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Artistic hubris plus lawyers

3/16/2016

Art depends upon the hubris of artists. For much of history, the tyranny of religion made the very idea of portraying a holy image so risky that only the bravest, most confident artists would dare. It’s still that way if the artist’s subject has anything to do with the Koran. The recent television series “Da Vinci’s Demons” portrayed Leonardo as man possessed with god-like ego. Today, celebrity encourages additional egotistic behavior. Jeff Koons appeared naked recently in a Vanity Fair pictorial. Young actor-turned artist James Franco “reworked the works of Cindy Sherman” with himself in the starring roles.

Artist: Michael Brangoccio. Title: WAITING. Media: Acrylic on canvas. Dimensions: 40 x 93 inches.

Artist: Michael Brangoccio. Title: WAITING.
Media: Acrylic on canvas. Dimensions: 40 x 93 inches.

Intellectual property lawyers take the hubris of artists down a new trail. Anish Kapoor, a British sculptor with considerable history and presence in the Des Moines Art Center (DMAC), announced he has secured exclusive rights to “Vantablack,” which he renamed “Kapoor Black.” That substance represents the blackest shade of black ever conceived, absorbing 99.96 percent of all light that hits it. It has been described as the earthly equivalence of looking into a black hole.

Kapoor has been working with the substance for two years, but the copyright announcement created a controversy when fellow artists realized they had been shut out of access to a special color. Superblack is not all that new. NASA developed a similar substance to protect objects in outer space. It’s not paint but is composed of tiny tubes of lab-grown carbon. To apply it, artists must wear gas masks in special enclosures. Inhaling it is considered as risky as sleeping with asbestos.

Hubris can also become generational. I discussed that at the opening of a Moberg Gallery exhibition of works by Chris Vance, an artist of prodigious talent and humble demeanor. Some older artists at the event complained that the local media today broadcasts the idea that Des Moines’ art scene is a recent creation of Young Professionals. “You guys (media) make it sound like nothing happened here before the Des Moines Social Club,” said more than one.

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Point taken. Des Moines’ art scene owes the major measure of its vibrancy to three old-school developments. Jan’s Gallery, now Olson-Larsen Galleries, was founded in 1970 by Jan Shotwell. That was one of the first galleries in Iowa to promote local artists and to convince large institutions to support them. Marlene Olson, Ann Larsen and now Susan Watt have continued to develop the gallery, which throws a lifeline to 70 artists from the Midwest region. Olson also encouraged and mentored TJ Moberg when he opened a similar gallery 12 years ago, helping a younger generation of artists.

Secondly, the DMAC threw its mighty aegis of respectability behind Iowa artists, with its annual Iowa Artists exhibitions. That led to more mainstream support by the museum for Iowa art, particularly under current director Jeff Fleming. At least three such artists — Anna Gaskill, Anna Mendieta and Laura Nakadate — have been given main gallery, one-person exhibitions.

Thirdly, and probably most importantly, Sarah Grant established Sticks here in 1992. That successful artistic furniture company grew quickly and created day jobs for scores of talented young artists. Outside of university teaching positions and design jobs, artists found no such security here at the time.

The Chris Vance show at Moberg (through April 20) produced a milestone for the gallery. It was the first time an exhibition sold out more than half its inventory by opening night. Vance, who worked at Sticks for a decade before going full time as an artist, continues to trend more toward abstraction.

Michael Brangoccio brings more of his magical realism to Olson-Larsen (through April 2). Hopefulness survives the awesomeness of nature in his big paintings. The show also includes Mary Koenen Clausen, a mixed media artist of considerable imagination. Her career got a big bounce from the DMAC’s Iowa Artists exhibition of 1991.  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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