Don Quixote tilted at windmills in literature, the Dutch celebrated them in prints and paintings, and Denmark now relies on them for much of its electrical power. But to most Americans, wind turbines are still an exotic technology that gets mixed reviews. Some admire the elegant design and environmental benefits while others lament their intrusion into scenic landscapes and fret about their dangers to birds, bats and even human peace of mind.
Anticipating that Gustavus Adolphus College may soon install a wind turbine on its hilltop campus in St. Peter, Minn., the college's art museum invited artists from towns, colleges and universities throughout the state to make art on the subject. Museum director Donald Myers worried that he'd end up with dozens of pictures of spinning turbine blades. Instead, the 49 participants in "Winds of Inspiration/Winds of Change," on view through Nov. 8, are an imaginative lot who found meaning and metaphor in the subject as well as aesthetic challenge.
For an exhibition with such a singular focus, "Winds" is unusually diverse. The most inventive response is the "Wilson Wind Chair," an amusingly modified Adirondack chair designed by Dean Wilson, a furniture design professor at Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Two old-fashioned Midwestern-style windmills, each about 5 feet tall, arch over the chair's back. Relaxants can cool themselves by pumping foot pedals that turn the mill's sails. The cheerful design offers a smart perch from which to appreciate the show.
Other novelties include "Whisper," a playful wall of paper-and-leaf pinwheels by John Saurer of St. Olaf College, and a sculpture by Jenny Nellis from the University of Minnesota, Morris, of a giant box elder seed pod whose bifurcated shape resembles turbine blades, or perhaps gigantic rabbit ears. Stephen Mohring of Carleton College concocted "Folly," a high-/low-tech sculpture that incorporates a miniature video and looks like a very abstracted, rough-hewn deer. And Ruthann Godollei of Macalester uses the windmill as metaphor in a clever monoprint. "Doña Quijote de la Academia" depicts a woman in academic robes charging a windmill whose sails are labeled "fame, reason, history, tenure," four obstacles and rewards that still bedevil women in academe.
Playfulness informs the reinterpretation of Grant Wood's "American Gothic," by Judith Forster-Monson of Le Center, Minn., who adds wind turbines to the background and shows the famous couple clutching organic seeds and a turbine manual. Jess Larson, another art professor from Morris, embroidered a turbine and the word "energy" into a mockup of an old-fashioned flashcard while Gustavus' Nicole Roberts Hoiland continued the domestic motif by embedding into cheese boards ceramic tiles decorated with rural landscapes, including turbines.
It's the cows
Although some of the concepts seem forced, the ubiquity of turbine imagery helps to diffuse the exoticism and suggest how familiar such structures will soon be. Priscilla Briggs, also of Gustavus, reinforces that notion with a video of turbines in Midwestern landscapes, surrounded by cows that seem utterly oblivious of their high-tech neighbors. Carol Lee Chase of St. Catherine University plays up the abstract elegance of turbine blades in "Spinning," a super-8 film that reduces the spinning blades to mesmerizing graphic patterns. In his gouache "Compensation for a Permanent Loss #7," Daniel Bruggeman of Carleton even speculates about a future time when wind, like so many other natural elements, has been exhausted and replaced by a poor imitation, the electric fan.
Several photographers and painters deal with the reality of turbines today. Diane Katsiaficas of the University of Minnesota at first lamented their intrusion into the landscape of her native Greece, but has come to accept their utility and documented wind farms near her Greek summer home. And several artists have found great beauty in the new technology. Ann E. Judkins used digital technology to merge images of a white blade and the shadow of an old-fashioned Midwestern windmill; Fred Hagstrom of Carleton created an ethereal intaglio of a modern "Sentinel" turbine; David Boggs of Concordia in Moorhead, Minn., painted a moody, symbolic landscape in which spiritual rays of light stretch from a turbulent sky toward distant turbines.
The show's pièce de résistance is a 6-foot-wide canvas by Bruce McClain of Gustavus, who suggests the machine's energy and beauty in a modernist abstraction composed of wedges of saturated purple, blue and red. A slightly melancholy photo by Denise Fetzer Woller of Bethany Lutheran College suggests the technological cusp on which we're poised. Called "Spinning Into a New Ag," it shows a weathered old barn, near to collapse, with a sleek wind turbine nearby ushering in the future.
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