Although half the art in Walker Art Center's new "50/50" show was picked by online voters, curator Darsie Alexander insists it shouldn't be called a popularity contest. There were too many variables in play to imagine that the chosen art really represents the public taste. Still, she admitted, some pictures did get more votes than others and whether they're "popular" or not, those pieces make up the public's half of the exhibit.
"We thought Andy Warhol would pop up earlier, but he's fairly far down on the list at No. 55," said Alexander who chose the other 50 percent of the display. Her side is intended to represent a thoughtful institutional counterpoint to the public's more random selection. The exhibit opened Thursday and runs through July 17.
Planning for the show started last summer when the Walker loaded onto its website images of about 200 prints, drawings and other works on paper from its collection. Viewers were invited to vote on whether each piece should "definitely" or "maybe not" be included in an upcoming show. About 280,000 votes were tallied in all. To entice participation, the rules were kept loose and playful.
"After you voted, you could see what the percentages were, so some people may have gone back and voted multiple times to move the dial on their favorite works," Alexander said.
The top vote-getter was "Break Point," a huge red-on-white screen print by Fiona Banner that consists of lines of words running horizontally across an 8-feet-wide sheet of paper. The words intensify until at the bottom until they're no longer legible and form "a sea of red ink," Alexander explained.
She was somewhat surprised by the print's first-place ranking. "I expected to see a face or a body or something about the human experience," she said, "but at another level I wasn't surprised because it shows a real love of detail, a fascination with meticulous crafting of surface, and an overall aesthetic -- every square inch of the composition was taken up."
As the Walker's chief curator, Alexander is deeply interested in how visitors react to the museum's shows, what kinds of art interest them, how much information they want about it, and why they come to the Walker. By offering fresh, interactive experiences, she hopes to attract more visitors and returnees. She's also eager to share how she and other curators make their decisions about what they buy and how they display it.
"The curator's process of deciding is very slow and deliberative, whereas the public's decisions are probably pretty speedy," she said, "and the process of making an exhibition from these two perspectives accentuated those differences."
The public options
Besides "Break Point," the voters' top choices were (in order):
• "House Upside Down," a watercolor by Edgar Arceneaux.
• "Self Portrait," by Chuck Close.
• "Chemical Man in a Toxic World," a colorful, almost psychedelic dreamscape by Minnesota artist Frank Bigbear.
• "Buildings at Lebanon," a barn drawn and painted in a crisp modern style by Charles Sheeler.
• "Falling Man," a Robert Longo drawing of three men in suits.
• "Seated Figure," an unusually delicate sketch of a seated man by Arthur Polonsky.
• "Two Figures," a tiny watercolor of an entwined couple by Egon Schiele.
• A sketch by Kehinde Wiley of a black man whose face and hands are highly detailed while the rest of his body is a mere shadow.
• "No One Alerted You," a record jacket that Christian Marclay embossed with those words in 1990.
The variety posed installation challenges. Some items are gigantic while others are postcard size, which makes hanging them tricky. Alexander tried to arrange them in descending order of popularity, but the juxtaposition of subjects, styles and sizes "gets crazy," she said.
As for her half of the exhibition, some of her personal favorites ended up in the public section, so late last week she was still mulling her options.
"One idea is that since the public has made choices about human physiognomy, I might look at works that show the body in more degraded or compromised ways," she said. Without ranking them, she said she planned to include "local favorites" Melba Price and David Rathman, plus Kara Walker, Chris Offili and Thomas Hirschhorn, "with whom we've had a long commitment." Plus others still to be decided.
"It's intended to identify artists we hold in depth, and to give a sense of the range of a person's work rather than to rely on a single piece to do the trick," she said, adding "The whole thing is just a big leap of faith and a lot of fun."
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431