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John Wilson

Game of Shadows

ArtPrize 2014.

Have you noticed that—very often—when people talk about certain subjects that are especially close to your heart, you find yourself fuming, irritable, rolling your eyes, wanting to get away before you say something INAPPROPRIATE? (And this occurs, of course, not only in person but also when you’re reading, or listening to the radio, say, or on Twitter.) This often happens to me when someone is talking or writing or otherwise pontificating about art. And part of the reason I love ArtPrize—the annual public art festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan—is the way in which this sprawling event eludes the formulations of so much art-talk, high and low, even against the grain of artists and their intermediaries who (sometimes) want to nudge us to take the Proper Attitude toward their enterprise.

Last weekend—which was the closing weekend of ArtPrize 2014—Wendy and I went to Grand Rapids with our dear friends Gary and Kathy Gnidovic, who introduced us to the festival. This was our third ArtPrize, and their fifth. Once again, the central downtown of the city—with its magnificent array of bridges—was transformed. People of all ages were crowding the sidewalks, making their way among the major venues, stopping to look at art-works scattered right and left, buying food, pausing to watch jugglers or listen to street musicians (many of them, it must be said, abominably bad).

This year, in addition to the grand prize awarded by popular vote—$200,000—and a ranking of the top vote-getters, there was a parallel track of juried prizes, starting with a $200,000 grand prize and including winners in each of the four main categories (2D, 3D, installation, and time-based). Interestingly, Anila Quayyum Agha and her entry Intersections—an installation in the center of a large room, featuring a latticework cube, with an Islamic geometric design taken from the Alhambra and a very bright light in its center, creating a play of shadows on the walls and ceiling, repeating the design of the cube and placing the viewer metaphorically inside it—not only won the popular grand prize but shared the juried grand prize with another work, The Haircraft Project by Sonya Clark (which was Wendy’s favorite among all the works we saw).

The range of art represented is enormous. I was happy to see excellent work by artists I greatly admire, as wildly various as Rick Beerhorst, Makoto Fujimura, and Rich Branstrom, along with others new to me. (I loved a narrative sequence of photos, “Home Sweet Home,” by Danielle Owensby, in a style reminiscent of Gregory Crewdson.) Yet, delightfully varied as the menu was, certain emphases stood out. It wouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been following the art-world in the last decade to hear about the predominance (especially in the major venues) of cause-based work, which sought—typically in a very direct fashion—to claim a moral authority which the viewer was invited to share. Very often, this was spelled out in the “artist’s statement” and in some cases was established by curatorial framing.

Ah, well. On Saturday afternoon, I was walking slowly along Monroe Center next to the Rosa Parks Circle. I’d just come from Madcap—one of my favorite coffeeshops anywhere—and I was feeling blissful. A grizzled guy about my age passed me going the other direction. He nodded to me: “It’s very cool, isn’t it?” I nodded in agreement.

ArtPrize 2015 is scheduled to run from September 23 to October 11. Gary & Kathy and Wendy & I are planning on attending. Maybe we’ll see you there.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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