The following is the first in a series of articles profiling the eight distinguished artists chosen as 2017 McKnight Fellows, a grant program for mid-career artists that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The two artists here will take part in the McKnight Discussion Series on February 15th, talking publicly about their work with Susan Cross, curator of visual arts at MASS MoCA. Russ White caught up with each of them beforehand to get a preview of what makes them tick.
Photo by Rik Sferra.
Wandering down the main corridor of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, past priceless antiquities from China, Japan, Greece, and Egypt, you might be surprised to find a slightly more contemporary antiquity from America: a 1997 Saturn sedan. Parked in the middle of the US Bank Gallery, the car glows golden from tip to tail, completely covered in sheets of bronze-leaf except for a small horizontal slit halfway up the windows. Sitting low on blacked out tires and emanating a steady hum from its illuminated headlights, this gilded clunker welcomes you to the funny and funereal world of Tamsie Ringler’s MAEP exhibition, Still Life.
I met Ringler in the gallery one weekday morning right after the museum opened. The school buses were already lined up outside when I arrived, unloading gaggles of school children out on field trips. Alone at first in the space, the physical and emotional weight of Ringler’s work sits heavy. Cracked metal castings of framed paintings hang blank and somber; an empty aluminum banquet table supports two crude little offshore oil rigs; and at the back of the gallery, a fiberglass silo stands open, strewn with metal pellets and the hazy, projected images of plant life. Much of the work rests unceremoniously on the floor, the space melancholy and quiet save for the steady chirping of frogs in the distance, piped in over hidden speakers.
Still Life (installation details), mixed media, Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program at Mia, 2018-19. Photos by Russ White.
Then one of the school groups comes through — middle schoolers — whispering, chattering, and giggling past the golden car and then the golden canoe whose only passenger is a little bronze statue of the meerkat from The Lion King. They quickly make their way to the back and into the grain silo, kicking up an amazing racket crunching and stomping on the bed of taconite pebbles. After a few minutes the chaperones herd them back out, and the quiet again overwhelms: frogs chirping, headlights humming. Stillness has returned. On the floor, a flat tangle of cast iron and paper is laid out like the veins of a river, in the midst of which sits a perfectly sculpted cast iron baby, holding his feet like a yogi in prayer. The whole show is a kind of poetry, familiar but esoteric, with no labels to double-check, no one to hold your hand, just your own questions and your own answers about the work.
Talking to Ringler, on the other hand, is an entirely different experience. With metal smudges still on her hands from an early morning at the studio, the artist is joyful and generous in her explanations, eager to talk about process and intent. All of the many elements in the show were purposefully chosen, and we talk for an hour about how her materials and imagery relate to metal-working, global warming, Midwestern fracking, ancient mythology, her experiences as a mother, and why cars encourage us to be assholes. I ask her why she didn’t put up wall labels to share these insights with the viewer.
“I don’t mean to sound glib, but I don’t really care,” she laughs. “Everybody has something different they bring in. Some people are going to love the gold car, some people are going to love the taconite, and some people have art history up to here, you know? So it’s not that I don’t care, I just embrace any level of understanding. I want it to be like a dream. You don’t have a didactic on a dream.” After some thought, she confesses, “Really the truth is — I care too much!”
Ringler sees this show as a career retrospective of sorts, a stand-alone installation of metalwork and assemblage combining brand new pieces with much older elements. Oddly enough, that sensibility translates; Still Life feels both contemporary and historical. The installation is certainly in dialogue with Egypt’s Sunken Cities, Mia’s special exhibit of ancient artifacts recently removed from the Mediterranean Sea. From Ringler’s cast iron “paintings” to the high-water mark horizon line in the sarcophagal Saturn to the flooded metal banks of the river, the objects here have a similar sense of violent history, of having been overtaken by nature. It’s a sculptor’s take on memento mori, one that’s all the more poignant at a time of climate crisis, in a building full of lost civilizations.
Of course Ringler is more used to working outdoors, creating installations for sculpture parks from Franconia to Latvia, Portland to Rio de Janiero. “The McKnight has been amazing,” she says. “I’ve been doing sculpture for 35 years now, and there is so little acknowledgement of us as artists. A lot of times you feel like you’re working in a vacuum. It’s not like a concert where you get applause every night. So to have this award that recognizes your contribution to art and to visual practice is really an honor and also a stimulus to make more work.”
Top: Iron pour process shot of Ringler's IRON-R18 project at National Sculpture Factory, Cork, Ireland, 2018. Photo by Jedrzej Niezgoda. Bottom: the finished piece, a cast of the River Lee watershed. Photo by Tomas Penc. Photos courtesy of the artist.
She is also matter-of-fact about where that new work may come from. “Here in this moment these pieces have all come together as Still Life. They may go off and have some other life after this. I work that way a lot. Things will come together and then they’ll grow apart. It’s kind of like life, right? It’s in process; it’s never fixed. A lot of people think of these as permanent materials," she chuckles. "I don’t. If I’m not happy with how something turned out, I can just cut them up and melt them down and turn them into something else.”
But for the moment, Still Life lives on, at least through February 24th. Who knows, maybe these objects will find new life in a museum centuries from now, helping to piece together the story of a society in denial. “We’re in mourning,” she says, talking about climate change. “We’re in future grief, because we know what’s happening, we know where it’s going, and we know it’s our fault.”
In the meantime, her golden canoe sits on the museum floor, shining brightly in the Saturn’s headlights, piloted along this River Styx by a cartoon Charon. Whatever the future may hold for these sculptures and indeed for us all, this little piece of domestic statuary stands ready to accompany us on the journey, his tiny metal chest puffed nobly — cheerfully even — against the inevitable.
Photo by Rik Sferra.
Words are very important to Piotr Szyhalski. Whether printed massively on banners, painted delicately onto dinner plates, screenprinted mechanically onto posters, or hand-drawn as calligraphy in salt, words form the through-line in a decades-long artistic practice made up of wildly diverse media. He has worked in mail art, photography, graphic design, painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, sound art, and performance art, even using websites as a medium during the early days of the internet. “My practice meanders in bizarre ways,” he admits.
There is an Orwellian fervor to his fascination with language: he sees the power that words have, the layers of meaning they can convey and imply, and their amazing capacity as tools of both liberation and oppression. Hence the halfway tongue-in-cheek name of his ongoing collaborative art project, Labor Camp.
“Growing up in [communist] Poland,” he explains, “the understanding was always that the thing you’re looking at is not the thing. There’s something behind it, between the lines, specifically in visual communication. The country was run by liars and cheaters, just like here now. The idea that there’s always the second or triple or quadruple meaning involved and it’s on you to work your way towards that — that is absolutely something that will never leave me.”
Top: We Are Working All The Time! posters, 2018 edition, Nr. 8, ink on tar paper. Photo courtesy of the artist's Instagram. Bottom: Labor Camp Souvenir Plates, paint on found objects, 2019. Photo by Russ White.
Szyhalski’s work is deeply humanist — empathetic, inspirational, and democratic at heart — but also darkly hilarious. Labor Camp’s de facto motto, screenprinted in a multitude of typefaces onto a series of posters, is “We Are Working All The Time!” Each new design is graphically impeccable, reminiscent in some ways of Soviet-era propaganda posters, but punctuated with that embarrassingly earnest exclamation point. Is this a celebration or a lament? A promise or a threat?
To the artist himself, it’s an honest truth about his own practice: an artist’s mind is always working. (“Even when you’re sleeping and dreaming,” he says. “It’s like a different kind of work.”) In this sense, the slogan’s enthusiasm is infectious, encouraging an engagement and curiosity that knows no limit. But the phrase could just as easily be lamenting a society that prizes hustle over balance, an economy in which many are left working two or three jobs just to keep their families fed. There’s also an eerie similarity to the gut-wrenching motto written into the metal gates of Auschwitz: Work sets you free. These are the triple and quadruple layers he offers us, each work of art an onion we are invited to take a big bite of.
Not all of Szyhalski’s imagery is purely text, though. Other symbols recur throughout his drawings, paintings, performances, and installations: the hammer, the coffin (especially fitting now that he has a studio at the Casket Arts Building), and most often the shovel, which he calls “the default Labor Camp object.” It stems from a story he read about a poet serving time at a work camp in Maoist China, shoveling human shit into a field while she composed poetry in her head. That duality and division between mind and body, between individual and state, between meaningful work and dehumanizing labor, has informed his own work ever since, even down to the Labor Camp logo: an apple-red shovel head pointing down towards the earth.
Top: Three Litanies of Labor, mixed media installation at the Soap Factory, 2015. Bottom: THEM, printed banners and Labor Camp printing press at the Soap Factory, 2015. Photos by Rik Sferra, courtesy of the artist.
But Labor Camp is not a one-man-show. It is something of an ongoing collaborational hydra, intertwining Szyhalski’s students at MCAD as well as fellow artists, musicians, and members of the public. If Labor Camp were an orchestra (and it has been, setting the text of American military leaflets airdropped on Iraq to music), then Szyhalski is the conductor. “I do think that art is a social act,” he says, “whether it involves two people, or twenty, or two hundred.”
Perhaps the most evident and effective examples of this are his giant protest banners, first created with community input in late 2015 after the murder of Jamar Clark. The artist had just installed a solo show at the Soap Factory featuring wall-sized banners printed on a homemade press. The device itself looks like the bottom half of a melamine trebuchet, and he prints these giant words not by hand but by foot, using over-sized letters cut out of two-inch-thick pink insulation foam. In the aftermath of Clark’s death and the subsequent public outcry against police brutality, Szyhalski suddenly realized he had made a tool that could be put to use by the community. He posted on Facebook, asking if anyone wanted to use his equipment to print banners. JUSTICE FOR JAMAR showed up soon after on the news, black block letters on a twenty-foot white banner, impossible to ignore.
Now he helps other groups realize their messages, even just two or three people at a time, who join him down in the basement at Casket Arts where his press is set up to stomp out messages like “WE WILL NOT FOLLOW FEAR”, "ABOLISH ICE", and “VOTE!” Unlike his other investigations of language, these protest banners have no hidden subtext. They are public service announcements from the public itself, printed collaboratively at no charge.
“I have such a hard time thinking about monetizing my work in any way,” he says when asked about his Fellowship. “I don’t have a frickin’ cent of entrepreneurial skill or desire, so the grants are this weird backdoor for artists that allow us to somehow earn money with our work without necessarily selling it. I think we’re really lucky to have McKnight around, and the way the grant is structured, where there’s no project necessarily attached, is amazing. In the end it opens up so many other possibilites for work.”
My last question is how he gauges success, whether in a work of art or in his career as a whole, and he pauses for a moment, not quite happy with my choice of words. “Success is such a tricky word,” he says at last. “The banner project is quote-unquote successful because of what happened with it. I am always trying to leave holes where that might happen. I like the work to be porous, like a sponge, where people can lose track of whether they are witnessing or participating. The insistence on the agency that people have with the work is where I would —maybe— try to find a measure of success.”
“But I still would not be using that word.” A linguist to the end.
The conversation between these two amazing artists and visiting curator Susan Cross will take place Friday, February 15th, at 6:30pm in the Pillsbury Auditorium at Mia. For more info and to reserve tickets for this free event, visit their event page.
More information on upcoming McKnight Discussion Series events can be found at mcad.edu.