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The Art Prize Top Ten—Top of What Standard?

October 2, 2011

It’s happened again, only this time the pattern is even clearer than usual. What entries made it into the top ten at ArtPrize? The gigantic, the cute, the pieces with “local” appeal, with entertainment value, and works that pander specifically to the conservative sensibility of the area. Plus, as usual, a couple of artworks with legitimate content and value. At least, that’s how I see it breaking down.

Concerns that GRIID has presented in the past all apply to this year’s event and selections. There is, for one thing, a serious lack of diversity among the artists—all but one is White. Another concern is how only certain downtown locations seem to be drawing the visitors and the votes, and other nearby areas, such as Heartside, don’t have the same number of venues and are not drawing visitors. As in the two past years, all of the Top Ten winners are confined to the small area of prize locations in the immediate downtown area—the Ford Museum, the Art Museum, the B.O.B., etc. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau just commissioned a study of the economic impact of ArtPrize for downtown businesses. A preliminary study showed that the first ArtPrize generated between $5 to $7.5 million of business for downtown GR. That fits neatly into the DeVos plan of how “creative class” attractions will generate a new well of dollars for their family’s next generation.

So let’s look at these highly predictable Top Ten vote-getters.

First, let’s talk about great big animals. Remember the Loch Ness monster? This year’s Animals-Interacting-With-Water entry is called “Grizzlies on the Ford.” It’s a group of bears catching fish and wading next to the Gerald R. Ford Museum. The bears are carved from wood, and are highly reminiscent of those big wooden pieces that guys in the UP carve with chainsaws and sell at roadside stands. Maybe that rang some nostalgic bells with the folks who voted for it.

“Mantis Dreaming” is technically a better piece, but it’s still a gigantic animal from an artist who has entered three of them so far in this competition. His artistic statement includes the line, “We all have a butterfly that we want to catch.” Yuck.

Then there’s “Ocean Exodus,” displayed in what I have come to think of as the Steam Pig Memorial Exhibit Space. The artist says that the piece is “in progress” and “will get bigger.” Why add this comment? Maybe just in case it’s not big enough now to capture the necessary dimensions of an ArtPrize win. (Remember, the credo of AP seems to be, “The Bigger, The Better.”) The work also looks suspiciously like it was recycled from his piece “A Matter of Time” from 2010. This sculpture does display a lot of technical expertise, but occupying its place in front of the B.O.B,, I couldn’t help but wonder if its main value was generating more diners for Gilly’s seafood restaurant and bar. (“Look, Marge, they have octopus on the menu!”)

Finally in the animal category, there’s “Rusty,” a very large and very deranged-looking dog guarding a big, shiny ball. I think it might actually make small children fearful of entering the Grand Rapids Public Museum. That thing would have given me nightmares when I was five.

For pure entertainment value of the Rob Bliss variety, we have “Under Construction,” which features the artist and members of his family standing as living bronze statues on a construction site. I would like to think this was a tribute to the working class, but the artist statement makes it clear it’s a tribute to capitalism: “Presenting a scene that is common in West Michigan; things are constantly changing, rebuilding, improving. We see new buildings, new festivals, and new people.” I’d guess that most people voted for it, however, in the same way that they would vote for the entertainment of watching the guards outside of Buckingham Palace. “Did he move, Marge? I swear, I saw him move!”

In the category of “I couldn’t do that if I tried” is “Metaphorest,” a very big and very boring mosaic that seems lifeless in comparison with the artist’s mural for the Children’s Museum. It also looks unfinished, since large parts of the surface are painted rather than tiled. But did I mention it is big? And that counts for something.

There were two artworks I felt were intriguing and different in this Top Ten group. One, “The Tempest II,” looks from a distance a bit like a rough and peeling plaster wall. But instead, it is a paper sculpture, filled with shadows and light on its layered surfaces. It seems to have something to say about how even what appears to be permanent is in fact ephemeral.

Probably one of the most striking works in ArtPrize, and the best of the Top Ten in my eyes is “Rain.” A kinetic sculpture with a slow, deliberate movement, it has a hypnotic effect on the viewer. The gold and silver catch the light and give the impression of a segment of a rainstorm in sunlight, captured and held in a perfect square.

But if there’s a special award to those who really knew their audience and went for the jugular to garner votes, it has to be divided between the final two pieces from the Top Ten. “President Gerald Ford Visits ArtPrize” has a fiberglass resin Ford gazing at a bronze bust of himself. (“Look, Marge! Isn’t that a cute idea?”) There’s a similar work, much more evocative, called “Conversation With Myself” in this year’s ArtPrize entries. But the portrait of Ford is highly representational, and features our hometown-boy-made-good, if you can call a president who was appointed and then failed to get elected a success. (Ford is the only President to fall into this category unless, of course, you count George W. Bush). How could it lose? During ArtPrize, the sculptor has busied himself with creating a sculpture of Betty Ford. Maybe so that Jerry doesn’t look so utterly narcissistic.

And finally there is “Crucifixion,” a cathedral-sized (nine feet by thirteen feet) mosaic of Jesus on the cross. If this doesn’t win one of the top awards, it may make up for it if the DeVos family ends up purchasing it. After all, it’s the most obvious piece of pure Christian iconography in the Top Ten, and the DeVoses the only people around here with a house big enough to hang it in.

Business as usual at ArtPrize: the “golden rectangle” loaded for bear (literally) with oversized works that look more like escapees from a craft fair than an art museum. Appealing to the masses isn’t all that difficult, it seems, once you know the formula…although, Mia, that that crucifix is really beneath you.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. conrad permalink
    October 2, 2011 2:55 pm

    What makes your opinion on the artistic merit of various pieces in the top 10 any more important or valid than those who voted?

  2. October 2, 2011 3:08 pm

    I completely agree with the writer’s criticisms. I enjoy Artprize as a whole but I’m consistently disappointed with which pieces make the top ten.

  3. Anon permalink
    October 2, 2011 4:28 pm

    Well, not all opinions are created equal. The assumption that all opinions have the same value is false. Some opinions have more merit and credibility than others. As I have said before, It’s absolutely disturbing to read comments that suggest that there should never be any criticism. If we aren’t allowed to criticize ourselves, how do we improve things and make them more effective?

  4. Anon permalink
    October 2, 2011 4:32 pm

    “Rusty” is incorrectly stated at being at the Art Museum, it’s actually by the Public Museum.

  5. kswheeler permalink
    October 2, 2011 5:51 pm

    Anon, of course it is! Thanks for pointing out my mistake about the location.

  6. October 2, 2011 5:52 pm

    If the crucifix was really “beneath” Mia wouldn’t it be her on the cross?

  7. kswheeler permalink
    October 2, 2011 5:57 pm

    Well played, Mr. diPonzi!

    Thanks for reading the piece; I always enjoy your commentaries and articles.

  8. radiohead permalink
    October 3, 2011 11:43 am

    Wow, didn’t this story run in the Grand Rapids Press the other day? I swear I read it here:

    http://www.mlive.com/artprize/index.ssf/2011/10/a_disappointing_field_artprize_top_10_are_distinctly_pedestrian.html

  9. kswheeler permalink
    October 3, 2011 12:50 pm

    Thanks, Conrad. Did you see that the Rapidian also ran a very negative piece about the Top Ten selections? Apparently I was not alone in my impressions.

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