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In pursuit of a memory

8/20/2014

Andy Warhol soup cans.

Andy Warhol soup cans.

T-shirt wit suggests that art is populist: “Art just happens.” “Everyone is an artist.” “Release your inner artist.” This makes me wary. I took art classes as a kid and realized quickly that few people are blessed with the innate talent to translate visions into arresting art. In this non-judgmental era of popular education though, everyone gets an A or a blue ribbon in everything, and mediocre art is ubiquitous.

The development of inexpensive, sophisticated camera technology has turned everyone into a photographer. I asked one great photographer last year for advice on purchasing a new camera. “The best camera is the one you have with you,” he said, removing his cell phone and explaining that great photographic opportunities do just happen, if you are ready for them.

The Iowa State Fair still operates the old fashioned way, giving only one blue ribbon in each division rather than one for everybody. Its photography competition attracts more entries than anything else. This year, 1,048 photographers entered with a limit of five submissions each. Only one, Deb Shonins, made the show with all five photos. Much of this year’s exhibit was too predictable. The main theme was “My Ansel Adams,” and precious shots of natural wonders dominated. I walked through thinking that the state is loaded with technically adept cameramen, or at least cameras.

Then I found Bill Woolston’s exhibit. These days Woolston uses his camera to record the vanishing landscapes of the American West. In 1972 he did the same thing with the institution of the fair. He shot three county fairs in Iowa and the state fair that year, wanting “to document a viable institution before it vanished or was radically changed.”

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His photos arrest those of us who remember county fairs 50 years ago, when the century-long exodus of Iowa’s population, from small towns and farms to suburbs and cities, was only at its midpoint. So was the industrialization of agriculture, and fairs, that drove the exodus. Woolston’s exhibit reminded me of Margaret Mitchell’s words about “an entire way of life, gone with the wind.” For instance, I had forgotten how refreshing shade was on a dog day of summer before air conditioning was easier to find than trees. Like all great artists, Woolston unites the viewer with something grave and constant in the human condition. In his words, “I was in pursuit of a memory, of holding my father’s hand and gaping in amazement at sights and sounds and smells.”

The quality of art at alternative galleries in town has been rising against the trends of populism. Transient Gallery in West Des Moines has presented several strong exhibitions this year by Pete Goché, Cal State Fullerton art professor Joe Biel and by six international artists with Michael Kozien as curator. The Nest is a superb new downtown gallery showing accomplished artists. Viaduct Gallery at the DM Social Club has been stronger than ever now that Grand View University is a partner.

Amy Uthus’ recent show there had the same nostalgic feel as Woolston’s work. In an effort reminiscent of Andy Goldsworthy’s mammoth cairns project with the Des Moines Art Center, the North Dakota native created a series of large ceramic vessels, at least in part with locally mined clay, and placed them in photogenic spots in the vanishing prairie of the Great Plains. In her words “It’s easy to feel insignificant when staring across the plains…the reminder can be reassuring, though, by connecting us to something much greater than ourselves, something we might not be able to name.”

Two great forces of populist art will be celebrated here all fall. “Halston and Warhol: Silver and Suede,” Des Moines Art Center’s biggest exhibition in years, opens Sept. 19. Window dressings, galas, pop-up boutiques, fashion luncheons, lectures and films accompany the show. Reservations for special events begin Sept.3 and will sell out. CV

Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.

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