There’s nothing like going for an afternoon walk and seeing half a dozen art shows within a few short city blocks. To do this in a city like Chicago or New York is a true delight: Galleries sit cheek-by-jowl in tightly knit neighborhoods, and one stroll can wind through engaging and disparate worlds created in each gallery space.
While big cities rely on big spenders to support neighborhoods full of galleries devoted exclusively to showing (and selling) art, venues that show art in Iowa City must either rely on smaller purchases or another income stream altogether. For instance, venues like the Cafe at Prairie Lights, White Rabbit and the Douglas and Linda Paul Gallery at the Englert make their money selling other things: coffee, clothing and concert tickets. While the work there is often engaging, it takes a back seat to the primary source of income.
At Prairie Lights, a cup of coffee is a small price to pay for the chance to get up close and personal with a substantive work of art, but the work is difficult to see when visiting. When I tried to get a look at a work by T. L. Solien from the recent show, Sconnies, depicting Captain Ahab’s wife in the desert, a patron seated in front of the painting made it difficult to get close enough to examine the material of the thing. Still, I was struck by the loneliness of the visage staring out from that tableau. Camera in hand, Mrs. Ahab braces herself against the vastness of the landscape—she is out to make something of it.
The program at the Englert revolves around Iowa City-based artists, and they most recently hosted a show by UI Senior Z. G. Phelps. This show had its limitations—but there were moments of real promise as well. I found the work done in pencil, Full Flux, to be more compelling than the rest: It has an internal energy—as if it were the generative source for the imagery in the other ink and paint works—and its material handling was as fresh and considered as anything else in the show.
The work at White Rabbit lives high on the walls—making use of the tall ceilings of the store to display visual work above the racks of clothes and other merchandise. The visual art program here is uneven, although the aesthetic of the works is consistent with the character of the store. I find Josh Doster’s heads on display in the back half of the gallery, which I have written about in the Iowa City Arts Review, to be really outstanding. Doster is a friend and colleague, but those heads, which I have watched evolve over the past three years, are the most compelling work I encountered on my walkabout.
The remaining stops on my walk were the two commercial galleries that are regularly open, and there are several things to note: While there is a base of collectors here, and there is an economy for art here, there just isn’t the same kind of money flowing through the Iowa City art market as there is in larger cities. This means that the financial support for real estate dedicated exclusively to showing art is harder to come by, and that galleries survive on more sales of smaller, less expensive works of art.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the Chait Galleries Downtown. This space has been a struggle for me and I don’t feel comfortable in it. When I stopped in the other day, the attendant asked if I was there to see the show, which I was—but I could not find the show, entitled Benjamin’s Buttons, amongst the proliferation of other objects in the space. It was pointed out to me that it occupied one wall at the left of the entrance, and once I got looking at those canvases and drawings, there were things to see. A small drawing by Jon Pearson, The Pumpitup Kid In Line, and a rather lumpy painting of the power plant downtown by Rob Dietrich were both fun paintings—playful with materials and moving in content. They were unfortunately accompanied by a “tweet”—part of the submission process for the juried show—that is a good reminder that artists should edit their remarks as much as they edit their work.
I have struggled, too, with Steven Vail Fine Arts, even though the work is clearly on the center of the program. I find Art et Architecture to be too densely hung and I find the wall texts to be very distracting as they seem more focused on establishing the print’s value than placing the work within the conceptual context of the exhibition. That said, who would pass up the chance to marvel at the little details like the pencil marks stacked up on Richard Tuttle and Kiki Smith’s collaboration, Bouquet?
I didn’t stop by the other two commercial galleries in town on my walk, which remained confined to the area around the ped mall. The Hudson River Gallery is a few blocks south on Gilbert and McNutt Gallery is on Stevens Drive, near the Hy-Vee on the south side of town. Hudson River has been an Iowa City institution for a long time and has had some compelling shows in its rambling space—a show of work by Jamie Boling last year created quite a bit of buzz around town. The McNutt Gallery just opened this past summer, and is genuinely based on the big city gallery model: a clean space dedicated to the work it is showing. McNutt’s program is still in its infancy, and I am hopeful that the gallery will continue to grow and develop. McNutt seems to be reaching out to and attempting to cultivate a new set of collectors in Iowa City, which will only strengthen the scene here.
I can’t say much about my favorite places to look at art right now. The galleries in Art Building West and Studio Arts are great, with clean white walls, no attendants and work that is consistently searching, if—because it is student work—not always finding what it is searching for. The MFA thesis show season is in full swing, so there is a lot to look at now. The UI Museum of Art’s space in the Black Box Theater recently opened Art and Life in Africa, and PS1 will return to exhibiting regularly this month with a collaborative show with Legion Arts in Cedar Rapids, Exuberant Politics.
Disclosure: As an artist and critic in Iowa City, I have some connection to most of the goings-on in the city—though none of it comes with direct financial benefit. Of the shows mentioned, I know Mary Coats, the curator at Prairie Lights, Josh Doster, John Englebrecht at PS1, and I was encouraged to write criticism by Sean O’Harrow at the UIMA. I’ve had conversations with Dawn Harbor, who curates the Englert space, Breianna Cochran at Steven Vail Fine Arts and Jeff McNutt of McNutt Gallery. I am a student and teaching assistant at the University of Iowa, so the MA/MFA shows are those of my friends and colleagues. I will also have a painting in the Exuberant Politics show.