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Last Friday night The Rapidian Art Beat met up at the GRAM to view the “Real/Surreal” show, the Salvador Dali exhibit and “Elephants,” this year’s winning ArtPrize entry. We arrived and began wandering throughout the museum, looking for connections and contrasts between the different works. Afterward we relocated to the Bull’s Head Tavern to hash out our feelings about what basically amounted to the entirety of the GRAM’s second floor.
“Real/Surreal” is the museum’s current Special Exhibit, and the Salvador Dali show, “The Twelve Tribes of Israel,” is being offered as the exhibit’s smaller counterpart. Both are running until January 13, 2013. Meanwhile “Elephants” will remain at the GRAM through the month of November. Past that the drawing’s fate and future location remains undetermined, but Brian Burch, Public Relations Director for ArtPrize, says it is likely to remain visible wherever it ends up.
“As with all of our winners, our goal is to ensure that it can be viewed by the general public,” says Burch.
“Elephants” was the first stop on our tour, since the elevator basically opens up directly to the piece. We lingered a while, staring at the intricacies of Adonna Khare's extensive drawing that we’d failed to notice during the actual competition when the throng of people in front of the drawing and its artist was too much to handle.
“I wish [the GRAM] had found a more concrete way to make this piece a part of the [“Real/Surreal”] exhibit,” said Rapidian Managing Editor, Holly Bechiri afterward. “It would have made people think of the more surreal pieces in it.”
“Elephants,” though rendered very realistically, is also comprised of surreal characters and the interactions and links between them possess surreal qualities as well. In the artist’s statement, Khare mentioned that the piece is largely autobiographical and is meant to reflect the last few years of her life. A little more time and a deeper inspection transforms what appears at first glance to be a whimsical and carefree piece into something much more introspective and, frankly, sad.
“I wonder how many people who voted for it or saw it noticed those details,” continued Bechiri.
From “Elephants” we moved toward the “Real/Surreal” exhibit. This exhibit takes the viewer on a tour of both real and surreal pieces in an effort to spark a conversation between the two methods of producing art. It is meant to highlight and question the similarities and differences in style.
One of the observations the three of us collectively agreed upon was the overwhelming presence of surreal works in the show. Both the GRAM’s statement and the curator’s summary of the exhibit said the show meant to create a conversation between realism and surrealism. It’s supposed to illustrate the similarities as well as the contrasts, but as the exhibit currently stands the presence of contrast is noticeably minimal. As such, we found the conversation between real and surreal to be an unbalanced one.
Even the two of the five themes the GRAM presented that could traditionally be read as “realist” had definite surreal elements present. “Unstill Lives” is a theme that served more to illustrate the surrealist aspects to still lives rather than the more traditional route of an artist trying to portray exactly what they see. This is interesting because it can be used to prove that even when artists undertake more traditionally realistic works, the imagination, arrangement of composition and overall execution can still have more surreal elements. So it’s even possible that it was meant to be a largely surreal segment, but if that’s true then it leaves only one truly realist category. However “Observed Landscapes,” the remaining realistic category, also contained surrealist overtones in the bulk of the work, once again leaving the conversation decidedly one-sided.
“I was surprised [about the amount of surreal pieces],” said Rapidian Community Engagement Specialist Renato Delos Reyes.
Despite our misgivings about how successfully the GRAM is instigating the conversation they want, we all enjoyed various aspects of the show and each had pieces that grabbed our attention.
One of the pieces we noticed most prominently was a watercolor piece by Andrew Wyeth called “Spool Bed.” It’s a highly emotive piece, despite its depiction of an empty room with an disheveled bed. Though the painting lacks live subjects, the sweeping and sometimes chaotic brush strokes manage to provide a sense of movement throughout the piece, which would otherwise traditionally be regarded as a still life.
“The Subway,” another one that caught our eye, is an oil painting by George Tooker. It’s the first painting the viewer sees upon entering the exhibit. Though it’s a little removed from the rest of the paintings in that theme, it’s part of the “Alone in a Crowd” segment of the show. The low ceilings and mass of people in a packed subway station gives off a sort of anxious and oppressive mood. All the people in the painting contribute to this feeling by appearing furtive and suspicious. This is especially true of the woman in the foreground who in addition to her anxiety, appears to be too large for the space, and seems to be hurrying to leave it.
Both of these pieces illustrate how much a painting can emote, whether it’s packed with people hurrying through their daily routines or just an empty room that appears to have been quickly abandoned. They reflect the world and draw attention to the different aspects of everyday life that we might otherwise fail to notice.
After “Real/Surreal” we wandered over to the Salvador Dali exhibit, “The Twelve Tribes of Israel.” Dali painted them in 1973 to celebrate Israel’s 25th anniversary since becoming a recognized nation state. Each painting is meant to represent one of the twelve tribes founded by Jacob’s sons.
As one would come to expect from Dali, the pieces were heavily surreal and visually arresting. Interestingly these pieces are done in watercolor, as opposed to his traditional oils, and are much smaller than his better known works.
“I wonder why he didn’t do all twelve tribes in one painting,” reflected Delos Reyes. “I liked the difference in the kind of flat color and textures of the drawings.[They’re] almost like sketches.”
“I wonder about his connection to Judaism,” Bechiri wondered. Dali lived close to a town called Girona, which is renowned in Spain for its Jewish neighborhood, and Bechiri wondered how much his surroundings affected his interest in the country’s history.
The Dali exhibit is much smaller and less involved than “Real/Surreal.” Between the two of them and our viewing of “Elephants” we spent an hour wandering through the museum before leaving to go discuss our impressions of the shows.
The Art Beat plans to host more of these conversations in the future, involving more participants from the larger Grand Rapids community. They will occur on a monthly basis at a variety of galleries, artist studios and museums, and will be followed by discussions about what we've seen.
Although I originally hail from Northern California's Bay Area, I moved to Grand Rapids in November of last year and have happily installed myself in my new post-grad, East Town life. I work part-time at a local bookstore, and when I'm not in the store peddling their wares I'm usually at home reading them. The Rapidian is my first writing gig, but I've been thoroughly enjoying it and learning a lot, so I hope I can keep throwing things out there to be published, and who knows: maybe I can keep doing this when I grow up. In the meantime I shall continue on in this vein, watching re-runs of Frasier and The West Wing between my article-writing and reading endeavors.