Two Minnesota artists probe American culture and character in a smart new show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Figurines have no recorded role in the life of Henry David Thoreau. His Spartan cabin overlooking Walden Pond had a bed, desk, table, fireplace and three chairs for his occasional visitors. Doubtless he had seeds for his garden, books to read and paper on which to log his expenditures and ruminate about his two-year experiment in solitary reflection. But ornamental trinkets? Not likely.
How different our own cluttered lives with their heaps of clothes, toys, sporting goods, electronics, gadgetry and gewgaws. As houses everywhere prepare to disgorge their excess onto lawns and boulevards for Yard Sale Month, potential shoppers would do well to drop by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to take in what artists Amy Toscani and Chad Rutter have to say about consumer culture.
Their parallel shows, on view through June 29 in the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program galleries, are a clever mashup of unlikely things. Rutter’s diffuse display centers on a Thoreau quote about the deep “ruts of tradition and conformity” that direct our lives and rule our minds. Toscani’s comic sculptures take the cheesy detritus of contemporary life — plastic trays, trite landscape paintings, sentimental figurines, aquarium rocks — and recycle them into supersized satires of bad taste, inauthenticity, false piety and consumerism run amok. Where his section is high-minded and serious, hers is a hilarious and obviously affectionate sendup of popular culture in all its banal excess.
Making sense of Rutter’s “Floodplain” is a challenge, consisting as it does of three huge blue-plastic tarps dangling like scarves on wall hooks, a large rectangular stain of taupe paint with a drippy bottom edge, several fuzzy drawings of natural disasters (landslide, earthquakes, flood) and a steel trailer bearing a light box across which crawls the Thoreau quote. How all this ties together is anyone’s guess, but it seems to be fretting broadly about contemporary alienation/abuse/ignorance of the natural world. The Thoreau quote laments “how easily and insensibly” we stick to beaten paths, the “worn and dusty highways of the world,” rather than seek new routes and ideas.
Next door, Toscani pokes gentle fun at the sentimental clichés and infantile philosophizing that pass for profundity in pop culture. Her “Lonely People” sculpture, for instance, is a 3-D vision of broken dreams: a weathered wagon wheel half-sunk into a desert of aquarium rocks on which a melting pot of figurines (Indonesian beauty, old babushka, blond cowgirl) stoically hold Anita Bryant’s LP “The World of Lonely People” above the motto “Our Day Will Come.”
Figurines labeled with lisping love blurbs (“Wuv is wonderful when the someone I wuv is you”) top the arms of a sculpture designed like a 6-foot-tall candelabra or cactus. Appropriately, Toscani has titled that one “Wuv is … Weconstwucting Normative Weality.”
Elsewhere she has fused panels of translucent aqua plastic into a cubistic construction that suggests a big dog or a buggy; chainsawed a “Sugar Bear” up a tree, clutching a colorful plastic patchwork hive or burr; planted a coquettish girl’s head atop a 7-foot-tall pink-and-blue plaster gown; plunked a worried puppy head on a monstrous dog’s body, and crowned a chainsawed tree trunk with a leafy head of landscape clichés (mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, snow-flocked pines). In the middle of the latter’s trite grandeur is a wooden tray onto which she’s carved the words, “Lord Build Me a Cabin,” a campy tip-of-the-hat to Sydney Poitier’s Academy Award-winning chapel-building performance in the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field.”
Thoreau’s classic paean to individualism and originality was published 160 years ago, making this a fine moment to muse about how our national character has evolved. Even in No Smoking Please, Minnesota, we still cherish the rugged self-image so nicely commercialized by the Marlboro men.
And yet, in the MAEP galleries, Toscani’s sculptures inevitably elicit smiles of recognition. And why not? With their gentle humor, exaggerated proportions, fusion of the commercial and handmade, they are pitch-perfect songs of contemporary Americana. They are oversized, cartoonish, naive, ridiculous and yet, somehow, so haplessly hopeful. Aren’t we all?
Mary.Abbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431