Design 1-14-2008

We Come From Everywhere: “Midwest Sanctuary” at Altered Esthetics

Matt Konrad took in the new group show at Altered Esthetics, highlighting work from people around the world who've made the Upper Midwest home. He found both the richness of the variety and the universality of themes to be exhilarating.


Near the entrance of the Altered Esthetics gallery hang a pair of maps speckled with pins—the interactive element, if you will, of their Midwest Sanctuary group show, which will be up through the end of January. The pins have been placed there by visitors to the exhibition: one represents their hometown, one their place of residence, and six more stand for the birthplaces of their parents and grandparents.

As you’d expect, the detail map of Minnesota and surrounding states is relatively packed; on the larger world map, there’s a large cluster of pins in the same neighborhood, making something of a sculpture stretching from the middle of the Great Lakes to the Dakotas. Less predictable, though, is what happens when you look beyond that region. Most of Europe, on this multigenerational map of diaspora, is covered enough that one can barely read the country names. But the pins extend to locales far beyond Europe as well. Central Africa. Brazil. Inland China. The Mauritius islands. Like all good artwork, this particular piece—not even technically part of the exhibit—rewards close study, and provides a perfect preliminary glimpse into what Midwest Sanctuary is all about.

After all, any observer with an ounce of sense knows that the Midwest is far from the white-bread, “flyover” monolith of caricature and network news; but the map, like the exhibit, illustrates just how far from the truth that particular shibboleth lies. We may live in the Midwest, but, truly, we come from pretty much everywhere.

Merely turning your head from the map to the gallery’s foyer brings that point into stark relief. Without leaving this gallery in a converted warehouse in a city smack in the center of North America, you immediately see Brazilian artist Silvana Lacreta Ravena’s Boxed Memories, surreal, dreamy paintings under thick, chunky layers of encaustic. Nearby are several metalwork sculptures from Rabi Sanfo, a native of Burkina Faso who now shares studio space with Altered Esthetics, and a stunning collage from Billy Chuck, a former car-magazine illustrator from Minot.

These three artists offer a pretty good microcosm of what you’ll find once you make it beyond the entryway, all the way inside. Ravena’s work is abstract and therapeutic; it deals, as her statement says, with place and memory by rendering, in literal relief, the haze through which we view such things. Hers is a smart expressionism, with an obliqueness that invites close examination. On the contrary, Sanfo’s metallurgy is straightforward, informed by and informative about a place half a world away. His Sogné sculpture, for instance—a bronze of a young man, thin and elongated—comes with the trivia that Burkina Faso’s sogné servants were traditionally castrated so the beautiful women of the castle wouldn’t distract them from their duty.

This bit of information, in context, knowing that the artist is possibly working directly upstairs, is a cultural eye-opener and just the sort of “small-world” moment this exhibit really excels at.

Then there’s Dakota Ghost, Billy Chuck’s collage, which is informed less by tradition or art history than by 20th century pop. It’s neon bright and twilight dark, with spray-paint and a comic-book cowgirl and the sort of font that’d be most at home on a Vegas-bound billboard. In the context of the show, it’s a bold statement that the diversity of “Midwestern art” comes not only from diasporic homelands and disparate traditions, but from the “now” as well.

This mix of old and new, in fact, is perhaps even more striking than the geographic diversity of the show. Ida Kumoji’s Cross-Cultural Design project is a stunning fusion of time and place. The Ghana-born, Minnesota-educated designer renders traditional adinkra cloth in repeated patterns of the Western alphabet. The effect of the ancient adornments combined with the same typefaces you’d run into on your commute’s average road sign is nothing short of remarkable in the way it recontextualizes both.

In the same way, Igor Dukic’s mordant laser prints juxtapose imagery in a way that will stick with you long after you leave the gallery. The artist grew up in Sarajevo and fled with his family during the war; he spent some time working as a janitor before turning to design. His work combines the graphic sensibility of PoMo concert poster design with some heavy subject matter, plenty of dark humor, and the most heartbreaking squirrels and penguins that have ever shared frame space with a bunch of skulls.

All of which is not to say that tradition doesn’t have a place here. Hungarian artist Eszter Sapi’s sketches dominate the back wall and speak to a time and place where street artists lingered in European parks tossing off effortlessly perfect cartoons of people. Iraqi-born Haider Al-Amery’s oils and ceramics use simple forms—almost reminiscent of ancient cave paintings—of men, women, or drawn from nature that remind you, with no pretense, of a simple truth: people from here, people from there, and people from there that live here … we’re all pretty much the same, when it gets down to it.

Which is really the point of Midwest Sanctuary. Tiffany Eggenberg’s somber Dakota marchers, Laura Brown’s witty woodcut grain elevators, the juxtaposed Middle Eastern men of paintings from Al-Amery and Caroline Woodruff—they’re all “Midwestern,” in one way or another. And while that term may have as many definitions as there are pins on the map in the gallery foyer, it also means that artists and observers alike have one more thing that unites us.

About the writer: Matt Konrad lives in Minneapolis, where he writes about everything from soccer to cocktails. His work appears frequently in Metro, and you can visit him online at The Cash Box and the Taste Mafia.

What: Midwest Sanctuary: Artwork by and about the diverse people of the Midwest
Where: Altered Esthetics Gallery, Minneapolis, MN
When: The exhibition runs through January 26, 2008