Populism is flourishing in the visual arts — not the virulent, rabble-rousing type that’s roiling American politics with anti-immigrant rants and off-with-the-heads-of-bankers rage, but its opposite: a pacific, inclusive let’s-all-eat-cake populism that appreciates difference and celebrates it.
This is the culture that democracy nourishes — big-tent art that’s by, for and of the people. It’s the kind of grass-roots art showcased in “Ordinary Pictures” at Walker Art Center through Oct. 9, and in “State of the Art” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art through May 22.
Populism is, of course, different in art than in politics. Even as the U.S. political system seems to grow ever more sclerotic, art museums continue to embrace change and new ideas. While populist politicians use differences to divide people into hostile factions, artists are helping to hold the country together by reinterpreting its history and welcoming outsiders into the cultural mainstream.
“Art exhibitions are inherently social activities,” said Eric Crosby, curator of the Walker’s “Ordinary Pictures” show. “When we see something familiar within the context of art, we instinctively want to talk about it in ways we don’t talk about ads, billboards or bus stop posters when we encounter them on the street. Art offers a space for more critical dialogue.”
A visual culture shared by all
As you’d expect from the Walker, “Ordinary Pictures” adds intellectual gloss to the show’s populist subject matter. It spotlights 47 artists who’ve used generic images from advertising, street life and the Internet to highlight telling but often overlooked qualities of contemporary life — the ubiquity of empty parking lots, the melancholy of suburban homes, the banality of luxury living rooms, the virtually indistinguishable architecture of churches, taverns and schools.
“They’re just asking us to look critically at familiar imagery, things we might not take notice of on a daily basis,” said curator Crosby. “However intellectual any individual piece might seem, they’re all inviting us to reconsider our shared visual culture.”
Junk visuals are not news, of course, nor are artful alterations to them. By now most people are well aware of the manipulative power of advertising and the pointlessness of the visual clutter through which we move. Still, occasionally something akin to a Jack Pierson sunset cracks our cynical shells. A big, half-creased poster of amber clouds in a darkening sky, Pierson’s image is so banal it strikes a note of pathos, somehow recalling the real sunsets of memory and infusing even his shabby artifact with nostalgic poignancy.
The institute’s show, organized by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., is a more tactile and folksy affair, filled with unusual sculptures made from porcelain teacups, twine and wine-bottle corks, or plastic junk fished from oceans. It includes winsome drawings of endangered species, photos of social outcasts, colorful weavings and celebrations of ordinary lives.
Two curators from the museum, founded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, spent more than a year roaming the country before settling on the 134 pieces by 51 talents featured in “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.” Eclectic to the max, there’s a bit of State Fair variety in the display. But the diversity of themes, the universally high level of craft and the subtlety and sophistication of the concepts are notable.
“For me, the most important thing is that the art retains an intellectual and aesthetic vigor,” said Dennis Michael Jon, the institute curator who oversaw the show’s Minneapolis presentation. “I think any medium an artist chooses is valid.”
A half-dozen huge pendants dangling like chandeliers dazzle in the first gallery. Made by Joel S. Allen of Steamboat Springs, Colo., they are shaggy, free-hanging sculptures that glow as if lit from inside. Their amber radiance is light reflected by plastic pill bottles that Allen has recycled along with wine-bottle corks and plastic tubing. In his deft hands, the mundane materials are transformed by sheer artistry.
Recycling is a leitmotif throughout. Pam Longobardi of Atlanta assembles an elegant Mondrian-esque wall drawing from plastic debris gathered from waters as far off as Greece, Costa Rica and Hawaii.
Elizabeth Alexander of Lowell, Mass., makes a subtle feminist statement by recycling bone china cups into sculpture. Once cherished emblems of middle-class gentility, such cups are now disdained as worthless kitsch. By carving away their ornamental designs, however, Alexander has simultaneously destroyed their utility and elevated their value as art.
Feminism and folk art
The 1960s feminist movement questioned why many museums ignored such traditional women’s art forms as china painting, needlework or collage while enshrining typically male-made paintings and sculpture. Such hierarchies have since been shattered, enabling men and women to innovate, as they do here.
San Diego artist David Adey produced striking 10-feet-tall designs made from laser-cut paper pinned to panels. Their lacy outlines and pink-and-white tones are conventionally female, but the map-like design is actually a 3-D scan of his body, an abstracted self-portrait.
Pittsburgh-based Vanessa L. German sculpts a pair of child-sized guardians that resemble African power figures dressed in ropes of shells, baby shoes and porcelain doll parts. Laurel Roth Hope of San Francisco makes an environmental statement by carving extinct birds — passenger pigeon, dodo, Guadalupe Caracara — and fitting them with exquisitely crocheted plumage.
Contemporary issues ranging from ethnicity and race to environmentalism, mistreatment of animals and society’s callous neglect of the abused find expression here. There are elegant tributes to the color theories of Josef Albers and trompe l’oeil board games alluding to the surrealism of René Magritte.
With its familiar media and sophisticated themes, “State of the Art” strikes a note of positive populism. No exhibition can change the angry tone of contemporary discourse, but perhaps welcoming shows such as these will help to defuse some of the tensions now tearing at the fabric of American life.