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Real and imagined aspects of architecture


Amy Worthen’s works are both fantastical and architectural

Amy Worthen’s “Terrace Hill with Peacock”

Amy Worthen is endowed by spirits from another age. As both an artist and art historian, she hangs around with ancient ideas and animal souls. At Iowa State University’s Brunnier Museum, a major retrospective of her last five decades of work takes the challenging title “The World in Perspective.” It includes 110 prints, 10 sketchbooks, numerous engraved plates in nickel and copper, and another 26 prints that Iowa State University has long owned.

Besides straddling two careers, Worthen has also split time at two homes, one in Des Moines and one in Venice. She is also an insatiable traveler who illustrates observations in this show of the Czech Republic, Spain, France, England, Japan, Germany, Arkansas, Connecticut and, of course, Italy and Iowa.

Her works are both fantastical and architectural in the sense of being reconstructions in scale. The fantasy prints remind me of a more whimsical, but no less serious, take on Goya’s “Disasters of War.” In two series she made for the Iowa State Capitol and for Terrace Hill, she populates revered, historic places with animals, some reborn in her art after giving their lives as trophies for the buildings. Her Iowa Supreme Court is run by birds. Her Iowa Department of Agriculture is the domain of hogs and boars. One print shows ducks having a banquet in the Terrace Hill dining room. The piece de resistance being served includes human legs. Her state capitol is also conceived as an aquarium. Bengal tigers and moose are restored to life in her visions of Terrace Hill. She spied them as hunting trophies there. Peacocks reclaim their feathers there too. Her suburbs are controlled by cat gangs. Her series on Nollen Plaza (now known as Cowles Commons) is seen through the viewpoints of birds, one named Aida. “After Hours at the Iowa State Fair” shows flower arrangements having a party. Unicorns are also part of the imagined landscapes of Worthen’s venerable subjects. Tayra cages at the old Des Moines Zoo moved her to imagine a better life for those abused members of the weasel family. She moved them to Terrace Hill for her series there and gave them Persian carpets.

Other works illustrate classical mythologies and religious lore such as her study of the “Battle of the Ten Nudes.” Her series of the Plagues of Seder is grave. How else can you picture blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the first born?

CNA - Stop HIV Iowa (June 2)CNA - Stop HIV Iowa (June 1)

Worthen’s architectural perspectives are devoid of whimsy, too. She takes a particular interest in subjects that reveal the barebones of design. She is fascinated by the underground alleys of Venice. One series on a building destroyed by fire reveals a fascinating point of view on basic architecture, the things that remain when fire removes adornments.

Portraits in the show include one self-portrait and another, a “Self Portrait as Pineapple.”

Also playing at the Brunnier is “The Faces of Iowa State,” a commissioned series of portraits of people who have contributed to building the university. It does not include Henry Brunnier, a disappointment here. It does demonstrate the brilliant use of color by painter Rose Frantzen.

The Worthen exhibition will play through Dec. 17. The Frantzen through Dec. 8 before it moves on to Maquoketa, Muscatine, Okoboji, Fort Dodge and Council Bluffs in the next 12 months.

Currently ongoing at Drake University through Dec. 22 is an event called “Mies Weese at Drake: Where We Live and Work.” It celebrates the buildings on campus that were designed by legendary architect Mies van der Rohe and Harry Weese and Associates in the 1960s. A highlight will be a lecture on Dec. 7 by the architect’s grandson Dirk Lohan. ♦

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