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A&E: Freshening the familiar at IMA

July 23, 2007

This week, two contemporary art exhibitions and a lawn full of bluegrass.

If you believe art is about teaching us new ways to see the objects in our lives, then Emily Kennerk succeeds in her first museum show, "SuburbanNation." If you believe art is also about form and design and harmony, it's still a winner. And if you like to catch artists on the brink of career breakthroughs, this show is a must-see.

The title notwithstanding, Kennerk's big, minimal and familiar-yet-desolate creations avoid making specific statements about their suburban milieu. Instead, the Indy-based artist communicates through the beauty and strangeness of the repurposed red awnings in "Welcome Home"; the coldness of the cookie-cutter homes in "High Density"; and the angular absurdity of the merging, inaccessible decks of "Untitled: Porches." (It's a shame the piece has to work around a distracting fire exit. But safety first, I suppose.)

"SuburbanNation" also offers a great opportunity to revisit the Indianapolis Museum of Art. In case you haven't heard, the IMA is once again free and the museum redesign has given it an accessible gravitas. Take the time not just to linger in Kennerk's rooms, but to take in the surrounding contemporary art galleries. Seeing a work in context is one thing that makes an art museum an art museum.

Context, or lack of context, is one of the challenges facing the tiny Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art. Without the benefit of a permanent collection, exhibitions there exist in a vacuum-the satisfaction of a visit to IMOCA depends entirely on whether the latest display works for you. In this case, it's Robert Boyd's "Xanadu," a three-walled video installation that confronts viewers with images of doomsday cultists, mass destruction, horrifying violence and Olivia Newton-John in roller skates.

Contrasting the grotesque with the inconsequential is nothing new. Think Stanley Kubrick's use of "Singin' in the Rain" to accent "A Clockwork Orange." But here the relentless disco beat accompanies blinkand-you-missed-them images to a confusing end. Are we to connect '60s hippies to the Branch Dividians simply because of Charles Manson? No time to think ... the videos move us on to blur President Bush and the Pope and Jim Jones and Pat Robertson and bodies in mass graves and on and on. The mind spins and so does the disco ball, which provides the most powerful moment in the piece. During footage of the World Trade Center collapse, the ball's fractured light combines with the thousands of fluttering pieces of on-screen debris dropping from the towers and, for the first and only time, I'm fully engulfed by the piece.

Alison Krauss and her Union Station cohorts turned the stage of the Lawn at White River State Park into their big ol'front porch in an enthusiastically received concert on the 14th. Krauss was more than willing to digress, share half stories, tease her bandmates, and otherwise make personal an evening of ... is there such a genre as smooth bluegrass?

Missing in the expertly played set, though, was an opportunity for the band to cut loose. Except during an intermezzo solo medley by dobro master Jerry Douglas, everyone seemed perfectly comfortable in their threeto four-minute song structures. When there's this much talent on stage, it seems a shame not to let the musicians jam beyond the confines of their recordings.
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