Indy's Indiana Bicentennial Exhibitions 

A First Friday Journey from the IMA to the Tenuous Show in Fountain Square

Union Station by Vija Celmins - INDIANAPOLIS MUSEUM OF ART
  • Union Station by Vija Celmins
  • Indianapolis Museum of Art

On this June First Friday, I spent the morning at the Indianapolis Museum of Art before heading to the galleries. But that morning visit formed a kind of template for my visits to the downtown galleries later in the afternoon and evening.

The big exhibit there right now is 19 Stars of Indiana Art: A Bicentennial Celebration. The title of the exhibition is based on the fact that Indiana was the 19th state admitted to the union. From that point on the American flag would have that many stars.  

But in my forthcoming review I didn't give the exhibition nearly so many stars, which had nothing to do with the quality of the work displayed there. I had my problems with this exhibition largely in terms of its organization, which I found to be reductive, and its lack of featured artists with any kind of connection to Indy’s contemporary arts scene.

This situation wasn’t made all that much better by the exhibit’s video footage featuring local artists talking passionately about some of the "stars" featured in the exhibit.  Leslie Dolin, to take one example, talks about Garo Antreasian, an innovative printmaker who taught at Herron, who she greatly admires.

But I thought the exhibit would have been better if Dolin would have been able to share one of the 19 stars, as it were, with Mike Graves. I think they would've been a perfect fit for this exhibition. I’m not talking about the Indy-born architect and designer Michael Graves who of course is featured here—but the Mike Graves with a studio in Fountain Square’s Murphy Art Center, who collaborated with Dolin in 2012 on a series of portraits of African-American musicians entitled Sister Soul. (Dolin composed the portraits of these mixed media paintings while Graves did the backgrounds.)  

I feel strongly that what's going on in Indy right now, at this moment, is as much a part of Hoosier art history as back in the 1860s when Jacob Cox was starting out as a painter in Indianapolis. And the variety of art-making - the sheer amount and variety of it - is probably unparalleled.  Certainly the vibrancy of this scene was acknowledged and celebrated in the Indiana State Museum's 200 Years of Indiana Art: A Cultural Legacy, curated by Mark Ruschman.

But this isn’t to say that there aren’t many treasures to be found in this particular IMA exhibition. The haunting grayscale seascapes and starscapes of Latvia-born Vija Celmins (a 1962 Herron grad) were something of a revelation to me. And then there was her otherworldly lithograph of Union Station.

Union Station by Vija Celmins - INDIANAPOLIS MUSEUM OF ART
  • Union Station by Vija Celmins
  • Indianapolis Museum of Art
And then William Forsyth’s “Painting on Palette” featured two landscapes painted on a palette as if they were painted on pieces of paper tacked onto it, in a trompe l’oeil style. This might just serve to say that there's nothing new under the sun to the repurposed media-obsessed contemporary art world.

click to enlarge Painting on Palette by William Forsyth
  • Painting on Palette by William Forsyth

But I probably spent the most time with a painting by Jacob Cox entitled “Scene in Indianapolis,” which shows what the Fall Creek area around Illinois St. looked like at some point during the 1860s with the addition of a pioneer family about to cross. Cox was the first successful fulltime artist in Indianapolis, a contemporary artist in his own time. 

Scene in Indianapolis by Jacob Cox
  • Scene in Indianapolis by Jacob Cox

I suppose it’s something of a miracle that artists are still putting paint to canvas in these pioneer days of Oculus Rift 3D glasses, and what seems like a general inundation of electronic media falling from the sky.

I was reminded of this state of affairs by one particular painting in the 84th Annual Juried Exhibition of Indiana Artists on view on the IMA ground floor. There was a strikingly realistic painting in soft pastel entitled “Maternity” by Jose Caro that portrayed a mother with her daughter in her lap.

click to enlarge Motherhood by Jose Caro
  • Motherhood by Jose Caro

There’s a shared intimacy about the painting. And yet mother and daughter have their eyes glued to their respective electronic devices in this work. And the glow of the screen is so bright on the child's face that it seems to be consuming her. 

As a father of an 11-year-old daughter, with my own eyes glued to my laptop as I type this sentence, this painting has particular resonance for me. A couple of evenings ago I had to grab myself by the shirt collar and pull myself away from the screen; she was at the chessboard in my study and I didn’t want her to have to play against herself. Playing against yourself is no fun at all.
My first gallery stop after my time at the IMA was the Harrison Center for the Arts. I came in through the City Gallery entrance to see a skillfully detailed ceramic bust of T.C. Steele by Duane King. Not only the head was portrayed but also part of Steele’s tie and suit jacket. These garments were painted in the style of an impressionistic Indiana landscape. A nearby installation addressed the life and work of May Wright Sewall. Just what was going on here? Another historical exhibition?   It just so happened that the City Gallery exhibit, like the “19 Stars” exhibit at the IMA, had to do with the Indiana Bicentennial, Entitled, “Herron, Sewall, and Steele,”  and honors three prominent artists of the Gilded Age.

And then there was Justin Vining’s printout entitled, “Indiana Artist Chart.”
Vining, a fine landscape painter with a studio at the Harrison, had recently begun research into the rich history of Indiana art and artists. The chart was a printout listing hundreds of Indiana artists’ encircled names, linked by lines. The biggest circle in this map of artist influence was William Forsyth (1854-1935), one of the stars of the IMA exhibit, one of those responsible for the founding of the Herron School of Art.

click to enlarge Indiana Artist Chart by Justin Vining
  • Indiana Artist Chart by Justin Vining

"When I started learning about painters I had no idea about Forsyth,” Vining told me. “Who he didn’t teach he was friends with.”

By conducting his own research and then using the open source software program Gephi, he developed the above chart, which helps guide him in his own quest to acquire work by historical Indiana artists, a number of them, such as George Jo Mess, who he finds so influential in his own painting.

click to enlarge Justin Vining in his Harrison Center studio, displaying an acquired lithograph
  • Justin Vining in his Harrison Center studio, displaying an acquired lithograph
Vining allowed me into his studio where he proudly showed me a couple of prints that he had recently acquired including a lithograph by John Rogers Cox.

“I’m excited about taking Indiana art that’s been all over the world back to the studio,” he told me.
And he has scoured the internet looking for reasonably priced work by these artists, both paintings and prints. Perhaps someday in the not too distant future we’ll see an exhibition of Justin Vining landscapes side by side with the work of artists who he’s found influential over the years.

Sometimes what’s going on behind the scenes at the Harrison Center is just as interesting as the art up on the walls. This was certainly the case this time around with two recent graduates of Herron High School Adeline Sinsabaugh and Tucker Krajewski. Their podcast, entitled "Inquiry," which will soon be available on the Harrison Center website, is an exploration of two distinct areas on the near north side that face challenges in terms of economic development and crime.

click to enlarge Herron High School grad Adeline Sinsabaugh at City Gallery
  • Herron High School grad Adeline Sinsabaugh at City Gallery
“It’s called Inquiry and it’s about the city,” said Sinsabaugh, who will be studying in Rome through Loyola University next year. “We realized that there’s not really a podcast about the city. So we wanted to tell the stories of Indianapolis neighborhoods. We’ve worked, both of us, with the Harrison Center before in different capacities. So we thought that there would be people who would be part of that. So we’re telling the stories of 38th and Illinois and 16th Street and the Monon.”

"We’re just spending time…and getting to know the people there, the business owners," she said. 

And they'll be spending time just several miles away from the site that Jacob Cox depicted in the 1860s - his "Scene in Indianapolis" - at the location of the Illinois St. bridge over Fall Creek.

Look for the first episode by these future This American Life reporters on the Harrison Center website June 14.

My next destination was the Indiana Landmarks Center, which was featuring Thane Young’s “Still Life Series” in its Rapp Family Gallery. Young teaches Art History at Herron, and his art is influenced by a mélange of classical realism and cubism.  But his color choices are often soft pastels as if he's a closet Impressionist. And sometimes Young hearkens back to the days of classical antiquity, such as in his oil on canvas “Still Life with Greek Bust & Oinichoe” which also looks like he might have been channeling Georges Braque because of its clear Cubist influences.

click to enlarge Still Life with Greek Bust & Oinichoe by Thane Young
  • Still Life with Greek Bust & Oinichoe by Thane Young

But the painting itself gives the illusion that it was composed out of square particles of tile, as in a mosaic. Perhaps Young is something of a physicist, on the fence as to whether light is a particle or a wave. 

“Still Life with Skull, Silver Vase, and Fruit Bowl” recalls the strong tradition of using skulls as subjects in painting going all the way back to Roman times. There’s skillful use of color and a playful streak in this exhibition, definitely worth a look.

Moving onto Gallery 924, I hit another exhibition that was linked to the Indiana Bicentennial anniversary. This one, featuring the work of Kipp Normand and Kyle Ragsdale, is entitled “Town and Country: Indiana Stories.”

I found Ragsdale’s most engaging work here to be a departure from his usual impressionistic paintings featuring Gilded Age dames and dudes in period dress – although there were plenty of those.

That is, I found myself drawn to his recent works composed using altered monotype and chine-collé as media. Limberlost 1, which refers to the Limberlost Swamp in Northwestern Indiana, was the setting for the novel A Girl from Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter. In this work you can see an abstracted portrait of a woman in a brown dress, beneath a surface that looks impacted by raindrops, as if you’re looking down at a girl floating in a swamp. But maybe that's a kinda downbeat interpretation of this work.

click to enlarge Limberlost I by Kyle Ragsdale
  • Limberlost I by Kyle Ragsdale

And Kipp Normand’s collages were engaging and instructive about the subject of Indiana history. The most humorous one hands down was “You don’t know….” Which featured a can of Shinola shoeshine among other early 20th century artifacts. The wall text gives a little historical lesson on the origin of a certain expression. Did you know that Shinola was originally manufactured in Indy in the 1930s?  I didn’t. I guess I don’t know shit from Shinola.  

click to enlarge "You Don't Know...." by Kipp Normand
  • "You Don't Know...." by Kipp Normand

My next stop was a group show called “Tenuous” in at 1234 Barth Street in Fountain Square. The fact that Ginny Taylor Rosner was exhibiting there was a definite draw for me; most of the work I had seen from her previously had been in the realm of digital photography. One of her favorite subjects was the wind turbine farms just north of Lafayette, IN. (Warning to drivers: DO NOT look at the turbines while driving at night; this can hypnotize you and get you killed.)

The centerpiece of Rosner’s exhibit is a 15 foot long series of landscape photographs (each photo measuring 6” by 18” strung together, entitled “Breadth of Memory” featuring the windmill farms and the northern Indiana landscape where Rosner happened to grow up. The photos are printed with swerving parabolas of text, the kinds of thoughts written out that you might think as you’re driving along: “You never told me that you were proud of what I had become….. I didn’t know until after you were gone.” And many of the photos look like they were shot from the open window of a speeding car. The series of photographs is both backlit and double sided—lit from both sides—viewed in an otherwise dark room.

click to enlarge Breadth of Memory by Ginny Taylor Rosner
  • Breadth of Memory by Ginny Taylor Rosner

The video shot of the same landscape—which also appears to have been filmed from a speeding car—is entitled “Autumn Migration,” featuring four different exposures.

Be sure not to miss this one. The hours are Friday-Sunday 1:00 pm to 6:00 pm through June 12. The run time of this one is short but so is life, after all. That is perhaps the inherent in Rosner's work here, inherent in the title of this exhibit.Think of the fact that 200 years isn’t even a scratch in the surface of geologic time. Think that perhaps that one day we will all be the ghosts that our loved ones talk to as they drive towards their destinations wherever they may be. 

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