Minnesota Vernacular

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Siah Armajani, Closet Under Dormer, 1984-1985

wood, paint, shellac, mirror

Collection Walker Art Center, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1986

The Walker Art Center’s exhibition Spectactular Vernacular focuses on artists who are using everyday, humble materials to reflect on and interrogate their environment… everything from raw wood to road signs to glitter.

Rather than do a tour of the entire exhibition, I thought I’d spend my time with the three works in the show made by Minnesotans, namely artists Siah Armajani, Aaron Spangler and Chris Larson. I recently met up with curator Darsie Alexander for a quick tour and a chat. She said the goal of the show is to provide viewers with a new understanding of ordinary objects.

The artists introduce the possibility of looking more critically and more deeply at those things that surround us in everyday life, that we ignore or find comfort in. They often look at those objects, symbols, but from a completely different perspective. So I hope viewers take away a new perspective on their own worlds, and how artists so creatively re-invent the most common objects in striking and profound ways.

Upon first glance, it’s easy to see that each of the “Minnesota pieces” are strongly influenced by architecture and sculpture, and all share a common element – wood. But how they use the material, and the results, vary dramatically in tone.

For instance, says Alexander, Siah Armajani’s “Architectural Closet under Dormer” is inspired by domestic architecture, but the result is totally abstract.

[Armajani's] always been interested in 19th colonial architecture, as well as poetry, literature…. and the environments in which we live. He’s created a lot of social environments: gazebos, reading rooms, etc. In this instance he shows his attraction to a certain kind of architecture, but he turns it on his head, abstracts those notions – it can’t be inhabited, there’s no view, it doesn’t do anything it’s supposed to do.

The result – be-decked in red, white and blue – is a sort of patriotic Rubiks-cube, with no evident solution.

Chris Larson’s “Unnamed Bridge” dominates the entrance to the exhibition, with its sweet smelling fresh wood structure creating a rural feel to Walker’s more citified passageway. Patrons can climb onto the bridge, but only one at a time, allowing, says Curator Darsie Alexander, for a personal, medititative experience in a space that’s meant to bring people together.

His pieces are often done in contrast to the environment; here, in a place to do looking and to be looked at, he creates a space where you can only do the looking, not be seen. It gives the impression of being inside the lens of a camera, with two apertures. It directs your view either into the museum or out into the natural world.

Alexander says while the bridge looks strikingly out of place in the museum, it enables patrons to see the building in a different way. And from the outside, the covered bridge appears to emerge through the exterior of the building and is then lopped off. While all covered bridges are traditionally named, Larson purposefully calls his bridge “unnamed.”

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Unnamed Bridge, 2011, by Chris Larson

Aaron Spangler has a trio of sculptures in “Spectacular Vernacular,” all carved out of basswood and then painted black. Spangler recently moved back to Minnesota from New York, and lives on a 150-acre piece of land outside of Park Rapids, on the same land where he grew up. Curator Darsie Alexander says his work evokes a long art history:

He’s doing something that’s very specific to the narrative of living in Minnesota. At the same time, when you think of “black art” – as in pigment – it brings to mind everything from Frank Stella to WPA era painting and sculpture.

He addresses survival in the wilderness in his work, and the extremism it evokes – battles in the countryside, people running away from something. On the surface you see agriculture but there’s a subtext of violence. At one level it may appear pastoral or craft driven, but it gets darker the more you look. It has an “American Gothic” sensibility to it.

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“Government Whore,” 2009-2010 by Aaron Spangler

Talking on the phone from his home in Two Inlets, Spangler says he originally intended the trio to all be part of a twenty-foot long carved mural.

I was working on an epic about hippies, that last pioneer time into rural America – the second time around from the early pioneers. It was the time of Mother Jones, Whole Earth Catalog, advertising “cheap land for sale.” People started intentional communities; a lot of them didn’t make, but a many people stayed around. You wouldn’t know it now to look at them, but a lot of these people, that’s how they got here.

Spangler found his muse in his longtime neighbor Bruce Brummit, while helping him dig an addition for his underground house:

My friend Bruce has been living with solar power and a hand pump in an earth house since the 70s. I grew up with him as a neighbor, so I’ve heard a lot of his stories, but as we worked together I learned more about the Vietnam war, the time after the war… as these stories were unfolding with Bruce I realized this is what this mural is about – it’s about Bruce.

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“I Owe My Soul to the Company Store” 2009-2010 by Aaron Spangler

“Government Whore” gets its name from a song Brummit wrote during the first Gulf War, about his experiences in Vietnam, in response to the cheerleading for the war he saw around him. You can read the lyrics, and more about his experience in rural Minnesota after the war here.

So why does Spangler paint all his basswood black? He says it’s just a pragmatic decision:

It’s really a way to just evoke the sculpture, the bas-relief; I started out with them being painted, but the color got in the way of the forms. It lends a darker tone thematically, but I also see it as being almost neutral, or a black and white photo where you know there’s color there, but they’re not giving it to you. It also brings up the texture and chisel marks.

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“To The Valley Below,” 2009-2010, by Aaron Spangler

Spangler says what he likes about “Spectacular Vernacular” is that it’s dealing with some trends in the contemporary art world that haven’t had much play at the Walker Art Center before now.

The materials are wide open, and art history are wide open, – all the lines of art history are there to fool with. Although you still have to battle certain pre-conceptions – for instance, being taken for a “chainsaw artist” and nothing more than that. It’s how you articulate your position, how you make your argument, that makes it relevant to contemporary art.

For Spangler, the show is not so much about “vernacular” as it is about the democratization of materials. Everything is available for art-making, which makes it an exciting time to be an artist.

Spectacular Vernacular is on exhibition at the Walker Art Center through May 8.

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