Last Friday night, I offered a few thoughts on ArtPrize’s ten finalists on a panel titled simply, “Critical Discourse” at the Grand Rapids Goei Center. The discussion in its entirety is available online (hopefully shot from a far enough distance that a few of my eye rolls will not be visible) but for those who want the quick and dirty summation of my thoughts, I’ve put together my response below. Thanks to James Ludwig (Vice President of Global Design, Steelcase Inc.), Nicole Caruth (writer and curator), Nuit Banai (art historian and critic, Tufts University), Joseph Rosa (director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art) for making such interesting conversation.
As I mentioned last week, organization head Rich DeVos says the contest is more about creating a culture of creative folk than it is the top ten, so I hope that future iterations of this contest will build in ways for mediums like painting and photography to see a little more exposure, as with anyone working on a smaller scale. There’s simply too much work that the public doesn’t engage given the structure of the contest, a problem that could be easily corrected were the artists competing in categories. I’d probably make a single group for The B.O.B, a venue that specializes in amusement park type art.
Out of personal interest, I’ve gone ahead offered my own ranking from the pieces I saw last week (only two of which I’d describe as strong), plus two bonus picks I saw while in Grand Rapids. This post also marks the beginning of my campaign for “Rusty” for the win. If this dog doesn’t end up the city’s loyal representative for the next year, it should at the very least end up at a worthy museum. Any other result is just wrong.
1. Ritch Branstrom, “Rusty”
With a garbage can for a nose and a car hood for its eyes, this dog is as charming as it is strange. The dog’s left ear sways slightly in the wind – a great unexpected touch — and as panelist Joseph Rosa noted, the skill in finding tree trunks that look like legs, alone warrants mention. The dog belongs to the tradition of folk or outsider art, movements that describe the aesthetic of self taught artists and the use of humble materials. The best part of the piece goes undocumented on the web; a small window in the dog’s belly reveals a Tim Burton like vignette that includes an old man riding a motorcycle, someone hammering away on an anvil and a woman with a suitcase and an ass made of spoons. Everything has a personal narrative Branstrom freely tells viewers, the man at the anvil is him, the woman leaving him is his wife. It’s a deeply sad narrative embedded in the gut of this poor dog.
2. Llew (Doc) Tilma, “Grizzlies on the Ford”
As was mentioned by many of the “Critical Discourse” panelists, the best thing about the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum are these Grizzlies. Cut from logs with a chainsaw, the unrefined surfaces and forms provide a pleasing contrast to the sharp geometric edges of what has to be one of the more unfortunate buildings in the city. The material is also slightly unexpected for those used to public sculpture bears, a subject that only seems to come in bronze.
3. Lynda Cole, “Rain”
This piece got a lot of woos from the crowd, but I’m not sold. For one thing, Cole regularly rotates the work manually with a large rod thereby drawing attention to the work’s biggest weakness: the awkward steal armature from which the silver leaf squares hang. Not only is it much too bulky but its slight curvature distracts from the unusually square grid formed by the hanging leaves. Some speculation: the decision to rotate the piece manually may reflect some pandering to the ArtPrize audience; viewers are more likely to vote for art when the artist is present and engaged in the work. I suppose this kind of response is inevitable, but I like to think the most successful artists will be those who respond to audience biases without compromising their own work in the process.
4. Laura Alexander, “Tempest II“
That it is impossible to photograph without having it look completely out of focus is the most engaging aspect of this piece for me; almost nothing these days can’t be documented. The rest is a big meh. I don’t like the awkward size (Joseph Rosa described it as a roller shade that just got confused when it was being given birth to), I don’t like ragtag paper edges, and I don’t like the pattern’s lack of complexity. (This Lucas Samaras is a work of genius by comparison, but also too small to stand a chance in this competition.)
5. Tracy Van Duinen, Todd Osborne, Phil Schuster, “Metaphorest“
A collaborative effort that has all the problems of collaboration, namely unity. Individual sections of this piece work, — on the panel I recalled a wedding party standing infront of the mural in which the men’s heads matched perfectly to the sunflower heads — but together it’s a mural of ladders and building blocks leading to no where. I mean that literally; the text reads from left to right, “Input, process, visualize, create”, with every word being assigned an image that might represent that step in the creative process but for “create”. It got paired with a tree, and some promotional material about Metaphorest.
6. Mia Tavonatti, “Crucifixion“
Mia Tavonatti’s Crucifixion in stained glass demonstrates some impressive skill but it’s hard not to wonder if the artist got so lost in the pleasure of process that opportunities were missed. Certainly, it seems a shame to use all that stained glass only to produce an opaque image; this is medium made to have light shone through it, and the subject matter would benefit from this as well. Past this, there are a lot of unnecessary flourishes in this work, namely the floral script of the artist signature on the lower right. It’s really distracting.
Editor’s note: Were I ArtPrize organizers, I’d try to address the voting at The B.O.B., a parking lot outside a bar that’s been soliciting the drunk 2 am voter population. Other locations aren’t open that late, and if they are, they probably aren’t filled with people willing and ready to vote on anything. This is evidenced by the three finalists that come from this location, that I for one, couldn’t find very interesting unless inebriated. A look below:
7. Paul Baliker, “Ocean Exodus“
The crying octopus might have sold me were the piece a little less earnest and a little more over the top. Baliker believes the oceans are a polluted mess, so he’s sculpted a sad tentacled creature on a rotating lazy susan (mount not pictured above) surrounded by humpback whales emerging from drift wood. It’s a little unfocused for a work that’s supposed to make a political statement. It’s also not nearly tacky enough. I want to see that octopus wail!
8. Bill Secunda, “Mantis Dreaming“
I don’t have much to say about this work other than observe its size, which is not a good thing. It’s really uninteresting. I assume Secunda secured many votes through location and familiarity; he’s been a finalist three years running.
9. Robert Shangle, “Under Construction“
Another boring work, made more boring by Robert Shangle senior’s constant breaking of the fourth wall. The artist leaves almost no time for a viewer to look at him as an unmoving statue before he moves a finger or cracks a grin. His son Jasper also performs. Here’s hoping New York’s StealWorker’s Union truck makes an appearance next year. They’re all stuffed figures, but at least they’re a moving target.
10. Sunti Pichetchaiyakul, “President Gerald Ford Visits ArtPrize“
Let me begin by clarifying that while Sunti Pichetchaiyakul’s President Gerald Ford Visit ArtPrize wasn’t actually at the B.O.B., I’ve given it the honorary distinction regardless as it’s no less carnivalesque than anything else in that parking lot. Described by James Ludwig as “the popemobile”, Pichetchaiyakul’s garners votes by creating a spectacle of technical virtuosity. Every day he makes a new bust of his wife Betty Ford, who died before seeing Pichetchaiyakul’s final piece. When I first saw the work, the artist was holding a small child while signing a reproduction of his work. I’m not sure he’s all that different than Michael Israel, the performer who paints portraits of Elvis Presley on stage using house paint.
Pichetchaiyakul’s choice of subject matter is no accident; President Gerald Ford was raised in Grand Rapids and is a source of great pride for the city. In this work, he’s looking at a bust of himself (lord knows why), holding Pitchetchaiyakul’s promotional material. This artist is practically begging for votes.
AFC ArtPrize Badge of Honor: Meir Lobaton, “Serial Reproduction”
I really love that this infinitely replicable piece of ceramics when replicated in plastic, creates a lineage of sculpture that begins with appropriation art (the painted jesus) and ends with Modernism (a sculpture suffering from so much data loss that it now resembles a Giacometti sculpture). It’s a beautiful accident.
Best Social Network Award – “Containment“
Dubbed “The Social Network”, the containment bar features motorized walls covered in graffiti that lower to a blasted backdrop of “The Final Countdown”. Dry ice steam flows out from the cracks of containments lowering walls, while the bartenders flame their drinks with pepper. A surprising amount of variation within the piece exists; one bar tender has a Mohawk, another is a sex pot. The art world needs more bars like this.