Review: McKnight Fellows at MCAD
by Jeffrey Kalstrom
March 29, 2003
The McKnight Foundation Fellowship recipients for 2002-2003 are Julie Buffalohead, Valerie Jenkins, Chris Larson, Margaret McGee, and Martin Meersman. The show is at MCAD Gallery at 2501 Stevens Ave. S. It runs through March 30.
Art that does not speak, communicate, or reveal the world has no value for me. I value art that physically embodies its communication. I want a work of art to fill me with the world, engender new thoughts and feelings - to wake me up. In addition I need this exchanged awareness to be of use – to posit life as livable.
I viewed this show hours after the bombs started falling on Baghdad. No doubt this beginning of war has had an impact on my perception of this work. Time seems compressed and the trivial or inept inexcusable. The following comments are I hope fair, but colored by a sense of urgency.
Valerie Jenkins creates large-scale drawings of what appear to be sections of fishnet. These sections of net are primarily drawn as a flat pattern but in each work there are areas of entanglement. Each work is composed of several drawings and as their edges meet up the denser tangled area forms a bar or a cross shape depending upon the orientation of the net patterns. The nets are rendered well but it is always clear that the hand makes the marks. The reference to the hand nicely dovetails with the essence of the nets. They are both tools for fishing and exemplars of handicraft in their creation. The knowledge that her father and grandfather used nets to fish Lake Michigan makes clear an underlying reverence of this work. There is potential and a good spirit in this work. It would be exciting to see this work pushed further towards a deeper sensuality.
There is an immediate charm and delight in the small eight-inch tall painted wooden figures created by Margaret McGee. One of the most striking figures I recognized as a beekeeper with a wicker mask carrying a wicker hive in his arms taken from a drawing made in 1568 by Pieter Bruegel. They are arranged in pairs on top of a series of casually arranged plinths. The parings strike sparks and connections. One wonders what the intent is behind pairing the birdman and the deep-sea diver, or in the bear and the groom. There is amusement in this speculation, but is entertainment enough? The figures are carved and painted in a neo-folk manner. But the passion and drive that motivates the folk artist seems missing. The forms themselves are weak. Folk carving can be moving because although the folk artist might know little about anatomy or proportion the good ones are masters of their material. In these carvings Margaret McGee seems to stop at the good enough. The forms she has carved depict the figures but they do not sculpturally embody them.
Julie Buffalohead has two ambitious works on exhibit. The first, a floor installation entitled “Transitions” is ambitious. It is a complex arrangement of many clamshells; muskrat teeth, drawings, and two intense crudely modeled bloated muskrat figures. I quite like the disturbingly dead muskrat figures but the work as a whole does not hold together either physically or as an idea. The drawing in the work is done in a familiar quick and clumsy manner with little consideration for proportion or anatomy. The idea that clumsy or inept drawing is more expressive or authentic has become tiresome. The wall piece, entitled “Emergence,” is series of roughly drawn animal figures on a gorgeous shiny grid of card-sized pieces of mica. Weak drawing and a nonconsideration of composition undercut this work. The animal figures are not sensually arresting and do not invite the contemplation needed to let the meaning of the work take form. I am very interested in the aspect of the world Buffalohead is exploring, but she needs better means (craft/editing/composition) to fully communicate her vision.
Martin Merman’s work does not show this casualness of craft. His work is, however, filled with contempt and loathing for the Catholic Church. His life-size hollow-eyed priest figure wears a cloak entirely covered with communion wafers—a sacred substance for some members of his audience. If Merman’s desire was to create disgust or nausea on the part of the viewer he is successful in this. This work does not examine or explore its subject, however; it merely reviles it. In its one-dimensionality the piece becomes nothing more than propaganda.
Merman’s second work plays with the form of a church steeple, which instead of being solidly positioned on the top of a structure it is precariously fused with a round ball-like base. This work is weakened by the clumsy steel support structure which keeps the work from lying on its side. This support structure appears to be an afterthought. If the work is about instability or a lack of a foundation, why provide one? While the intent of this second work is more nuanced, the bile of the first taints it.
Chris Larson’s large-scale photographic self-portrait tableaus are glossy, elegant, and chic. In these works Larson portrays a glam cowboy: trapped in a sadistic machine, painfully strapping on leg extensions, and hanging himself by the neck in a barn with eight-foot legs that touch the ground so that the cowboy seems not to be dead but only having a bit of fun. Larson’s desire seems to be to create work that is sexy without being accused of being erotic, or rather, to load the sexual with a good dose of dread, pain and vileness in a clever way. Questions arise, such as “does this work explore, expose or reveal social/sexual codes of identity”? Or “does this work cause me to think/discuss/debate the social/sexual identity of the American male?” You might find Larson’s work revelatory, but for me the narcissism and underlying dread in the work just make me shudder and walk away.
Too many Minnesota artists have the naive and provincial notion that good drawing, carefully sculpted forms, and quality craftsmanship are naive and provincial. Until Minnesota artists stop being worried that someone will think that they are hicks they will act like hicks and be thusly perceived.
On the whole most of the work in this show is unnecessary. It does not communicate anything new or of importance. The world does not appear new/fresh/more alive/more filled with possibility or worth getting out of bed for after viewing most of this work. Most of these artists could use a good long think to examine what their work is actually saying and to ask themselves “Is this what I want my work to explore and communicate?”
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Jeffrey Kalstrom is a sculptor, curator, and critic in Duluth. He is a member of the Visual Arts Critics Union of Minnesota (VACUM).