Thursday, March 8, 2018

Bringing Art Back To Grass Roots: Andy Sturdevant @ the DAI

To see the earliest art by humans you had to travel overseas to the caves of Lascaux. Over time, as our species became more sophisticated, we became skilled at finding, collecting and preserving our earliest creative artifacts and began placing them in museums closer to home. Eventually the fine art we created was deemed worthy of a space of its own and we built beautiful buildings to house it and appointed people to take care of it while inviting the public to view and appreciate it.

In the 20th century the prevailing winds of modernism swept through and new, Modern art museums were erected to herald the Now, the Contemporary, and so we saw the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the MoMA and others harbingers of the times.

But the times kept changing, and so did the meaning of art. As expressionism slid into minimalism and printed soup cans devolved to actual Brillo boxes and Happenings, the concepts behind the art became more important than the art itself, or so stated The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe's essay on the history of art. The art, he concluded, became a vapor.

Many wondered, where to next, as if we'd reached an endpoint. There were, however, new places to go with art's evolution, and Andy Sturdevant's talk at the Duluth Art Institute Tuesday exemplified this new phase we find ourselves in. Sturdevant, who serves as Artists Resource Director for Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul, gave an hour-long presentation titled, “When the Gallery is Outside the Walls.”

In the board room before the meeting. L to R: Christina Woods, Anne Moore,
Andy Sturdevant, Joe and Karen Nease.
Though he began as a painter with a BFA, his interests have evolved so that he is more writer today, stating, "My writing has taken over my art." His writing has been published in Architecture MN, MinnPost and CityPages. He has also published two books, Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow and Downtown: Minneapolis in the 70’s.

The new barrier that has been coming down in our postmodern art world has to do with where art's center is to be found. In many sectors of our lives now there's been a move in the direction of decentralization of power. (eg. Crypto currency as a mechanism for decentralizing money; the Internet as a means to give news-making power to the people.) In the art world, power belonged to the curators of culture, the museums. If the work was not sanctified by these cultural gatekeepers, it received less respect and had less value. At one time photography was an outsider in the fine arts world, as was printmaking, bowl making and functional pottery. Sturdevant came to tell those who attended his talk that museums are no longer the center. Art is out there in the alleys of our cities and on the railroad cars, on sidewalks and pillars.*

An Aside: What this "art outside museum walls" reminds me of is the many various art exhibitions that have attempted to bring what is out there, outside the walls, into the gallery spaces. Some critics were all over this, as when one artist brought railroad ties and stacked them in the gallery in a non artistic manner like you'd find wherever railroad ties are found. There may have been an idea there, but the broader public wasn't that interested in trying to find out what it was. Numerous examples could be cited over the past three decades. 

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In his opening remarks he said, "The gallery context is narrow. A lot of people--even a majority--do not feel comfortable inside that space. If we take a more expansive few, we make art more accessible." I've observed this discomfort in people but never understood it, perhaps in part because museums and galleries have been something I experienced from a very young age, so I'd never experienced that feeling of being a foreigner there. I have known people who had the same problem with listening to classical music. Some people just don't know where to begin, don't know what they're hearing when an orchestra blends its various sounds.

Sturdevant went on to say how he loved the word "Amateur." It's a French word whose actual meaning is "lover of." It's about people who do what they do out of the love for it. Today we use it to differentiate people who are professionals from those who reside in a lesser class. He said it is less to do than whether people are paid or not paid. The word should be elevated, and the people who create likewise.

Several other ideas were presented around the following quotes.

Baudelaire talked about the "gastronomy of the eye" (a great metaphor for seeing, in my opinion) and described himself as an "amateur detective and investigator of the city."

Owen Hatherly decribed it as "a slightly gonzo form of landscape writing..."

Valeria Luiselli wrote, "The urban walker has to march to the rhythm of the city in which she finds herself..."

You can see where this is going. Art is all around you. There is a visual culture that exists on the fringes of our experience, that we might engage better if we opened our eyes. Sturdevant's aim is to draw our attention to all kinds of creative work. "Alleys," he said, "are where the city comes alive."

One of his projects was called The Via Northfield in which he walked to Northfield rather than drive it, and documented his 40 mile pedestrian experience.

He shared some tools for understanding the urban world. They included the following insights from Urban Code: 100 Lessons for Understanding a City
1. "A neighborhood has borders."
2. "Buildings outlive uses."
3. "Street cafes lie at the center of events."
4. "Cobblestones tell stories."
5. Onsite Tools: Eyes, Ears, Mouth

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There were two audiences Tuesday evening for Sturdevant. Preceding his talk to the public (every seat but one was taken, I believe) he met with the Duluth Arts Writers Cohort to whom he admonished, "read voraciously" and "as widely as possible."

One thing came through in vivid colors: Andy Sturdevant is doing something he loves. His sleeves are rolled up and his found a path that seems customized for his personality and interests.

For those of us participating the cohort, understanding who we are and what matters to each of us would be a useful guide for future pursuits, wherever they take us. Hopefully, whatever you are doing you love doing it, for you only live once.

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REMINDERS
1. Tonight at Magnolia Salon Josh Danderand & Moonlight Gateway will be sharing music and leading a dialogue on creative songwriting with the aim of helping us follow our dreams to become who we're meant to be.
2. Tonight, 5-7 p.m., is the opening reception for two new exhibitions at the Duluth Art Institute featuring work by Dana Fritz and Russell Prather.
3. Tonight also the opening reception for WTF! 2108 at the 315 Gallery (formerly Washington Galleries.) Starts at 6 p.m.
4. Saturday is Phenomenal at the Dr. Robert Powless Center at AICHO, 5:30-7:30. This event, honoring Native women and featuring art by women of color, should be phenomenal.
5. And finally, don't forget to turn your clocks ahead this week. If it seems earlier in the spring than it used to be, that's because it is. Details here.

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Engage it!

*This concept of decentralizing power requires a far more extensive dissection that what is stated here. For example, when billionaires invest in a $100M Picasso, there are processes for establishing authenticity, and for determining fair value. Many people with many are insecure about their investment decisions and lean on experts. History has shown that these systems aren't always above board though... but again, we've danced outside the scope of this discussion. Fortunately, few of us have to worry about accidentally buying a fraudulent Monet, Matisse or Mondrian.

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