Prized Art

One of the first things S ever invited me to was ArtPrize, an annual event in Grand Rapids. Still a working stiff at the time, I couldn’t go. And anyway, I asked him, wasn’t it kinda like Art Fair, an annual event in Ann Arbor? Many locals are not fond of Art Fair, saying, albeit lamely, that is it neither art nor fair. There is art at Art Fair, but you gotta know where to look and be willing to hike past a lot of folksy angels and pretty photos of Tuscany.

No, said S, it’s not the same. ArtPrize is a competition, and people are not there to sell, they’re there to compete. And when he sent me pictures of it, I saw what he meant. Of course there was plenty of kitsch, but the balance with pieces that were arguably art, that could generate some sort of conversation, was decent. I told S we had a date for 2012.

S had done day trips last time, and we decided that an overnight was the way to go. We went the final weekend; the top 10 audience choices had been made, and the crowds were thick. An art collector friend introduced me to the new director of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Dana Friis-Hansen; formerly director of the Austin Museum of Art, he’s already done one gorgeous exhibit, Cities in Transformation, which we’d seen about a month earlier. He was kind enough to chat with S and me for a minute.

“Do you have a favorite?” I asked.
“They’re all winners.” Ah, a born diplomat. “But I do have a couple of favorite spaces. You’ve got to get to UICA and to SiteLab. Amazing stuff.”

Thanks to Dana, we’d managed to get inside the GRAM quickly, but the line to see the contenders, including 3 of the audience-chosen top 10, still snaked around and meant a good 30-minute wait. That wait ended up being one of the most inspiring things about ArtPrize. People of all ages and from all over waited patiently to see…art!! Not a giant dinosaur, not a theme park ride, not the stars of Jackass, but art. Yes, some of it was gimmicky, some questionable on whether it was genuine art or just superior craft. But PEOPLE WERE LINED UP TO SEE ART. If you include the line to get in the front door, which we had skipped, for an hour or more. And they were patient, engaged in conversations about all that they’d seen throughout the Grand Rapids downtown, and excited.

The first piece to see was “Elephants,” a massive pencil sketch by Adonna Khare. Referred to as a triptych (it isn’t, though it does take up three panels), it’s fanciful and endlessly inventive, a kid’s version of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” (A panel discussion that we watched later noticed the same thing.)

But there’s not a lot of there there. It’s fun, there’s a lot to look at, but there’s little conversation to have about it, other than “did you see the monkey with rabbit ears?” or whatever odd thing you noticed. When something doesn’t even try to make an argument, is it art?

On the way to the next two top 10 pieces, we passed some lovely stuff. I particularly liked Motivation by Anne Gates, made of eggshells and thread.

“City Band” is another massive pencil drawing. The artist, Chris LaPorte, had won ArtPrize in 2010 with a similar work. Like “Elephants,” it’s enormously skilled. There’s also something interesting in the fact that the subjects become more real in their pencil incarnation than they are in the photograph, taking on greater individuality.

I give it props for this eerie detail, a ghostly face in a dark window.

But in both pieces, size dwarfed statement. Then again, people loved them and looked at them carefully; as entry points to more challenging work, they served nicely.

Kumi Yamashita’s “Origami” featured squares of colored tissue crinkled to create the shadow profiles of about 50 Grand Rapids citizens. A wow of a presentation, “Origami” provided a great deal to delight the eye as well as to provoke some thoughts on individuality and its fragility.

Still, it felt distant. In fact, I hadn’t really had my breath taken away by anything quite yet.

One of the later stops in the GRAM offered a fascinating perspective on American cities, represented by glass bulbs crafted to reflect population growth and decline over the course of the 20th century. New York alone (the big bulb that you see below) showed massive, disproportionate explosion; others, including Detroit, tapered from robust to very, very lean. Here is a small segment of “Cities: Departure and Derivation” by Norwood Viviano.

Many of the top 10 winners would have been more at home in an Alaskan souvenir shop, like this seal…

Or this taxidermy display, which promises the artists a vibrant future at Cabela’s.

But the dreadfully titled “Stick-to-itiveness; Unwavering pertinacity; perseverance” by Richard Morse was a beauty, featuring driftwood crafted into sinewy stallions, manes flying, muscles taut as they pushed upstream. Only two of the top 10 pick were also jury finalists, and this was one.

A common theme of the competition was art made of cast-off objects. A few stand outs:

Marilyn, by Kirkland Smith.

On Thin Ice, by Justin LeDoux

Unfortunately, I don’t have the name of this piece or the artist who created it; it’s a quilt made of old circuit board detritus that shows a cityscape when you back away from it.

Next post: More ArtPrize (and more art)

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