GRAND RAPIDS (DETROIT FREE PRESS) - Having spent nearly two days last week surveying many of the 1,500 works of contemporary art on view at ArtPrize, the first thing to say is this:
There's so much to see that, after a while you can feel as if you're chasing your own tail as you traipse back and forth across the 3 square miles of downtown where art is on display in some 170 venues - museums, exhibition spaces, hotels, banks, bars, restaurants, convention halls, churches, public parks and plazas, street corners, etc. Good Lord, the art is EVERYWHERE!
In its fifth year, ArtPrize has once again taken over Grand Rapids, with elbow-to-elbow crowds expected in many of the major venues and on the streets where an estimated 400,000 people visited last year during the 19-day competition. ArtPrize offers the world's richest prize in contemporary art with a total purse of $560,000. It's not just the size of the checks at stake that makes ArtPrize unique: $360,000 is awarded by public vote, including a $200,000 top prize. (A jury of professionals also will award $200,000, with $100,000 going to the winner.)
The competition runs through Oct. 6, with the top 10 vote- getters to be announced Sunday and the winners announced Oct. 4. What follows is my own personal top 12 based on what I was able to see. Before the list, however, here are a few viewing tips and observations.
First, I wasn't able to get to the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, the one venue located outside the core downtown. Typically home to some of the strongest work at ArtPrize, the venue this year is featuring an international cast of artists working in glass.
Second, there's quality art to be found at ArtPrize, but you have to wade through a lot of dull, second-rate and amateur work, too. Much of the best work (but not all) is concentrated in several high-density venues where a stronger curatorial vision is in play. These are are good place to start your tour. These include Site:Lab, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Kendall College of Art and Design, Fountain Street Church, UICA (Urban Institute for Contemporary Art), DeVos Place Convention Center and Meijer Sculpture Park.
Having said that, one of the pleasures of ArtPrize is in the wandering. I happened upon some very rewarding work at two smaller venues along Division Street in the HeartSide neighborhood: Craft House, a collaborative exhibition space, and Calvin College's (106) Gallery.
The ArtPrize jury selected its 25 finalists earlier this week. Two of these are on my short list of favorites, including Peter Crow's abstract painting and a video installation by Kevin Cooley and Phillip Andrew Lewis.
"The Last People" by Stephen Hendee (Site:Lab): The most evocative piece I saw, "The Last People" collapses tens of thousands of years of human history in a multiple gallery, walk-through installation that seamlessly meditates on the resolute links between the past and future. The Baltimore-based Hendee imagines a world in which intelligent machines, rendered as exquisite, glowing lanterns, explore their roots.
"Untitled" by Rosalyne Shieh and Troy Schaum (Site:Lab): While most of the installations at Site:Lab have an aggressive edge, architects Shieh and Schaum's untitled entry offers a cool, minimalist sensibility. A row of suspended pink panels ascends on an angle, establishing a pleasing marriage of rhythmic repetition, color, light and geometry in space.
"Field" by Conor Foy (Fountain Street Church): This Brooklyn, N.Y.-based painter stood out at last year's ArtPrize for his marriage of formal invention with powerful emotion and ambiguous meaning. This year's entry, a small, brushy oil canvas, offers similar rewards, showing several barely defined figures, perhaps enslaved laborers, working within a green field.
"Erase" by Greg Bokor(Fountain Street Church): Bokor's 20-foot long, meticulously rendered graphite drawing of an AR15 assault rifle is a strong piece of politically motivated conceptual art - a pro-gun-control statement responding to the recent mass shootings in America. Viewers are invited to take part in literally erasing the drawing by this Massachusetts artist.
"Meridian" by Lauren Cotton (Kendall College of Art and Design): Cotton's charming transformation of a corridor via thick, intersecting geometric lines rendered in red, blue and yellow gives viewers the feeling of walking straight into the middle of a wall drawing inspired by the late Sol LeWitt. Walk back and forth a few times for maximum impact.
"Through the Skies for You" by Kevin Cooley and Phillip Andrew Lewis (Kendall College of Art and Design): A wild and clever combination of two-channel video projections and a massive installation, Cooley and Lewis' work was inspired by the disappearance of an expeditionary ship led by a 17th-Century French explorer. The viewer sees the ship being rescued from the water in one video, while the second contains a shocking surprise that connects the dots with the crumbled remains in the gallery. There's poetry in the combination of elements.
"-holic" by Yunjung Kang (Grand Rapids Art Museum): A South Korean-born artist studying at Cranbrook Academy of Art, Kan's biomorphic fiber abstraction hangs on the wall in enigmatic and tactile splendor. The tubes, in shades of blazing red and made of yarn, reach out like the gills of a breathing creature, inviting you to peak inside. Do you dare?
"November 1st" by Paul Rousso (DeVos Place Convention Center): Is pop art the gift that keeps on giving or simply running on fumes 50-plus years hence? Rousso of Charlotte, N.C., argues the former in this stupendously large - 31 feet long, 9 feet tall - mixed-media wall piece of candy wrappers writ large and printed onto sculpted acrylic. Among the most purely fun works you'll see at ArtPrize.
"Christina's World" by Craig Paul Nowak (DeVos Place Convention Center): A tour de force by a young Detroit painter, "Christina's World" takes off from an iconic Andrew Wyeth painting. It places Wyeth's woman lying in a treeless field within the context of a surrealistic postapocalyptic Detroit landscape populated by cartoon figures. The marriage of whimsical and disturbing imagery, the irregular shape of the 60 interlocking canvases and the gargantuan scale - 28 feet wide and 10 feet tall - have a startling and troubling impact.
"Consumed: The American Way" by Lauren Schneider (Craft House): Three stark portraits by a young Grand Rapids artist that critique consumer culture with a sharp compositional eye and mature restraint. Her subjects appear with detritus of capitalism - in one a young man holds a broken-down vacuum in front of a junk pile. Schneider makes her point without overplaying her hand.
"The Spaces of Sound (Thank You Mr. Cage)" by Megan Heeres (UICA): In this beautiful and mesmerizing installation perfectly adapted to a stairwell at UICA, the Detroit artist has hung Slinky-like tubes as long as 49 feet. Covered in translucent paper and illuminated in lovely pastels, the tubes sway to the gentle beat of the moving air - winking at the spirit of John Cage, the radical poet of sound, silence and anything-goes experimentation.
"Three and Four: Red, Yellow & Black" by Peter Crow (Cathedral Square): There's hardly any memorable abstract painting on view, but one exception is metro Detroiter Peter Crow's large and vibrantly expressive triptych. There is something of Stuart Davis' jazzy rhythmic pop in the progression of color and shape across the canvas and something of Brice Marden's swirling loops that meander leisurely within the painting. But Crow's own voice and the love of pure painting shines.
Detroit Free Press - Mark Stryker