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Iowa finds its niche

9/16/2015

Some geographical coincidences are odd enough to make people wonder about genetic connections or if there’s “something in the water.” How else can you explain the number of baseball’s greatest hitters who came out of southern Alabama (Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Billy Williams, etc.) or great chefs from eastern Alsace (John Joho, Jean-Georges Vongericten, Hubert Keller, etc.), or skywalking basketball prodigies from central North Carolina (Michael Jordan, Dominic Wilkins, David Thompson, etc.)? Other than agricultural innovators, mostly from the Wallace family, Iowa has been a long time coming with a similar niche on any international stage. The wait is over — the state is now the bonafide breeding ground of great female photographers.

Outside of the annual Iowa Artists’ context, the Des Moines Art Center rarely hosts a solo show for an Iowa artist. The museum also rarely grants a solo show to any photographer. Yet when one of those things happens, both usually do. Ames’ native Laurel Nakadate recently joined Des Moines’ Anna Gaskell and Sioux City’s Anna Mendieta as featured solo photographers to exhibit there.

These ladies have much in common besides being products of the state’s school systems. Nakadate and Gaskell both are products of Yale’s art department. Those two are married to famous writers. Nakadate’s father is also a prize-winning writer. Mendieta was married to a famous sculptor who likely murdered her, though a jury acquitted him on “reasonable doubt” after she flew 33 stories to her death during a loud argument. Nakadate’s Japanese ancestors were thrown into internment camps, while Mendieta’s came to Iowa to escape persecution in her native Cuba. All three artists’ works have focused on female subjects. Nakadate and Mendieta often have made themselves the subject of their art, often voyeuristically and quite sexually.

Laurel Nakadate: Strangers and Relations Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

Laurel Nakadate: Strangers and Relations
Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks +
Projects, New York.

Nakadate made her reputation by taking chances. One series shows her, usually in her underwear, posing with random older men that she met in gas stations in Connecticut. She also photographed herself waving her underpants outside a train window and waking up young women to ask them to undress on camera. In 2010, she completed a 365-day series of self-portraits “before, during and after crying.” Whew.

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Nakadate says her consistent themes have been “exploring voyeurism, loneliness, and connecting to others.” The Des Moines show, “Strangers and Connections,” continues those themes, plus her compulsive and dangerous behavior. She found 1,500 distant relatives on her mother’s side of the family through a DNA test. Then she began asking them to meet her in dark places on the outskirts of their home towns to make portraits lit only by flashlight. She also extended invitations through social media, even to “friends of friends on Facebook,” etc. Some 60,000 miles later (“Hertz knows me well”), she had fearlessly met and photographed more than 200 complete strangers, many being distant relatives.

Her show is magnificently lit, as are her photos. These portraits require subjects to remain still for 30 seconds of lens exposure. Most stay rigid, yet they still bring so much narrative to their poses that one might think Nakadate is the writer in the family. In her words, this show consists of: “The girl at the end of bachelorette partying… the woman with miniature ponies and a donkey… the man in a bathrobe… the woman who lived in a house made by her husband with leftover parts… the former trophy wife… the tiny girl in a sundress in winter… the librarians in a Confederate cemetery.” It’s mesmerizing and plays through Jan. 24.

Touts: A brilliant widespread Anna Gaskell drawing greets visitors to the top floor of Jim Cownie’s new office at 350 East Locust. Asked about this artistic departure, Gaskell said she began drawing as a distraction from her photography, but the drawings are selling out faster than she can produce them. 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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