With its boxy brick backside and curvaceous metallic front, the Weisman Art Museum is one of the most extraordinary buildings in the Twin Cities, and a saucy beacon welcoming students to the University of Minnesota's East Bank campus. The 1993 building is in the midst of a $14.1 million expansion that will roughly double its public spaces with the addition of five new galleries scheduled to open in fall 2011. The museum will close during the final year of construction, but before that it is staging one last show, "Ordinarily Here," which opens Saturday and runs through Oct. 10.
For all its arty chic, the Weisman is firmly rooted in the intellectual loam of Midwestern land-grant universities. That means it pays attention to practical, recognizable stuff as well as to the sometimes befuddling flights of fancy and obscurantism that occasionally sprout in artland. This year it staged three shows inspired by "the common and the everyday." The first showcased pieces from the collection of Dorothy and Herbert Vogel, a librarian and postal clerk who devoted their lives to collecting contemporary art. Next came "Common Sense," which featured paintings and photos of common people and things such as an Andy Warhol "soup can" print. Wrapping up the series, "Ordinarily Here" cleverly showcases artistic responses to pedestrian materials and experiences. The 10 artists, all Minnesotans, unleash wit and magic from such abject materials as recycled bricks, shredded office paper and cellophane tape.
A bamboo bower
An enticing installation of bamboo rods and twigs by the aptly named Diane Willow opens the show. An associate professor in the University's art department, Willow is a technology whiz who gracefully marries electronic gizmos to natural materials.
Along a wide, skylit hallway she's installed 10 clumps of bamboo rods, each about 15 feet tall and fastened together with cobalt-blue plastic ties. On the floor between the clumps sit islands of moss growing in shallow trays. There's a marvelous Alice-in-Wonderland scale shift between the miniature islands and the long poles (bamboo is the world's largest "grass," she explained). Attached to the bamboo rods are tiny bells and motorized clickers that are activated by motion sensors, setting off a shimmering cascade of birdlike twittering as viewers stroll past. Mist released from miniature atomizers amplifies the illusion of passing through a tropical forest, as does the filtered sunlight that suffuses the space. In its multisensory merger of high-and-low tech, nature and culture, Willow's elegant installation opens the mind to wonder and disarms the skeptic with playful beauty.
Val Jenkins, who teaches drawing at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, applies her talent to an even more improbable subject: tangles of paper fresh from an office shredder. First she sketches a fist full of them, enlarged to basketball size, then to beach-ball scale, and finally she covers a 20-foot-long scroll with pencil drawings of an endless tumble of twisted strips. With each transformation, the familiar grows more strange and abstract, even though the ribbons of paper remain fully recognizable.
Nearby, Jenny Jenkins, an unrelated artist, amplifies her obsession with the graffiti sprouting in her south Minneapolis neighborhood. Rather than rage against the desecration, she carefully copied the spray-painted "tags" or signatures, embroidered them onto washcloth-sized bits of cloth, and encircled the embroidery with kitschy frames that domesticate the rebellion and latent nihilism in the graffiti.
Homage to Frank Gehry
David Lefkowitz also turned trash into treasure of a sort by salvaging bricks torn from the Weisman's back wall as part of the expansion project. Heaps of bricks litter a corner of the gallery along with blocky little brick sculptures that Lefkowitz wrapped, a la the museum, in flying skirts of tinfoil. Mischievously poking fun at the conceptual conceits of Frank Gehry, the building's famous architect, Lefkowitz described his whimsies as "starchitecture reliquary objects, pieces of the true cross."
Ceramicist Kimberlee Roth exoticized a wall by painting it chartreuse and plum, and then tiling it with row upon overlapping row of shallow porcelain platters whose leaf and labia shapes are endlessly suggestive. In the hands of Elizabeth Simonson, twists of cellophane tape morph into elaborate honeycomb wall drawings, and loops of wire dance across the walls in mesmerizing arabesques of light and shadow. Other pieces include photos by Adam Caillier, sculptures by Gregory Fitz, tents by Peter Haakon Thompson and typographical installations by Vince Leo.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431