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Art City: Exploring place at the Art Faculty Biennial


Brian Prugh

Illustration by Brian Prugh

I find the opening question in David Dunlap’s Artist Statement to be the most promising guide for a consideration of what the faculty show shows us. He asks, “Who are we here?” The question makes a suggestive distinction, supposing, as it does, that there could be a difference between “who we are” and “who we are here.” The second question that Dunlap asks in his Artist Statement could be amended to articulate the overwhelming question I had walking through the show: “What is it that the faculty do here?”

The obvious answer, proposed by the show, is that they make art. The organization of the show, with its “one wall per artist” layout invites us to consider each artist as an independent producer. It presents the viewer with one large or several small works for consideration, establishing moments of visual assonance and dissonance through the arrangement of artists’ “walls” next to or across from one another.

The relative proximity of works by, for instance, Heidi Van Wieren, James Snitzer and John Dilg create a kind of focal point for reflections upon the possibilities contained in small paintings or prints with subtle inflections of material qualities. Steve McGuire’s bicycle frame facing Anita Jung’s painted panels and swirling printed ephemera offer alternatives about how life might spill out of (or into) art.

Sarah Kanouse’s research-based National Toxic Land/Labor Conservation Service installation sits opposite a collection of figurative canvases by Ron Cohen, creating a playful opposition between where art has traditionally been and where some see it going. A few cross-gallery comparisons also seemed significant: mediated meditations on painting by Hartmut Austen near the entry and Laurel Farrin in the back corner, and the layered networks of connections (legible or not) suspended in works by Jeremy Lundquist at the front of the room and Susan White at the back. Sculptural installations by David Dunlap and Isabel Barbuzza bookend the exhibition and form a suggestive pair.

These broad considerations create an image of a diverse faculty working in a wide variety of media and operating with a range of ideas about what art is and what it can do. It presents an image of a well-rounded art department, but I am not sure that it reveals much about the ‘here’ questions with which I began this review. There are artists here, they teach here, they make work here. But why are they here? Is there a reason that this particular group coheres in this particular place? What is it that they do here?

The most pervasive theme in the artists’ statements is about the relationship of technology and technological processes to what Farrin calls “our gravitational weight” and the handmade object. Many are interested in the way new technologies are shaping our lives. These questions have an odd way of diverting one’s attention away from place, and into a space of human and technological interaction that could take place anywhere or nowhere. (Kanouse and Snitzer take up this idea explicitly in their works.)

The structure of industrial distribution further limits any straightforward connection to a place like Iowa City. The things made “here” (like corn, ethanol and high fructose corn syrup) are shipped out of state on the railroads, and the things we use daily (vegetables, clothing, building materials, art supplies, etc.) are shipped in. This place provides us neither food, nor clothing, nor shelter. Who, then, can we be here? What is it that we can do here? Are there any answers to these questions that are different here than they would be anywhere else?

We’re a long way from Grant Wood’s regionalism, where he imagined that each part of the country would produce art of a fundamentally different character. He thought that the relationship between the place a thing was made and the form the thing ultimately took could not be pulled apart. But if it is difficult to discern a connection between this work and this place, it seems to be precisely because of the forces that have made any particular “here” no different from any other.

I think that it is an engaging and troubling question to consider what is possible in a place-less world. Dilg in his statement praises outsider art that can achieve “an intimacy, poignancy and beauty of a kind found only in conditions of close community or tribal urgency.” It is worth asking, can such conditions obtain in this world? Can we look, as Dunlap does, to the artist Ana Mendieta—or have conditions changed irrevocably since then? Are there unique possibilities here? Who can we be here?

Brian Prugh is a graduate student studying painting at the University of Iowa. He also writes art criticism for the Iowa City Arts Review, found online at iowacityartsreview.com.

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