GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — I can’t imagine I’m the only one who found ArtPrize Seven a little underwhelming. Last year was, arguably, peak ArtPrize, with a glut of artworks and a massive turnout of people. Every space in Grand Rapids was packed with human traffic trying to take in the sights and vote for their favorite.
This year feels a little dialed-down in comparison — perhaps the natural growing pains of an event still trying to accommodate the huge surge in visitors that ArtPrize stimulates, in a city that is not otherwise a major destination, for art or otherwise. But that isn’t to say ArtPrize Seven lacks for interesting artwork on display. In fact, it seems as though the major venues have changed tactics, investing more heavily in fewer pieces. This made it much easier to navigate some of the high-flow downtown destinations, such as the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), the Fed Galleries at Kendall College of Art and Design, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA), and the B.O.B. (Big Old Building).
For its theme, UICA chose “Sense,” and accordingly features six projects that are meant to engage the five senses, plus a bonus sense of “intuition.” These include Relic, by Tamara Kostianovsky — a series of incredibly detailed fiber sculptures that resemble butchered meat and bird carcasses (included on the juried shortlist for 3D work). Created from reclaimed pieces of what seems to have been an incredibly red-and-pink-heavy discarded wardrobe, and rendered in incredible detail — down to fiber fascia made of stocking fabric — Relic strikes a masterful balance of beauty and horror, taking the visceral realities of our food system and making them appealing, approachable, maybe even huggable? On the UICA basement level, Jihyun Hong has created a fantastical paleo-futuristic installation, with every surface of a small room covered in silvered pop-bubble insulation fabric.
The Fed is often the place for think pieces and works with deeper sociopolitical meaning — such as last year’s “Capitalism Works for Me! True/False” by Steve Lambert. This year, that space is occupied by “The Last Supper,” a stunning collection of plates by Julie Green, painted to depict the last meals requested by 600 death row inmates around the United States prior to their execution. Green uses the traditional blue-and-white stylings of toile and porcelain to create a wall of shapes and symbols that’s both aesthetically and emotionally charged (another piece to receive the 3D shortlist nod). In a smaller gallery nearby, Christopher Baker’s time-based “Murmur Study” features a dozen receipt printers, programmed to monitor Twitter for specific conversational utterances and print them out in real time. The amassing pile of tape feed-out serves as a potent visual metaphor for the psychic waste of small talk, both on and off the internet.
One of the most thoughtful pieces of all is stashed upstairs at the B.O.B. — a venue better known as a place to take a break from ArtPrize than for housing its most provocative work. Behind beleaguered ArtPrize attendees downing pizza and beer is “Rebellion Chess Set” by Detroit artist Andy Malone. This masterwork, which took Malone more than three years to complete, uses the chessboard to characterize the massive 1967 race conflict that was an irreversible turning point in Detroit’s history. Each of the approximately foot-high pieces is a gear-driven woodwork, equipped with a handle that can be turned to activate a repetitive action (the “Blind Pig” rooks depict an illicit transaction between a patron and a lady, for example); Malone bravely decided to leave this feature open to the public, and a number of the pieces are already showing signs of destruction, pieces broken or injured by wear, that echo, on a microcosmic level, the violence of the historic uprising. Rather than a black/white delineation, as is common in chess, each piece is rendered in two shades of wood — which conveniently obscures the role of race in Malone’s rethinking of the conflict that casts politicians as kings, media as queens, and citizens engaged in the altercation as pawns.
These are just a few of the more memorable pieces from ArtPrize, proving that even in a quiet year, there is an awful lot going on in Grand Rapids. It is heartening, in an age of easy entertainment and at the start of football season, to see the streets crowded with regular folk, turning out to participate in art as a spectator sport. Sort of the best this advocate of art as equal-opportunity recreation could hope for.
ArtPrize Seven continues throughout Grand Rapids, Michigan, until October 11.