GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) is one of the central hubs for the ArtPrize activities that throw the city into a cultural frenzy each fall. While any business can play host to an ArtPrize installation, and many of them do, the GRAM tends to show strong contenders — last year it hosted Anila Quayyum Agha’s “Intersections,” which both won the public vote and split the juried prize.
This year, the GRAM’s ArtPrize theme is Nature/Nurture, with an exhibition claiming to “explore the circumstances of every-day life and the complex character of identity.” This collective inquiry into the age-old question of identity as being inborn versus adaptive ranges across multiple media, and while not everything on display is thematically, or even inherently, deep, quite a lot of it is colorful, engaging, and thought-provoking. Some of the pieces deal very directly with the subject — like “Wish you weren’t here,” by Parisa Ghaderi (Ann Arbor, MI), who rephotographs historic images from her Iranian family’s collection, adding binder clips and thumbtacks, among other objects — and some don’t, like “Karma Dahlia II,” a massive flower painting by Krista Schoening (Seattle, WA).
Mostly, the work on display at the GRAM this year is a lot of fun. Dylan Miner (East Lansing, MI) has assembled Anishinaabensag Biimskowebshkigewag (Native Kids Ride Bikes), a charming collection of bikes created in collaboration with urban Native youth that would make Wes Anderson squeal. Anne Lemanski (Spruce Pines, NC) is showing a run of large-scale collage paintings that layer images seemingly lifted from old encyclopedias or instructional posters on top of eye-popping blue backgrounds. These face an installation of three giant sculptural heads, “Kind Regards” by Armando Ramos (Valley City, ND), which draw their inspiration from affectionate memories of childhood toys (although these particular giant black toy-heads speak more to a Tim Burton–style childhood). Nearby is Blue Ribbon by Scott Hoyle (Lake Oswego, OR), a collection of incredibly high-fidelity portraits of blue-ribbon-winning livestock, including rabbits, sheep, and chicken — a nod, one supposes, to the genetic legacy of breeding, on the nature side of the argument.
Among the strongest nuture-focused works are “Family, Baptismal Cup,” by Carlee Fernandez (Los Olivos, CA), a huge replica of her husband’s christening cup, complete with etchings detailing his family history (it’s also one of the only big object sculptures, which were a common trope last year); and The Thread that Connects, a series of deeply emotional, Kandinsky-like embroidery-scapes by Paula Kovarik that leverage the capacity of fabric to hold history and represent connections between people.
On the first floor, several installations seem to go beyond nurture to explore elements of self-made identity. Jess Dugan’s Transcendence is a beautiful portrait series that features individuals who do not identify with either gender. An adjacent gallery contains a wonderful installation of the work of John Bankston. “The Explorer” is the most recent chapter of his ongoing visual novel, The Capture and Escape of Mr. M or Tales from Rainbow Forest, a lavish work of imagined origins and fantastic escapades. These pieces remind us that beyond our DNA coding or the heritage bestowed upon us by the circumstances of our upbringing, there is a third element at play: the capacity for each of us to move beyond what we’ve been given and to take steps to define the world, as well as our place in it, for ourselves.