Abstraction and realism play out in three shows at Minneapolis galleries.
There's nothing as fantastic as the Dali or the Rubens in local galleries at the moment, but the paintings and sculpture in three Minneapolis shows set the mind to musing about what artists do and why. The visible world is somewhere in them all, as anchor, reference or inspiration. But only a thin line of thought tethers most of these creations to the pedestrian landscapes of daily life.
Dan Bruggeman's "Ground" show, installed in Groveland's carriage-house annex, owes its success to his keen eye and deft hand. Each of the 14 paintings is a masterpiece of observation rendered with astonishing, photo-realist skill. Atop pastel maps of Lexington, Shepard, Ayd Mill and other St. Paul roads, he has painted neat squares of things that he apparently picked up at the named locations: bits of robin's-egg shells, curling lily petals, birch twigs, seed pods, pebbles, bottle caps, cigarette butts, the mottled carapaces of dead insects. Layered under a thick glaze of polished acrylic, the urban detritus appears preserved as if in transparent amber. Dusky forests of seemingly infinite depth unfold on other panels that are edged with images from old atlases. In them birch trunks hover above a ground thickly covered in vines or fallen leaves of exquisite perfection. Despite their fanatic detail, these are not realistic pictures but rather dreams of nature, meditations on the intersection of human artifice and the natural world. Each has its beauties and virtues -- even the plastic bottle caps are idealized little rondels. There's something undeniably melancholy about Bruggeman's intellectual landscapes, but they are not so much moralizing as cautionary in their celebration of even the humblest bits of life.
In Groveland's main gallery Mark Horton also depicts urban grids and city vistas, all drawn entirely from his imagination. The 16 paintings in his "Rooftops and Sidewalks" series suggest the downtowns of Midwestern memory, the streets crowded with silvery cars and lined with orangy brick buildings of short to middling height. Some are seen from street level, rising along the sides of the canvases. Others are aerial vistas of buildings, lost in evening shadows, that spread in receding grids across the bottom half of canvases dominated by turquoise skies. When a bridge intrudes, it plunges into the urban grid at a precipitous angle that would unnerve a civil engineer. Sticking to an extremely narrow palette of colors (terra cotta, blue and gray) and repetitious designs, Horton has unnecessarily limited himself to artificial subjects that seem inauthentic; neither abstract nor realistic, they occupy an unhappy limbo between those conceptual poles.
Three sculptures by Jessica Teckemeyer -- of dogs' heads and leopard-sized cats -- introduce ambitious ideas that are either obvious or undeveloped. The most successful is "Reliance (sinners and saints)," in which fused dog heads, one snarling and one smiling, are meant to suggest deep psychological dichotomies but end up looking like fun hood ornaments.
In the adjacent gallery, "You Had Me at Goodbye" features nine large images by Michigan painter Robert McCann, who places unlikely characters (space alien, tourist, shopper) into improbable settings (gas station, parking lot, street corner) that make superficial sense until they fall apart under scrutiny (trees dissolve into abstract squiggles; buildings pixelate). Stylistically, McCann appears indebted to the psychologically charged realism of George Tooker, especially in "Specimens," in which half-naked men and women clutch glowing jars of urine samples. This is clever stuff, emotionally odd but intriguingly executed.
Inspired by a 2010 flood in which the Cannon River inundated the Northfield Arboretum, St. Olaf College art professor Jil Evans turned out a series of "Breaking Light" abstractions that read as interior monologues. Passages of pale blue, lemony yellow or peach overlaid with squiggles of olive or crimson may allude to twisted branches or grasses reflected in, or refracted by, shimmering water. But they read most credibly as the gestures of an artist in love with pure abstraction as an expression of wandering thought.