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Des Moines’ Avant Garde:
rising from the dead

By Jim Duncan

The avant garde ain’t what it used to be. Appropriated from the military after the Napoleonic Wars, the term has been deployed ever since by marginalized artists, writers, composers and intellectuals who oppose mainstream values. That got tricky after the Industrial Revolution when new technologies began shortening the gap between culture’s margins and mainstream. The Surrealists were self-proclaimed revolutionaries in the 1920s, but by the next decade surrealism was part of the commercial establishment in advertising and mass-produced art. In the Information Age, the gap’s virtually non-existent — social media bypasses the old arbiters of cultural validation. If your You Tube video gets 10 million hits in the right demographic group, the opinions of producers, editors, publishers, critics, museum directors, grant committees and gallery or club owners don’t much matter.

Now days counter cultures stream through young blood more hopefully than ever. In fact, today’s avant garde is seizing ground that is counter to counter culture, yet alone to mainstream culture. Hi-Fructose art magazine subtitles itself “under the counter culture.” When it began five years ago, its stated intention was to represent the culture “beyond the comfort zone of the ‘alternative’ norm to deliver a diverse cross section of the most influential, genre bending and defining subversive art of our time.” Yet Hi-Fructose celebrated its fifth anniversary with an exhibition at a prestigious Los Angeles gallery.

For today’s graphic artists, that magazine represents the aspirations of the new avant garde better than any mainstream publication. In Des Moines, Instinct Gallery began its second year of monthly exhibitions that have consistently made that point. Their latest show, “Flies in the Land of Milk and Honey” features artists from all over North America, including Jaqueline Roate and Michelle Holly from Des Moines and Chris Bent from Toronto. Like Hi-Fructose, they’re more apt to take style tips from surrealism, anime, comic books and science fiction than from mainstream art history. They may not be “subversive” or “genre-bending,” but they are arresting to the eye and a lot of fun. Some of these artists use “virtual Easter eggs,” an avant garde term invented by Diego Rivera, Alfred Hitchcock and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but trademarked and owned now by Atari. Virtual Easter eggs are hidden personal signatures (actual Easter eggs in “Rocky Horror“) in an artist’s work.

Dancing and strutting in custom made, high performance, pink spandex jump suits that could raise Elvis from his grave, Leslie Hall has staked the most commanding position of any member of the Iowa avant garde. While others crowd under the counter culture, Hall attacks the “high end of hip hop,” plus multimedia art, gay wedding culture, and tight stretch pants style. Hall’s diva shows have been selling out in the avant garde capitals of America from Cambridge to Seattle where an “homage to her diva-ness” has been proclaimed. The Des Moines Art Center will host her “School for the Precocious” on June 11, as part of their annual Iowa Artists Exhibition. It’s limited to 16 students over age 21. It will sell out faster than a poorly designed jump suit makes “proud lady stuff jiggle.”

In the old spirit of avant gardism, EVAC’s May Day (April 30) exhibition at Northland Studios focuses on symbolism from both Bolshevism and Mother Nature:

“To increase awareness of the connection between nature and humans. If we continue to misuse our natural resources and employees for greed, all of us are doomed,” explained EVAC artist Deborah Vanko. She will exhibit along with Janet Marie Safris, Chris Peterson, Brad Ball (whose work would fit well in “Hi-Fructose“), Bethany Springer, E.J. Wickes and new EVAC member John Sayles, a reborn former Establishment artist whose poster art could convince the proletariat that Lenin is rising from his tomb. CV


Caption: Leslie Hall is one of 15 artists in the Des Moines Art Center’s exhibition “Iowa Artists 2010,” which opens with a Preview Party June 10.


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