By Jim Duncan
Gleeful cynicism at surface value
During the last five years, Des Moines Art Center (DMAC) exhibitions have been drawing the largest crowds ever to the institution. By no coincidence, these shows have also consistently celebrated aspects of art that stimulate our zygomaticus major, the muscle most responsible for making us smile, while also opening our eyes to somber realties. The three young artists represented in the museum's new exhibition, Surface Value, do those things on several levels while mimicking classical art with both respect and irony.
Alison Elizabeth Taylor is a child of Las Vegas — the peripheral hard luck city rather than mirage of neon, fountains and faux cities that attracts tourists to the Nevada desert. She simulates painting in marquetry and Renaissance intarsia, media that involve the cutting and piecing of wood and wood veneer to form designs. Taylor's wooden narratives meditate cynically upon the culture of the most treeless landscape in America. Two works in the DMAC show are set in Bombay Beach, an infamous "oceanfront property" in the Colorado Desert that is half sunk in salt or dried mud. Another work, "Roadside," studies two "hunters" shooting deer in the suburbs with automatic rifles from their woody station wagon. "The Breeder" is a portrait of a character from the pages of the dark humorist T. Coraghessan Boyle. A sinewy man stands before used furniture he has converted into kennels for chinchilla, the breeding of which became an impractical effort at self-employment during Las Vegas' recent employment crisis. In Boyle's story, the breeder flees his rental when his inventory dies after the air conditioner stops working. A small air conditioning vent appears in Taylor's work, looking quite inefficient as her human subject gulps Corona wearing a wife beater. Two other works in the DMAC show inhabit darker haunts. In "Tap Left On" and "Multiple Shots with Knife Slashes," Taylor portrays houses vandalized by their owners, after Vegas' worst-in-the-nation mortgage crisis.
James Gobel is a child of the other Las Vegas. He credits his high school and college years amongst the kitsch icons and neon mirages for forming his aesthetic, which found its true milieu in San Francisco's bear culture. Bears are hyper masculine gay men, fond of dandified beards and long eyelashes, flannel shirts, boots, leather and alcohol. In "The Problem with Leisure; What to Do for Pleasure," three stylish bears play musical chairs with earnest intentions. Gobel, a constituent of Nancy Pelosi, compares his sub culture to that of Weimar Republic Berlin, fostering a "golden age of open and radical dialogue before the rule of the Third Reich." It's hard to tell how serious he is. He "paints" his subjects in felt, "a cuddly material for a cuddly subject," and exhibits nothing more radical than clashing argyle with camouflage.
Mickalene Thomas' preferred medium is rhinestones. She clashes those with textiles and patterns in an unbearably gaudy manner that comments on the "power and convolution of fashion and aesthetics." Her subjects, thrust into classical poses reminiscent of Matisse and Manet, are highly stylized African-American women, many family members. In "Sweet and Out Front," she mimics Andy Warhol's Marilyn (Monroe) prints by featuring the women from the film "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," the original blaxplotation movie that celebrated militant black men but did little for black women.
James Ellwanger, sculptor of "Shattered Silence" on the state capitol grounds, is busy designing interactive sculptures for Des Moines and its sister cities. With technology from Fair-Play scoreboards, visitors to town centers here and in Kobe, Japan, or St. Etienne, France, will be able to converse with each other by passing by his sculptures. You have to see the drawings to understand the project though, so Ellwanger will begin opening his studio one Friday each month for that purpose, and also for mini-exhibitions of his other works, which include multi-dimensional paintings and, for the first time in his career, traditional abstract paintings. The first exhibition is scheduled for May 20, at 304 15th St., Studio 100, (the former Fitch Gallery). CV
Caption: Alison Elizabeth Taylor (American, born 1974). Roadside, 2006. Wood veneer and shellac. 47 x 56 inches. Image and work courtesy of the artist and James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai