Sometimes it seems as if art comes in two categories: good art, and the art most people actually like. Frustratingly, the two are often perceived as interchangeable. Yet is there really any more substance in a Bacchanal by Titian than a landscape by Kinkade? Perhaps it’s regrettably easy for us, the illuminati of the art-world, to dismiss some art simply because it’s too popular or comprehensible.
But does likeable, popular art necessarily lack substance? Not at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. Highly Recommended: Emerging Sculptors (which runs through January 4) manages to appeal to art enthusiasts while remaining accessible to the spouses, friends, and even children who obligingly allow themselves to be dragged in tow. The show works a sort of magic on even its most skeptical viewers; here, those who think they hate modern/contemporary art can be stealthily tricked into liking it. Yet Highly Recommended is an intelligent show, exemplary of how an exhibition can introduce a broad public to good contemporary art.
As the park’s contribution to Art Prize, an immensely popular regional art festival for which venues all over Grand Rapids exhibit public art, visitors enjoyed free access to the show for the first month. It assembles sculptures by sixteen emerging artists, bringing together works from America, Britain, Italy, Germany, and Egypt. They vary in size, media, and content, and range from abstract and conceptual to the literal and representational.
Some sculptures touch on important social issues and current events. Lucy Glendinning’s Feather Child 1 unfailingly elicited audible reactions from viewers. It depicts a child covered with feathers, curled pitiably in the fetal position, evocative of the workings of something sinister, like a discarded experiment by a mad-scientist. It addresses genetic engineering. The feathers, she writes, derive from Icarus of Greek mythology, who forgetting himself in a moment of hubris, flew too close to the sun and plummeted to earth and to his death. The sculpture is an eloquent check against some forms of “progress” as we understand it.
The abstract sculptures seemed thoughtfully chosen so as not to scare off the sort of viewer who thinks modern art has nothing to say, yet varied enough to be a robust cross-section of what contemporary sculpture has to offer. Children delighted at Loris Cecchini’s Wallwave Vibration, its throbbing grid-like vortex of pentagonal forms strongly reminiscent of 1960s op-art. Even the challengingly minimalist Untitled by Armen Agops has a striking visual appeal, though visitors must rely on the explanatory card to understand it as derivative of the artist’s interest in ancient Egyptian spirituality.
Highly Recommended shows to the uninitiated skeptic that “modern art,” contrary to the stereotypes, can be sophisticated and visually attractive. And for those of us who thrive on the shock-me-silly theatrics of Hirst or the illusive minimalism of Richard Serra, it’s perhaps a needy reminder that contemporary art isn’t just the exclusive domain of us self-proclaimed artistic illuminati.
Learn more about Meijer Gardens and preview the rest of the show here.