Streets, guns and artists10/5/2016
Three exhibitions at the Des Moines Art Center present intermingled insights on guns, streets, documentarians and artists. The shows are relatively unheralded. The main attraction featured a recently discovered dead nanny who hadn’t exhibited during her lifetime. Yet together they represent one of this museum’s great strengths — the ability to mount an original show, from its permanent collection, which augments and questions a traveling exhibit.
“Vivian Maier: Through a Critical Lens” is the show named for the reclusive nanny photographer. Her street scenes from New York City and Chicago, mostly taken during the 1950s and ‘60s, reveal a wind-grieved America of innocence. We tour a time when people could safely sleep in their cars and leave valuables unprotected in uncovered convertibles. Maier’s city streets are not mean so much as they are humbly unpolished. Her subjects valued things that probably have no value today — boxes, fire hydrants, rocks, orange crates, old shoes, public mirrors and fountains. One poignant shot reveals a sad looking woman with a balloon.
The artist had an eye for shoes and purses. In fact, most of her middle class and wealthy subjects are represented by such symbolic things. Her street urchins and ethnic families, however, are usually shot frontally with facial images in focus. Maier also shows considerable affection for the public spaces of subway cars, ferry boats, neon signs, stoops, staircases, trains and buggies. Face nets also interested her. “Vivian Maier: Through a Critical Lens, will show through Jan. 22.
“Whose Streets?” is an intentionally created companion exhibition for the Maier show, which studies city streets within the Modernist movement, particularly in New York City and Paris. Streets are viewed as sexist (Danny Lyon) or empowering to women (Gary Winogrand), or antiquated (Berenic Abbott) or exciting (Richard Estes). Political statements are rife, but so are expressions of pure beauty. This show plays through Jan. 15.
“Heavy, Heavy Hangs over Thy Head” is a Print Gallery show about guns. It fortuitously overlaps the other two shows and complements them expertly. Curator Amy Worthen said this exhibition depicts the way artists looked at guns from 1600 to contemporary times, but there is very little here from the post-World War II era. Mostly, rifles and war art dominate the show. I could not find a serious depiction of a Colt .45 — the most famous gun in American history — nor a modern automatic handgun, the most infamous weapon in the current horror story of violence in America. That revelation chased me to Thomas Jackson, a Cedar Rapids artist of irony and brilliance. His Americana series include dozens of juxtapositions of revolvers and scenes of innocence.
No matter where you come down on ownership, guns are a huge part of contemporary American life. Cinema and TV use them exclusively as props for violence. Yet they are as rarely depicted in serious art shows as sex was in 1950s TV shows.
Back Room Gallery
Five Iowa artists were named Iowa Arts Council Fellows, with $10,000 grants and participation in “Meet the Artist” public development programs throughout the state. The winners are: Brent Holland, associate professor in the Department of Art and Visual Culture at Iowa State University, whose studio is in the Fitch Building in downtown Des Moines where he integrates digital and traditional drawing; Akwi Nji of Cedar Rapids, a performance artist who combines poetry with storytelling to explore stories of race, ethnicity and womanhood in the Midwest; Jennifer Knox of Nevada, a poet and writer who utilizes diction and popular culture to create inclusionary narratives; Yun Shin of Orange City, a visual artist who focuses on making art as a way to reconstruct relationships and memory; and Stephanie Brunia of Oxford, a photographer who uses the medium to explore desires and fears surrounding human connection. Holland is represented by Olson-Larsen of West Des Moines and Brunia by Moberg of Des Moines.