art. Light passes through the barely visible lenses and casts bright dewdrops of color on the gallery walls. The shadows of the hairlike Secur-a-ties and fibers are more evident than the actual objects. Together, the refracted light and the shadows give the work an intriguing beauty and depth that is otherwise absent from the everyday materials themselves.

This effect of raising the ordinary to the status of art occurs in several other works in the show. In these instances we are asked to reexamine the beauty of objects we typically find plain and even repugnantly artificial. New Mexican artist Levi Murphy's "Starting Point; Ending Point" is a diptych of four digital photos on Plexiglas of a soccer ball in a spare desert chaparral setting. Almost nothing changes from image to image, and the soccer ball takes on almost mythic importance in the empty scraggly space of the scene. Meanwhile, Minnesotan Markus Lunkenheimer's "untitled--butter" brings us up close to a small plastic square of an eerily yellowed and glistening glob that has been inset at eye level into the gallery wall.

Much more remains to be discovered at both galleries, and one can only hope that unlike promising new spaces of the past--such as Acme Visual Arts and the International Gallery in Northeast Minneapolis--these will continue to survive. Then again, galleries survive by making money, and paying bills on time. Let's hope at the very least that the new ideas-based gallery scene finds some way to keep the new local art mini-bubble from popping.