Star Tribune

Art Review
January 27th, 2011
Art from the heart
A new Walker Art Center show celebrates the homespun.
Mary Abbe

Do you knit scarves? Crochet dolls? Snap photos? Make candles? Putter around in a woodshop? Collect thrift-store paintings? Make paintings that end up in thrift shops?

Well, you’re not alone. Pretty much everyone has some self-expressive thing going on. And in “The Spectacular of Vernacular,” Walker Art Center is celebrating all that free-form creativity and maybe giving a little intellectual spin to what it all means.

With nearly 40 paintings, sculptures, photos, drawings and installations by 27 artists from across the country, the show is a cheerful, poignant, sometimes humorous and occasionally sharp-edged reflection of contemporary life with all its aspirations and messy contradictions. Opening with a party Friday night, it runs through May 8.

“This show looks at the relationship of contemporary art to the folk tradition, the stuff we inherit and the things that we cherish that are part of our intimate world,” said curator Darsie Alexander.

She started thinking about vernacular art when she arrived at the Walker from Baltimore two years ago. On Day One, someone dropped a Paul Bunyan postcard on her new desk. Staring at the big plaid-shirted guy with his blue ox, she started thinking about what defines places, what makes each different from the other and yet anchors them in the sinew and bones of those who live there.

For all the internationalism of the art world, the cosmopolitan exhibitions and art fairs at which paintings from Georgia rub shoulders with sculpture from South Africa, there is still a regional thread deeply embedded in certain art. That interested her, along with the DIY aesthetic that permeates so much contemporary expression.

Today’s vernacular, she hastened to say in a recent interview, is not the same as pop art. Both embrace the stuff of daily life, but the pop art of the 1960s was a celebratory critique of consumer culture and the glossy excesses of a manufactured world.

“Vernacular is much more homespun,” Alexander said. “It is related to the local and the regional, and to lay culture and amateurism. It’s about artists looking to their immediate cultural experiences and home life as a starting point. Where [pop star] Andy Warhol was looking at mass production, this is more handmade.”

Forget Paul Bunyan

There are several Minnesota artists in the show, but nothing so cornball as P.B. and the Babe. Instead there is a distinctively Midwestern closet-sculpture by Siah Armajani and three massive bas-relief tableaux by Aaron Spangler, beautifully carved with farm equipment, patriotic symbols and muscular WPA-style motifs. And in a lounge at the show’s entrance, Minnesotan Chris Larson has concocted one of his signature sculptures, a hand-built two-story arcade reminiscent of a covered bridge.

Each of the four galleries has a slightly different take on vernacular. The first is loosely about architecture as a marker of place. Walker Evans’ photos, taken in rural Alabama in 1936, set the stage for a 1976 sculpture by William Christenberry. A dollhouse-like box made of balsa wood and paper, the sculpture re-creates in miniature an aged building, now destroyed, that Evans had famously photographed for James Agee’s book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” which documented the hardscrabble lives of Southern sharecroppers. The building had belonged to a relative of Christenberry and was for him steeped in memories.

Other pieces are equally personal, pointed or strange, including thrift-store style paintings by Jim Shaw; a tapestry-covered head by Louise Bourgeois, whose mother was a weaver; a yarn-covered abstraction by Matthew Day Jackson evoking the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide, and some extraordinary etching-like drawings of flowers by Butt Johnson.

Evocations of place and the past anchor the second gallery. It includes Spangler’s impressive tableaux, a celebratory sailing painting by Kerry James Marshall, and a fascinating “Sailor’s Valentine” by Dario Robleto, who fashioned the enormous wall sculpture from hundreds of handmade paper flowers and other memorial souvenirs.

More rambunctious and glitzy, the third gallery includes a pile of antlers covered with sparkling crystals by Marc Swanson, the word “Beauty” poignantly spelled out by Jack Pierson in shabby letters from old signs, and an exuberant painting by Lari Pittman of colliding and overlapping cultural symbols.

Civil War history illustrations garnished with sardonic “annotations” by Kara Walker lead into the final gallery, which is heavy on handcrafted stuff. Dominating it is a huge canvas onto which Mike Kelley has sewn kitschy craft items including crocheted dolls, yarn octopi, big-eyed bears and rumpled scarves. Its title, “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid,” encapsulates a poignant emotional leitmotif running throughout the show. However tacky such things may be, they are, as Kelley’s title so eloquently suggests, gestures of love that took a long time to make. And during all those hours of handiwork, the maker — most likely a mom or aunt or some other elderly female relative — was cradling the recipient in her thoughts.

“Vernacular” includes many time-consuming objects. Alexander knows that the investment of time and effort doesn’t certify the art as great or even good. But it may count toward more important values.

“I don’t think whether it’s highly labored matters in itself,” she said. “But I am interested in having the exhibit serve as a counterpoint to the speed and omnipresence of images today, and to have people take it in a slowed-down and contemplative mode.”