Sensory Overload, Whittier Artist Co-op
May 12, 2012
Response by guest contributor Eric J. Wickes
May 17, 2012
Last Saturday night, I went to a great party that might have been an art exhibition. Now, before we start getting incensed and reactionary, let’s begin with some objective analysis or critique. Yes, critique. That which we never get from the established art columnists in our local media and that which we are too afraid to give to ourselves.
There was a time when local art critics would actually attend local art exhibitions and write about them. When was the last time you saw Michael Moraine at one of your art shows? Amanda Pierre was all over it. We’d always get the front page of the Sunday Arts section. Even though it wasn’t always a critique of the show, it was a much better presentation of what you might expect to see and experience. All we get today are public service fluff announcements in the Calendar announcing events with absolutely no follow up in reporting about the actual event as it happened. Unless of course, Juice decides to spew a photo montage of who was who in attendance at the Big Hair Ball. This is self-defeating for too many reasons to explain.
Now maybe we should ask ourselves, “Why?” Or, maybe we should ask ourselves, “Do we really want a burgeoning art scene in Des Moines that attracts and sustains regional audiences and its most talented people, who often flee this demographic like rats off a sinking ship?” It’s easy enough to be a big fish in a small pond, but where’s the challenge in that? Independent group shows seem to be more about the party or “happening” than they are about relevant art theory, method and practice and this mindset needs to change.
This becomes obvious when a show is installed in such a way that you can’t determine where one artist’s regurgitation ends and another artist’s begins. You can’t stuff twenty pounds of potatoes into a five pound sack and expect it hold with any integrity. There were some great pieces in that show, but unfortunately you had to trip over a lot of artistic clutter to get to them. Or they were placed in such a way that all the clutter over shadowed their presence. Chris Peterson’s video was one of the gems of the exhibition. He totally captured the theme of the show in a most relevant way. But to view the entire loop you had to constantly compete with the foot traffic going up and down the stairs. Some of the other work was a far reach, unless “Sensory Overload” was intended to be conveyed through some goliath art eating organism that had regurgitated every morsel it had consumed for generations in one singular location. Now that’s sensory overload! If this attitude doesn’t seem “inclusive” enough to you or “too elitist”, then your priorities, professionalism and commitment to your calling will always be questioned by the global art community.
This is why we go to see art. It’s about the visual art. It’s always been about the art. The party evolves from the artistic process and not the other way around. There are parties, “art” happenings and well curated art exhibitions. “Fun” is a cop out term that’s used way too much in the art world to qualify mediocrity. As an artist who’s concerned with career and professional development, which model would you prefer to be aligned with?
This is what justifies, “juried” art exhibitions. This is what prevents creative weekend warriors from strolling in with schlock under their arms and cluttering up what they look upon as some big refrigerator to stick their pretty pictures on. How “fun”. Let’s stroke ourselves some more, like we do on Facebook. When we start taking ourselves seriously, then maybe others will too. But that takes work and attention to detail. It takes the perseverance of individuals who have the attention span and discipline to follow their concepts and vision through to the end. Most Des Moines inhabitants and artists have the attention span of a gnat. That’s why history continues to repeat itself and artists’ movements keep falling short of the mark. You keep doing the same thing, year after year and always try to sell it as the “next big thing”. And if by chance, you do bring something new and effective to the table, the bigger, more moneyed institutions will be all over it. Can you say “Art Noir”?
The location is every bit as important to the show as the show is to itself. Collaboration, not insulation is the key to a successful, engaging art community. The space along with the art dictates the flow of the installation and the continuity of the exhibition. Years ago there were very cool and clean commercial spaces available to the art community and the property owners were more open to letting you in. Of course this was an exploitable (but symbiotic) relationship between the sponsoring of our shows and the marketing of their real estate. Now with less pristine space available to the “grass roots” art community, it is admittedly more difficult to find good locations other than cluttered coffee houses, dilapidated warehouse basements; grease flung eating establishments and hairspray spewing salons. These are not optimum environments for the display and preservation of Fine Art. Just getting in to see the “Sensory Overload” exhibition should have been viewed as an interactive performance piece in itself to the testimony of what kind of spaces the local “independent” artists are left with to promote their life’s calling. A liability waver had to be signed by those in attendance just to enter. Why? Because the building, a dilapidated abandoned school with unknown hazards, was quite possibly the only alternative these artists had. And, the owners of the property had to disassociate themselves from any liability.
There are maybe two or three nice galleries in Des Moines designed to accommodate contemporary art. But the waiting list is long. And they prefer to hang serious artists who won’t waste their time with their petty unprofessional shit that has become the status quo among local artists, like never having their work ready to hang on time, or complaining about submission requirements, or bitching about elitism. Is there anyone out there who can write a Bio? An Artists Statement? WTF, people? Wait. “Grass roots”? That’s a phrase we should investigate in more depth.
For years the status quo has continued to identify any and all efforts of local artists as “grass roots” art movements. Years before I got here there were “grass roots” art movements. Art Dive was a “grass roots” art movement. Paint Pushers was a “grass roots” art movement and by 2004, The Des Moines Project, EVAC, Art 360 and many others, were “grass roots” art movements. All happening at once, all generating synergy between the community, young professionals and the arts. But never, ever coalescing to become one loud voice demanding the support that the collective (right brain) creative community deserves. A city only gets the Art it deserves. And artists will only get the respect they deserve when their priorities rise above their own self-indulgent, insulated vacuums to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
As History shows, every few years a new clique of artists coalesces, thinking that their “grass roots” effort will bring some fresh new idea or method to get the message across. Monotonous, circuses of jugglers, fire breathers and other “performance” artists. Sorry, been there, done that! It’s nice to have cool social happenings with art jammed into every nook and cranny with “Salon Style” or “swap meet” installation techniques and on occasion the audience may even be impressed by a rare display of skill and artistic elegance. Multi-media collaborations are valid in contemporary visual art. Circuses are for clowns and cotton candy. Learn the difference. “It’s intriguing! It’s so avant- garde”… yeah, for about five minutes it was, maybe. And when the party’s over, what’s left? A hangover and one big mess to clean up and what was accomplished? Any serious media coverage to document the emerging careers of these artists today? Well, maybe Juice, who thinks two artists sharing a loft, is news. Seven or eight years ago, when we engaged the community like “never before”, with our trendy art happenings and parties and started to generate the kind of support we were looking for, we never lost sight of the importance of “quality, not quantity” in our exhibitions. That’s what the critical audiences and media want to see.
It takes a lot of hard work to curate, produce and launch a good exhibition. Unfortunately artists have to make the bitter choice between the attention to detail their art requires, or being a wage slave to some mindless job. Hey, if it was easy, everybody would be doing it. And that’s what sets us, the Warrior Poets, apart from the rest of society. In time, with smart cultivation, the “grass roots” of any movement are expected to connect, mature and grow into a thick, lush lawn. At what point will this metaphor become a reality to the artists of Des Moines? You can do one thing brilliantly or a dozen things half-assed. It’s your choice.
Thank you for your consideration.