A&E: Be realistic: Eiteljorg show gets gritty

There are art lovers who will never, ever be able to embrace the kind of work represented in the very representational “Quest for the West” show at the Eiteljorg (through Oct. 5).

Featuring Native Americans crouching at riverside, stalwart cowboys trudging through snow-covered silence, bucolic mountains, steadfast wolves (or coyotes-sorry, I’m from New Jersey), and anguished bronzes, much of the work seems to exist independent of the artists. Yes, they seem to have been there to capture the images, but not to wholly create the subject itself. As such, there’s sincerity to the work that can be either compelling or off-putting, depending on your sensibilities.

The exhibition-actually, an art show and sale-features 50 artists chosen by committee who were invited to bring work of their choosing. Those pieces were then put up for sale at an auction earlier in the show’s run, attracting an international crowd of collectors.

While some of the work seems to close in on Thomas Kincaid territory (shudders), others are appealing for a variety of reasons. There’s the impressionistic work of lone-east-of-the-Mississippi representative Howard Post and the almost cinematic narrative strength of H. David Wright’s “The Captives” and Eric Michaels’ dusty “Chihuahua-3 Diciembre 1913.” Biblically powered skyscapes of new-this-year Peter A. Nisbet (this year’s Best Painting winner) contrast with the sharp detail of Brenda J. Murphy’s hyper-realistic graphite pencil “Fence Talk.” When it comes to sculpture, the open-faced work of Doug Hyde is about as non-Remington as you can get. Not that the Remington influence is something to avoid, as witnessed by Curt Mattson work here.

One work is selected each year for the Harrison Eiteljorg Purchase Award, placing it in the museum’s permanent collection. I was less enamored with this year’s prize-winner, Robert Griffing’s “Secrets of the Dark Forest,” than with last year’s choice, H. David Wrights’ “Uninvited Visitors.” But that in no way diminishes my appreciation for what has proven to be a satisfying show not just for collectors of such art, but also for the public.

And for contemporary art lovers whose minds are truly as open as they think they are.

Fresh from my visit to the Eiteljorg, I went into Indiana University Art Museum’s “The Grand Tour: Art and Travel, 1740-1914” (through Dec. 21) wide open to its representational pleasures. Focusing largely on art created by visitors to Italy, Spain, Greece and the Middle East, the show proved interesting-but not compelling enough to suggest a special trip to Bloomington. Perhaps a tighter focus would have lent clarity to the show-but I realize that’s difficult to do when trying to create a large show drawing exclusively from a museum’s permanent collection. Most fascinating are the few pieces of photography, dating back to the 1850s.

Next door, I caught half of a show-sort of-at the SOFA Gallery. Here, under the title “Hub: Phase 1,” a quartet of artists provides a range of fascinating, con- temporary pieces. LaRinda Meinberg’s creation turns rolled-up phone book pages into large flowers. Jonathan Dankenbring reduces familiar household items, including a washer and dryer, to their purist shapes. Derek Parker stretches a series of small ladders-and the viewer’s mind-with a work that speaks, for me, to the fragile linking of thought to thought, person to person. And Rob Off’s oversized cage/carrier simultaneously suggests both safety and confinement.

All well and good, but what I saw isn’t the end of it.

These same artists-and variations of the same work-will be featured in, you guessed it, “Hub: Phase II.” For it, a large platform and stairs are being created that will allow moving trucks to back against it. Each artist’s work will be housed inside its own truck, creating not just a movable gallery, but a way of looking at the art in a new way, addressing questions of confinement and context as well as sequence.

“Hub: Phase II” will make an appearance in early October at the annual Lotus Festival of world music. From there, who knows?

I’m very interested in seeing how the artists-and this original context-change my sense of the work. And I’m excited to see innovative work that not only stands on its own, but also asks questions about how we see art, all the while opening the doors to new audiences.

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