It is summer already, and I am on early vacation, driving through the West, living some version of the American dream involving fast cars, tops down, endless sunsets, and the long slow rise of mountains from the two-dimensionality of plains.
I map my understanding of city landscapes through walking. I slowly gather the layers of lived urban experience as I travel through neighborhoods – the clanking of dishes being washed through open windows, the constellation of droning lawnmowers growing and shrinking, the blue flicker of late night televisions. My map of the urban landscape, however, is limited by my physical access. The boundaries between public and private realms are complex, but they correspond to the physical limits of my body as it encounters walls, fences, and manhole covers. My mind is only as free as my body as I move through urban space.
I have spent more time in a car in the past week than I have in years, reveling in the freedom of landscapes unfolding over miles and the understandings of skyscapes not possible from tree- and building-confined urbanity. Driving frees my mind to expand outside of the physical container of my body as it rushes along the highways. I imagine climbing the mountains, walking along wooded ridges, foraging with the bison, antelope, and bears whizzing by. Driving long distances is exhausting because your mind roams far and wide among the vast landscapes you survey. Your body is stiff from the disjunction between the exploration the mind has envisioned and the cramped position the body has rested in.
The wilderness I have explored combines the walking of the urban environment and the freeing vision of driving. I have been walking on groomed, maintained trails that wind through pine cathedrals, disclose the beauty of windswept meadows, and open to vistas of glaciated mountains. My mind expands to place me within all of these inaccessible locations. I clamber over rocky cliffs, descend cascading waterfalls, creep along animal paths far above the tree line, but my body is confined to the explicitly manmade paths carved from the landscape to preserve the wilderness. My mind is freed, as my body is confined. My understanding of the world expands as I navigate the limited and controlled space of physical interaction with the wilderness.
These different modes of exploration pull me back to the art landscapes through which I have passed. Summer brings vacations as much as it brings art fairs, open studio tours, and outdoor arts festivals. My mind has been so occupied with landscape, with the sublimity of natural beauty that I cannot bridge the gap between it and the recent open studio tours in Minneapolis and Saint Paul and the multiple arts walks I have happened upon during this vacation. I struggle to know how to site the vast array of work I have seen; the excellent studios I revisited and the galleries and storefronts full of horse paintings struggle to coexist with the moose calves nuzzling against their mother as they stumble along the stream and the mountain peaks breaking through mist to catch the first rays of daylight. By leaving my normal life behind, I am reminded that I need new and different ways of learning, of experiencing the world that expose the mental and physical constraints of my normal life, that replace the known experiences and people that populate my days with the possibilities of the futures I do not know how to envision. I hope we can all get away, rejuvenate our minds and our bodies even if we cannot leave town. Change your world by experiencing something new, something unexpected, something beyond what is in front of our eyes every day. Let’s all leave the art world for a moment; it will look radically different when we return.
On billboards, online ads, the exterior of the building, and the entrance to the gallery, the larger than life title of the ongoing Edward Hopper exhibition at the Walker Art Center, via the Whitney and the Dallas Museum of Art, Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process, informs us that we will witness that process through which Hopper progressed as he made his paintings. The opportunity to see an artist’s process is rare. We do not often see the fits and starts behind the works in galleries and museums unless we seek them out in the artist’s studio or, like Hopper, after the artist is long ensconced on postcards and will safely draw a crowd.
The Walker’s galleries are filled with drawings, sketches, studies, correspondence, photographs, and extensive explanatory text. These other materials are intended to bring the paintings to life, to reveal the technical depth, tremendous labor, and detailed forethought behind the surface of the paintings. They are elevated to the level of paintings; framed, carefully displayed in vitrines, they create a false narrative of a relatively linear progression from experience or idea through studies and sketches to the finished painting. Even in the particular pieces that show a direction Hopper did not ultimately pursue, there is no room for multiplicity in the narrative, no space to consider the failure of a particular sketch to capture the desired lighting within the crafted momentum toward the completed painting.
I have desired failure recently, wanted to see the failure of artists and the art world, the works that do not leave the mind to become reality, the realized projects that are never shown, the disastrous performances we do not record, the social engagement with zero participants. We must understand our failures and shortcomings, the false starts, the flops, the imperfections we cannot help but embody. Only then can we begin to understand and learn from the ways in which failure is defined for us.
Saint Paul is one of the few cities to receive significant arts funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. As part of a larger investment in the arts this spring, the Knight Foundation announced that Saint Paul would be the fourth city to host a Knight Arts Challenge, with $4.5 million available over the next three years. The rules for submitting a proposal were open and meant to expand foundation funding to ideas from individual artists. The rules for the Knight Arts Challenge are simple:
- The idea is about arts.
- The project takes place in or benefits Saint Paul.
- You find other funding to match the Knight Foundation grant.
The application was brief. They encouraged individual artists, collectives, and businesses to apply, specifically mentioning that the idea was of primary importance, not the future concerns about funding or sustainability. It was an open call to experiment, to bring forward the best and brightest ideas that will shape Saint Paul for years to come.
$9 million, including the matching funds, is a tremendous amount of money, even for the already generous Minnesota arts funding landscape, and it will inevitably shape the future of the arts in Saint Paul and the Twin Cities generally. That money, of course, will not fund the hundreds of proposals that do not meet the Knight Foundation’s criteria for success.
As a community, we must ask ourselves how we can salvage those alternate futures, the failures we may not have the capacity to realize as millions of dollars and thousands of hours support the selected ideas. We need to capture and bring forward all of the ideas submitted to the Knight Arts Challenge and every other arts funding and exhibition opportunity. They will not all be perfect, but they contain the possibilities for reimagining and remaking the future we need. We can be ready to meet the real and pressing challenges of the future – growing inequality, the effects of climate change, lack of substantive communication between people – but to do so we must first learn together from our failures, from our imperfections, from our very human selves.
Changes are coming to the Twin Cities. Spring is slowly arriving. Daylight lingers. I can look up and around when walking outside. I notice the holes from trees felled in last summer’s storms, but I find the tulips poking through in their place. We need this renewal. We need these moments to gather strength after winter’s long cold nights before heading out into the rush of spring. I have seen great shows throughout the Twin Cities, great works of art, openings and closings left and right, an embarrassment of riches. I am, however, still lingering in the quiet moments, the eddies in the cultural stream rushing around us.
I have been consistently impressed with the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s New Pictures exhibition series. Last year’s Stan Douglas and Sarah Jones‘s exhibitions were excellent, expanding into multiple places throughout the MIA, engaging other works in the collection, rewarding multiple viewings. Tucked into a small gallery, next to flashy 20th century design and big name artists, New Pictures 9 features Rinko Kawauchi’s works from Illuminance. They are quiet, thoughtful moments that stretch into deep concentration and surprising connections
Kawauchi’s investigations of light, as the title suggests, come forth in large individual prints and clustered groups of smaller images. The arresting images of a dead deer with livid blood, a cluster of fish eyes, a sparkling diamond are quickly lost in the iterations of light. The exhibition builds a language of light, but there is no need to become fluent to be absorbed in depth of her process, her exploration as end not as means.
The looping video, Illuminance, extends and enlivens the process, endlessly teasing out the subtleties of light in the everyday situations it presents. The subtle, ambient audio soundtrack was barely audible at times, but the suddenly louder rushing of water or rustling of leaves brought her abstracted process back from the realm of static image making to the world around us. The beauty of the exhibition is that Kawauchi presents no conclusions, but it prepares us to see the world differently. I left full of questions. I struggled to distinguish the works in the rest of the museum from the play of gallery lighting, the wash of grey, clouded light from the windows, the sudden shadows of people walking past.
Whenever I visit the MIA, I am drawn to the period rooms, sparsely populated, austere, in sharp contrast to the lines for the cafe and the children running between family activities. They are moments of concentrated attention and time. They simultaneously hold the past of their objects and the past of their meticulous reconstruction in one moment. I entered the period rooms to consider the light they would have seen, the electric light that illuminated it now never envisioned in their original homes.
As I exited The Providence Parlor, I saw a little girl pull on her father’s hand, point excitedly to a portrait of George Washington, and exclaim, “Dad, look! It’s President Obama.” I could not have said it better. The world is new with spring, with refreshed eyes that allow us to see our future in our past, to see our presidents for who they really are.
Winter is not yet over, but I have already felt the urge to start spring cleaning. I want to air out the bedroom and beat the rugs, to scrub the floors and clear the clutter hidden behind the heaviest winter clothes in the back of the closet and the last summery jars of canned vegetables in the far reaches of the pantry. My house is heavy with things, and I am ready to clear them out. I am ready for objects that play multiple roles, that open the doors to new thoughts, new worlds, new seasons.
EVEN IF IT KILLS YOU by Bryan Thomas Daly at White Page Gallery is an attempt to move away from the “library of Alexandria” he had amassed around himself, a purposely object-full attempt to transcend the physicality of the collections that maintain our place in consumer society while reinforcing the belief in our individuality. The modified vinyl and record covers revel in their identity as objects that contain the depths of content we know exist in their grooves. Daly levels their value, eliminating their use through his playful, spirited modifications. The work was made as part of a residency in the gallery, and it is in conversation with the objects that fill the corners, hallways, and studio spaces in the other half of White Page Gallery. The finished and in progress pieces, the raw materials, the tools, the giant, decades-old, fire hazard of a boiler all bear witness to the diverse studio practices, the collective experience of working and making decisions together. They are a testament to exploration and the opening of horizons.
Objects were also at the forefront of the first Sound.Art.MIA event at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Paul Metzger‘s sublime performance was mesmerizing. His 23-string banjo was inescapable as the visual locus of his plucking, strumming, bowing. Similarly, the Body/Head performance was centered around their guitars as objects, as unfamiliar extensions of their body to be explored by pushing, pulling, swinging, and hefting them through waves of feedback and mountains of sound. The video projected behind them distracted from their performance, pulling attention away from the objects they lovingly cradled, stroked, and manhandled. The night culminated in minutes of Kim Gordon exploring the crackling, scratching soundscape of the length of her output jack, flooding the room with the slightest adjustments of the very place her body flowed out into the rest of the room.
The recent few days of thaw have transformed the monochrome snowscape into the grey rainbows of exhaust-filled slush and ice. The receding snow reveals more than the objects hidden beneath it. It reveals the forgotten body of the city that surrounds us. It unleashes the vast symphony of drips and rushing torrents that arise from the barely visible stormdrains, and it opens windows onto the vast water system that has silently been working beneath our feet throughout the winter. It embues the objects that surround us, that care for us, with a new life, an unfolding wonder that will continue to expand as the weather warms and as I make more room for it in my less cluttered house.
It has been cold everywhere recently, colder than it has been in many years. The cold here has seeped into my bones. The days are lit by brittle sunlight, full of the illusion of warmth. The nights open to the icy vacuum of space, filled with the frigid, unblinking stars, and my mind, of course, turns to death.
Recently, I walked in from the cold, whitewashed world to Made in Minnesota at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the Regis Center for Art at the University of Minnesota, and I entered the gallery equivalent of a greenhouse teeming with orchids. The show was full of life, full of objects. The air was humid with production and the presence of artists’ lives embodied in their work. The electric colors of Jay H. Isenberg’s 6 Lil’ Smokeys embraced the dreams of long summer afternoons. Kim Matthews’s barnacle-like works are labor-intensive, tenacious holds on life. Eileen Cohen enlivens her flocked ceramic with organic forms. Rollin Marquette’s Pear-Shaped lies seemingly incomplete, life-interrupted for the viewer to mentally assemble and imbue with new life. The show surges with an abundance of life, a force that has been packed into homes and studios, sealed away from the winter winds, yearning to get out, to express itself in any and every way.
That reminder of life is wonderful, a welcome respite from the cold. I was drawn, however, to the quieter moments of the show, buoyed by the spaces to breathe and reflect, invigorated by the explicit invocations of death. Mayumi Amada’s startlingly large Doily of Foremothers, hidden around a blind corner, is a delicate reminder of the eternal cycles of life and death, a call to remember that we are here because of the lives that are no longer with us. Judy Onofrio’s bone vessels remind us that “fertility and eroticism live side by side with mortality and fragility.” They open a space between what we are and what we will become, holding the life we inhabit within the lives from which we arise, expanding out into the lives that will grow from our deaths. The show opens and closes with George Morrison’s delicate, intimate postcards, small, powerful reminders of a life fully lived, a life shared with others and enriched by the living world around him.
Death surrounds us in all seasons. It is a natural and necessary part of our lives. It is in the food we eat, the air we breath, the leaves of grass beneath our feet. It confronts us more starkly in winter, in the seeming death of plants and the hibernation of animals. We know life is buried beneath the snow, waiting for the warmth of spring to awaken it, but these endlessly cold days make it difficult to see.
We cannot avoid the cold, and we cannot avoid death. We can let them overwhelm and control our lives, or we can rise each morning confident that we can face the cold, that our lives are full of beauty and meaning because they are finite.
Death is not frightening. It is comforting, full of hope, a blessing that allows us to thrive for our few moments. Spring is coming, and we will again see that life buried beneath the snow. When those shoots poke up through the warm soil, let us remember that death is still here, waiting to welcome us all into its quiet, its rest, its never-ending cycle that allows that birth to come forward for the living.
Made in Minnesota is on view until February 15.