Posted at 8:26 AM on June 4, 2010
by Marianne Combs
Filed under: Galleries
Bone Sphere by Max Hoagland and Nathan Meagher
Photo by Sean Smuda
Curator Roderic Southall likes to challenge artists to think in new ways. And so for his latest exhibition at Obsidian Arts in Minneapolis, he asked a group of visual artists to think about a sense they don't normally work with: smell.
Smell has an incredible power to transport you back to an experience. We take smell for granted, but it's often used to manipulate us. We started talking about smell, the smell of god, and what that smells like. And once you've smelled it, once you've been in the presence of God, what's the after effect? What came of it?
Southall brought in West African artist Bathelemy Toguo to work with a group of artists over a period of time as they reflected on the "smell of God." At first what they created took Southall completely by surprise; Max Hoagland and Nathan Meagher created a delicate sphere made from the bones of mice extracted from owl droppings. But upon reflection, Southall thinks the sphere makes perfect sense:
It made me think of aftermath. OK, so this rat met God in the form of an owl. The owl devoured the rat, and out of that soil came this sphere - a wonderful delicate and spiritual piece, that also looks like a molecule in your body.
In other words, says Southall, even at our most base, there is something holy and beautiful to be found.
Still from Amanda Lovelee's "Bee"
For her piece Amanda Lovelee filmed a beautiful and eery video of a bee slowing writhing in its last moments of life. Southall said at first he was skeptical, because he sees animals die all the time on nature shows. But this was different:
It's very stark. God's will is happening in a really clinical setting to this seemingly helpless creature. It's very delicate and elegant. I only had to watch it to love it.
A series of photographs, also by Amanda Lovelee, depicts a massive landscape of ice, changing with the seasons. Southall says the images speak to our own frozen conception of God:
For me it's about your inability to let your god change. There are seasons, and things change, but we don't let our gods change. It reflects our inability to let go.
A group of portraits by David Rich depict women of all sorts, as though combined, they represent something powerful and divine.
Installation piece by Barthelemy Toguo
Photo by Sean Smuda
Barthelemy Toguo is the only non-Minnesotan in the show, and his work serves as the focal point which draws it all together. It consists of two pieces, a long table surrounded by chairs as in "The Last Supper," but in this instance each plate is covered in colorful candles, and on the seats are crosses. Behind this sits a taller table upon which stands a cross made of two loaves of bread, surrounded by cotton clouds.
Perhaps it's worth noting here that Obsidian Arts' "gallery space" is in fact the lobby of Pillsbury House in Minneapolis. So while some people may be coming to see the art, most people in the lobby are there to drop off their kids, waiting for a medical appointment, or are coming to see a play at Pillsbury House Theatre. And in the center of the lobby now sits two tables and eleven chairs which people are expected to not sit in. Instead they are left to contemplate a meal in which the attendees dined on light and color.
Southall says he hopes people in the lobby will be inspired to think about different ways people interact with God or their Higher Power.
I hope also that for people who think that painting and film - the flat arts - are the limits of art - I'm excited about them interacting with these more three dimensional, engaging works of art.
Still from Nathan Young's video installation.
One of the most provocative works in the show is Nathan Young's video installation. Young took "the smell of God" and translated it into the experience some people have when they worship cultural icons. Young created portraits of Tupac and Kanye West using chocolate as his medium. Then he videotaped himself licking the portraits with his mouth full of Hershey's syrup. The video is simultaneously sexual, submissive, sickeningly sweet and somber.
Still from Nathan Young's video installation.
Southall says Young puts into question notions of both idolatry and masculinity. Is a tough guy who dresses and acts just like Tupac really that tough? Or is he just fawning over his hero? FInally Young turns the idolatry on himself, creating his own portrait and repeating the process with the Hershey's syrup. He seems to ask "Is it possible to worship ourselves the way we worship others? Can I love myself as much as I love these music icons?"
In fact, not one of these pieces actually deals literally with our sense of smell, but they do deal with something intangible, powerful and evocative. And many of the images in this show linger with you after you've left. In that sense, the artists responded perfectly to the theme of the show.
"The Smell of God" runs through July 31 in the Pillsbury House lobby in Minneapolis. On the last day of the exhibition the artists will gather to talk about how they came to creating their works in a discussion from 1 - 2:30pm.
A lot of people were disappointed when the Icelandic volcano put the kybosh on Alexander McCall Smith's visit to the Twin Cities recently - including the author himself.
"Vulcan, who is the god of volcanos, and who is actually in charge of these matters, was very inconsiderate," he told me recently. We were sitting in the book lined study in Edinburgh Scotland where he writes his very popular "No 1 Ladies Detective Agency" novels - and four other series as well.
"It's bad enough to have unsettled economic circumstances, when you become geologically unsettled, that's piling...."
He then laughs and makes a reference to a geological phenomenon which this writer still trying to decipher.
It's a typical exchange with McCall Smith, who blends a gentle way with a story with deep erudition born of his past career as a Professor of medical law at Edinburgh University. He's set that aside now to focus full time on his writing.
"I'm told that I am breaking all known rules of publishing," he says. "I'm told that the general rule in publishing is that you write one book a year, and no more than that. Well we are breaking that I am afraid in that I am writing either four or five a year."
Along the way his books have gathered legions of fans, including the hundreds of people who bought tickets to hear him speak at the State Theater in Minneapolis in April. McCall Smith admits people get very attached to his books, and get worried by the thought that his output will dwindle or end.
"People write to me and they are quite direct. And they say: "Please don't die soon." That's a very nice sort of letter to get," he laughs.
There are plans to reschedule the cancelled tour, perhaps in September. although no details are available as yet, including whether there will be a Twin Cities date. McCall Smith says it's all up to his publicists in the US, but he like Minnesota, to the point that there is a character in the latest "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" book "The Double Comfort Safari Club" who is from St Paul.
You can hear more of our discussion on MPR's All Things Considered this evening.
In Franklin Art Works' main gallery, the bright colors of a glitzy billboard in China face off with almost claustrophobic black and white shots of salt pouring onto a table. The bare minimalist whites and grays of a Canadian blizzard stand in opposition to a blistering hot day in Cairo, Egypt as viewed from its rooftops.
Most exhibitions of artwork have a theme or uniting element that binds them together, even if it's only a word like "landscape" or "poverty." In the case of Franklin Art Works' latest show, which opens tonight, that word is "McKnight." All four photographers in this group show received a grant of $40,000 from the McKnight Foundation back in 2008. And that's pretty much where their similarities end.
"It's like herding kittens in a way," laughs Franklin Art Works director Tim Peterson. "Or, shall we say, a bit of a shotgun marriage, but a wonderful one, because it's about exploration."
"Market City," 2007
Osama Esid's sepia-toned photographs capture with a nostalgic eye the strange architectural mish-mash of present day Cairo, where freeways bisect neighborhoods littered with ancient ruins. Esid (who has a solo show coming up next week at Gallery 13) uses a 1920s vintage camera to shoot photographs called "sun prints." It's a fitting method for an artist who occupies himself primarily with documenting life in the Middle East. Esid was born and schooled in Damascus and worked in Paris and Madrid before moving to the U.S. He lives and works in Minneapolis, and maintains a studio in Cairo.
"Opening Soon" (Grand Gateway Mall, Shanghai), 2008
McKnight fellow Priscilla Briggs teaches art and art history at Gustavus Adolphus, but keeps finding herself back in China, documenting the surge in capitalism that's gripping its cities. Tim Peterson says Brigg's work focuses particularly on advertising:
And the advertising is on a massive scale. Here we take it for granted, but there it's startling. It's really about the intersection of western capitalism and eastern communism. Her work feels like an immersive 360° view into a changing culture, and its changing desires.
Briggs' "Fortune" series juxtaposes the legacy of communism and the bright shiny lure of capitalism as represented by the massive shopping malls appearing all over the country.
Cold War Era Radar, Fort Churchill, MB, 2008
While Briggs images capture the rich opulence of a country in the midst of a consumer revolution, Justin Newhall occupies himself with the detritus left behind in the desolate Canadian town of Churchill, Manitoba. Newhall was inspired by Glenn Gould's 1967 radio documentary "The Idea of North" to travel the western shore of Hudson Bay for four years. There he wandered through abandoned science stations and dislocated settlements, tracked polar bears and took pictures in which the landscape is barely visible through blinding snow.
smoke ring, 2009
Perhaps the most stark images of all in this exhibition are those of David Goldes. His dark, laboratory set-ups attempt to document the physical actions and reactions that we often take for granted: adding salt to our meal, blowing a smoke ring from a cigarette, or a plastic bag swept up by the air. Goldes' images strip these actions down to their barest form, in what feels - to this viewer - like an almost obsessive desire to understand the nature of things.
While these artists share little more than a camera and a grant, they each afford the viewer a journey into another world. Whether it's the heights of Chinese consumerism, or rooftop views of an ancient city under transformation or the sad relics of an attempt make a life in a harsh northern climate. In the case of Goldes "experiments," he takes us on a journey into the interior of a photographer's mind.
"2008 McKnight Artist Fellowhips for Photographers" opens tonight at Franklin Art Works with a reception from 7 to 9pm. In conjunction with the exhibition Franklin Art Works has organized a series of photography workshops for area high school students, taught by past McKnight fellows.