Fischer is represented by yet another Chelsea gallery, Cohan and Leslie, located just a few blocks from Zach Feuer. Recently it added Minneapolis painter Todd Norsten, who grew up in Willmar, to its roster. Norsten paints huge white canvases on which simple words and images float in isolation. Their mundane and even folksy quality is cut with an acidic sense of humor. Norsten’s work will be showcased at the gallery in May, and also as part of the sprawling Whitney Biennial, which opens this month and is the most scrutinized survey of contemporary art from around the country.
That exhibition has become something of a debutante ball for emerging artists. The inclusion of Fischer and Soth in the 2004 biennial, for example, led to attention not just from critics, but from museum curators, dealers, and, of course, collectors. This year’s biennial will also be a coming-out for Jay Heikes, who works mainly in sculpture and video, and photographer Angela Strassheim, both of whom divide their time between the Twin Cities and New York. Strassheim especially, who moved to Minneapolis in high school, currently teaches at her alma mater (you guessed it, MCAD), and just received a Jerome Fellowship, is registering on a lot of radars. Soth laughed as he recalled one of the higher-ups at the Whitney Museum describing her by saying, “Alec, she’s the new you.”
Many of the cognoscenti who flock to New York for the biennial opening will also attend two strategically timed extravaganzas on the west side of Manhattan the following week. The Armory Show and the Scope Art Fair rack up tens of millions of dollars in sales of contemporary art in just a few days; one of the few non-cash-and-carry goods on view at Scope will be something called the “New York City Museum of Cultural Complaint.” It is one of many archive-based projects of Matt Bakkom, an erstwhile New Yorker who was born, bred, and currently lives in South Minneapolis. Paul Shambroom’s Security, a series of photographs based around domestic anti-terrorism efforts, will go up at the Julie Saul Gallery at the end of March; and the following month, at the Clementine Gallery, paintings by David Rathman, who is having his third solo show in five years there.
To be sure, it’s not unusual for Minnesota artists to show, sell, and receive accolades for their work in New York. Chris Mars, Mary Esch, Shannon Kennedy, Chris Larson, David Lefkowitz, and Carolyn Swiszcz are just a handful who’ve done so in the last few years. Shambroom and another photographer, David Goldes, have had solo shows there since the late nineties. These and other artists—Alexa Horochowski, Doug Padilla, Melba Price, Frank Gaard—have also exhibited in cities as close as Chicago and Detroit or as far-flung as Buenos Aires, Paris, and Berlin.
Still, the current situation in New York is notable, something that trend-spotters might call a “Minnesota moment.” Indeed, Cohan and Leslie curated a show last summer called Minets à Polis, featuring work from Soth, Spangler, Norsten, Fischer, Larson, and Rathman. “It’s not so much that there are distinct ideas they all work with, but there is a specific language that they participate in, that has to do with their home towns, where they went to school, that kind of thing,” said gallery co-director Leslie Cohan. “I also wanted the show to be somewhat open-ended, to take this one idea, Minnesota—the land, the people, the culture—and see what viewers thought.” One reviewer called it “an elegant investigation into the mythology of the American heartland,” and noted “the subtle humor” running throughout the works.
So why these particular artists and why now? Is it simply a matter of their own good luck, great timing, or excellent networking skills? On a larger scale, perhaps their success is evidence that the sovereignty of New York as an art capital is eroding, that people are recognizing that art made elsewhere can be not just aesthetically compelling and critically valid, but also viable in the market there. Philippe Vergne, the senior curator and deputy director at Walker Art Center, said, “It’s not only New Yorkers looking outside New York. Things are shifting all over.” As one of two organizers of this year’s Whitney Biennial, Vergne had ample opportunity to gauge those shifts, given all the time he spent visiting artists’ studios around the country. “It’s a different kind of network now, with people all over looking outside their own backyards.” Helping to build that network, Vergne pointed out, is the fact that information can circulate farther and faster than ever.
Then there’s the global/local dynamic, and the proliferation in recent years of huge international art exhibitions, especially in Europe. The volume and scale of the art at these shows, and the sense that much of it is made more to be a passing fancy than something for sustained contemplation, has led to what New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl (also originally from Minnesota) described, a couple of years ago, as “our new order of universal frazzlement.” Vergne concurs with that sentiment. “People are tired of the whole globalization thing,” he said. The reaction to it is a renewed interest in the local, in smaller scenes and smaller cities where artists are working outside the main currents of power. Another factor could be the exceptionally brisk market for art in the past few years. “There are so many collectors and so much demand for young, emerging, and mid-career artists,” said Kimberly Brown, the director at Zach Feuer Gallery (and, coincidentally, hailing from Grand Rapids, Minnesota). “Sometimes it seems like anybody can sell anything in the art market. It’s a very strange time.”
Naturally, one could see the success of these artists as a payoff on Minnesota’s much-vaunted investments in the arts. MCAD, for one thing, has received top rankings for its design school, but clearly is doing something right with its visual arts programs too, given how many of the artists mentioned here studied there. That school, the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and several small nonprofit organizations dedicated to visual art—the Soap Factory, Midway Contemporary Art, Soo Visual Art Center, and Franklin ArtWorks—all serve as a sort of progressive farm league that can develop rookie artists all the way up to the big leagues. (The Walker is particularly influential in this way; some say that catching the eye of one of its curators is essential to making the jump outside Minnesota.) This development is underwritten by major foundations like the McKnight, the Jerome, and the Bush, that together, along with the State Arts Board, grant hundreds of thousands of dollars to individual artists each year. Other cities of comparable size have nowhere near this level of foundation support, and it can have unintended drawbacks, some artists believe, in terms of breeding competition among a relatively small pool of artists, or discouraging risk-taking, or undermining the incentive for artists to sell their work. Nevertheless, in addition to this generosity there is the largesse of blue-chip companies like Target and General Mills. Add the small but increasingly lively commercial gallery scene, and it seems these forces, combined, are enough to be launching local artists to a larger national stage.
Regardless of how or why these Minnesota artists are gaining more visibility outside the state, one intriguing quality they share is their desire to preserve, rather than pull up, their Minnesota roots. Ironically, the two among them whose work is most rooted in rural Minnesota live, most of the time, in Brooklyn. “New York doesn’t inspire me in my work in any way,” said Spangler. He was talking in his studio, which is half of a garage below his apartment building. It is situated on a busy stretch of Atlantic Avenue dominated by storage facilities and auto-repair shops. Two massive slabs of basswood leaned against the opposite wall, waiting to be carved; in the center of the floor was a smaller rectangular block in the process of becoming a free-standing sculpture. On the table was a finished piece that was recently bought by Takashi Murakami, the Japanese artist who rivals Damien Hirst in the sheer scale of his operations. “Plenty of work has been made about New York, about L.A., about the coasts, everywhere,” Spangler said. “I’m using the landscape and the stories and the people that are where I’m from. It’s not an accurate representation, but there’s something of the spirit of things that I feel, that captures my imagination.”
Spangler peeled strips off small chunks of wood while he talked; a thimble-like piece of suede protected his thumb from the knife. He moved to New York in 1999 because his girlfriend, also from Park Rapids, wanted to pursue her cooking career. They’ve since married, and both have found that they benefit from commuting seasonally between New York and Northern Minnesota. “Being in Park Rapids last summer made me more free in my work. I didn’t feel like I was trying to hang onto an idea, to preserve it for New York. I was just there, it was just my life.” Now that he’s making art full time, he hopes to spend as much as half the year in Minnesota.
Rural landscapes figure into Fischer’s work in an entirely different way. Where Spangler’s brooding, imaginary landscapes are a Northern Minnesotan’s take on Southern Gothic, Fischer’s sculptures are constructed from salvaged materials like dumpsters, trailers, and walls and floors excised from abandoned houses. They have a conceptual bent that many critics say harks back to Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark, but which Fischer is taking in his own direction. “What fascinates me about Rob’s work is how it’s distinctly tied to where he came from,” said Cohan, “and how he’s been able to preserve that, work with it, and develop it while living in New York.”
While Minnesota doesn’t overtly or specifically figure into the work of Shambroom, Strassheim, Norsten, or Rathman, they’ve all found benefits—financial, psychological, and otherwise—to making work here. “Geographically my work isn’t placed in New York, or here in Minnesota either, but it’s easier to get to other places from here,” said Shambroom. He was sitting in the tiny sunroom off his South Minneapolis studio, which is itself quite cramped; he likes it, though, because it’s just a few blocks from his home. “And culturally, it’s better for me to be out of that art center. New York is not the real world, and the art world there is not the real world. It’s the New York art world—a cultural center, a business center. But I’m interested in other types of power structures for my work.” Shambroom said that he was always able to find work doing corporate photography to pay the bills; over the past twenty years, as his art began selling, he gradually took fewer commercial jobs. Now all of his income is from artwork.
Strassheim found it virtually impossible to do something similar in New York, even though she is a certified forensic photographer. “I was working full-time in four different morgues all over New York City,” she said. “I was busy paying bills, rent, and student loans. I felt like I was in a monotonous routine. I definitely wasn’t producing enough of my own work and needed a change.”