Saturday, October 6, 2012

Grand (Rapids) Prize

Kumi Yamashita, Origami
For four years running, Grand Rapids, Michigan has been host to ArtPrize, a massive competition that boasts some of the largest monetary awards in the art fair business.  The top winner, picked democratically by visitors, is $200,000.  Runners-up also go home smiling, and critics get to dole out prizes in addition to the sometimes dubious audience awards.  With over 1,500 entries, the majority of the art is bound to be schlock, but there were some impressive highlights in this year's event.

Mike Simi, Mr. Weekend
One lovely example was a piece by New York artist, Kumi Yamashita (from Takasaki, Japan), on display at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.  It consisted of a 100 sheets of origami paper, slightly crushed to highly accurate shadow portains of 100 residents of Grand Rapids.  The shadows went on and off with a timed light source, commenting perhaps, on the ephemerality of life.

Slightly less serious, was a giant sock puppet by Michigan-reared Mike Simi, which arched its head around while delivering a dreary monologue about the drudgeries of life as an artwork.  Mr. Weekend, as the puppet likes to be called, is built from a discontinued robot arm, which was used in a car factory.

Jared Charzewski, The Land Up North

At the same venue (Kendall College of Art and Design), there was a pleasing work by Jared Charzewski of Charleston, South Carolina.  It consisted of 4,000 articles of recycled clothing, aesthetically arranged.  The piece can be seen as a commentary on class, consumerism and ecology, or just enjoyed as a modern colorful variant of the landscape genre.

At another fine venue, The Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, there was in impressive mixed media piece by a Chicago collaborative called ABCD 83 (David Cuesta, Anthony Lewellen, Chris Silva, and Brian Steckel).  It consisted of assorted geometric forms surrounding an exit door of the museum, onto which was projected a video that converted the sculptural elements into a pulsating city.  The door became the backdrop for projected sunsets and flying robots.  Most clever, however, was the floor below the door, which became a koi pond at one moment, and shoreline the next.  A clip can be seen to the left.

The Urban Institute was also home to the winner of the second place audience award, a swirling swarm of simple, animatronic birds, who fluttered around as an operatic song lifted the spirits of awestruck crowds.  The artist, Martin van Wagtendonk probably deserved first place for crowd appeal.  The top prize went, depressingly, to a large surrealistic drawing of elephants and other animals, which looked more like a children's book illustration then an entry into the archives of art history.  A segment of flight is captured on the right.

There was also work exhibit in the town's impressive Methodist church.  Much of the content here was social or political, and highlights included photographs of nude men with disabilities, and a collection of signs made by homeless people soliciting help.  Another striking work was chiaroscuro photo sequence by local artist, Lora Robertson.  It features, a woman methodically taping down her large breasts, raising poignant questions about both body self-image and gender identity.

Lora Robertson, Identity Process Kings and Queens
In a venue near the church, there was another photographic highlight by Virginia artist, Chuck Clisso.  At first glance, it looks like a striking black-and-white abstraction, with sprawling thread-thin lines, that evoke East Asian ink works.  On closer examination, these lines are revealed to be an aerial shot of cattle trails in the snow.  In the lower left, some cows can be seen. In the upper portion, a human made road serves as a counterpoint to the bovine paths below.

Chuck Clisso, untitled

Overall, the most impressive venue may have been the Public Museum, a long-abandoned natural history and science museum, which was reclaimed by artists under the curatorship of Paul Amenta at SiteLab.  Several of which won critics awards.  Upon entering the grand hall, one is met by a large collection of hanging landmasses by Brooklyn artist, Blane De St. Croix.  On the same floor, there is a large room of panoramic displays that were once used to exhibit wildlife taxidermy.  Here another Brooklynite, Alois Konschlaeger made a series of striking architectural interventions.  In one, he extends a reflective ramp into the wilderness, inviting viewers to enter this fictional world, and, in another he pushed the display glass into a diorama, allowing the antelopes on display there to exit their glass prison and enter the gallery.

Blane De St. Croix, UnNatural History
Alois Konschlaeger, Habitat
Alois Konschlaeger, Habitat
These are just a few of the things that made this year's ArtPrize worth seeing.  The event is gaining deserved visibility, though not all of it positive: Fox News tried to stir up controversy about a paining containing HIV contaminated blood.  The event was quite tame by artworld standards, and no less worthwhile without shock appeal.  It also brought throngs of people to this small midwestern city, simultaneously raising the town's profile and raising enthusiasm about art.  One can hardly complain about all the bad work mixed in with the good, and it's silly to gripe about the viewers' picks, though some would make the average art snob cringe.  Predictably, I tended to concur with the juried picks, though I want to end by mentioning a piece that didn't make the viewer's or jury's top ten.  Norwood Viviano's lovely entry was a series of glass curvilinear polygons, that correspond to plots of urban population patterns painted carefully on the wall.  Each form represents a city, and the glass expands and contracts in ways that correspond to population fluctuations over various temporal intervals.  New York's population was the most striking in the series, funneling out wildly as other cities saw gentle contractions.  A gorgeous visualization, bridging demography and art.

Norwood Viviano, Cities: Departures and Deviation


  1. I must add a word of thanks to Ronald Loeffler, my intrepid and tasteful tour guide at ArtPrize.

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