Art View by Paulette Thenhaus
Note: The exhibit is no longer on view, though it may return at a future date. This is a documentation only.
One doesn’t expect to find “blue chip” art or living artists in most small towns in the Midwest. Why? First of all, many artists hate to acknowledge where they hail from, unless of course it’s New York or maybe Chicago or San Francisco. Artists from Oquawka, Monmouth, even Galesburg would rather say they are from “outside of Chicago” when interviewed. (Doesn’t sound as funny.) Well, that’s about 200 miles “outside of” — quite a stretch of the truth, I’d say. But it is still in Illinois, not The Big Apple. Truth is, New York has been sinking with the weight of too many artist’s easels for more than a decade now, yet few admit it.
A second observation: The “permanent” collections of most small town museums and art centers are not all that permanent. When the annual budget goes in the red, there’s an auction of the “permanent” collection. There’s no consulting of auction houses or a “Who’s Who in American Art.” The old stuff and current donations are put on the block to the highest bidder (which is rarely very high). I’ve seen a child’s wagon of booze bring the highest bid of the evening, $500, at an art auction(!) while donated work was returned to artists when their minimum very low bids where not reached.
With that introduction I’ll begin the review of the Galesburg Civic Art Center’s Permanent Collection Exhibition. Since 1901 the Center has amassed around 350 works of art. This year’s curator was Gregory Gilbert, a Knox College Art Historian and Chair of the Art Department.
His choices for this show are centered on local artists, particularly but not solely based on their historical or professional association to Knox College. The exhibit is museum quality. Seeing the artworks side by side provides some surprising revelations on the stature and quality of art that has existed in this area, and especially the city of Galesburg, for a century. My only criticism is that there are no educational panels with the art. Guess that’s my job.
One of the works selected for exhibit is a large drawing by Dorothea Tanning, a Galesburg native. An original Surrealist, she went on to marry Max Ernst, one of the fathers of the Surrealist movement (both totally blue-chip artists). She left the Burg early on for Paris. She never cared much for Galesburg, but in one of her books she describes growing up here. She also claims to have known Ernst from the beginning of time. So I guess that puts his spirit here, too. Anyway, her drawing, which is a metamorphosis of figures, entered the collection sometime after 1999. By the way, she is in her late 90’s and living in New York City.
Her drawing hangs next to a print by another Surrealist genius, Salvador Dali (no, he’s not from Galesburg!). “Lincoln in Dali Vision” is a large colorful photo offset lithograph (that means there are more than one on the market). It is a playful piece, coming with its own viewing glass and meant to be viewed at more than one distance. Up close, a nude is in a room, while at a distance, Lincoln’s portrait can be perceived. It spins the grid system on its head.
After considering Surrealist art, a look at Preston Jackson’s sculpture of a streamlined automobile with animal figures joy–riding seems pretty Surrealist, too. Preston is the artist–musician who owns the Contemporary Art Center in Peoria. Can you guess he collects old car parts and radios? His sculptures, some monumental, are in museums and galleries throughout Illinois and further. He’s an authority on African-American and Ancient Egyptian art and a professor at the Chicago Art Institute. He manages to pull many influences together to make a singular original statement in bronze.
Tony Gant, sculptor professor at Knox College, has a complex raw wood relief in the collection. Always attuned to the textures and markings of wood, he engineers the directions in this large piece in a forceful rhythm of advancing and receding planes. The sculpture has an architectural quality.
Jimmie Crown, the beloved high school teacher for twenty-eight years who passed away in the 1980’s, has two works in the show. One is a “Boomerang Ashtray” and the other is a dark-hued, highly textured painting. Both have a 1950’s sensibility. Here, again, a little bit of a nonobjective Surrealist attitude is suggested in his free-form shapes.
Someone the community knows little about is George Rickey. Born in 1907, he was a prominent American artist. A Carnegie resident and artist at Knox College in 1940-41 when he made the painting, Rickey had eight honorary degrees and was a Guggenheim Fellow. He was also a world renowned sculptor of kinetic art. “Landscape East Galesburg” is small but rich in color and texture. It is a familiar view to many, but it almost breathes with the life of early Fall on a Midwestern road.
Another view of a regional field, this time in summer, is “Bales of Energy,” painted by this writer. It was donated to the permanent collection in honor of Mona Tourlentes, founder of Studios Midwest. I was one of the first artists in the program in 1986. The painting was shown in the final exhibit held at Knox College. it was also in my first solo show at Seghi Gallery in St. Louis that Fall. Painted before corn and grain were considered as fuel, I felt the energy radiating from the massive round bales. They literally glowed with energy, and I used a full palette of color and range of brushstroke to capture it. The crane is something man-made and contemporary intruding darkly in the background of the pastoral scene. The act of painting it was healing for me — saved my life, in fact. But that’s for another story.
Many works in the collection are worthy of professional review and exposure. Each January a new selection from the collection is shown — but only for a few weeks. Hopefully, exhibits and reviews such as this will help prevent our artists from becoming “almost anonymous.” For my part, next year I promise to be more timely with the announcement of the exhibit.