By Michael Black
15 January 2012 Sunday 1400 The Rourke Gallery Moorhead
A pleasant walk over the river to The Rourke and, on entering, I am mildly surprised at the number of people that are in attendance. The Artist, Kirk Williams, is already speaking in the main hall and it is packed—some sitting, most standing. Tania Blanich, the Director, stands radiantly off to the side. I ditch my gear and dig out the point and shoot… and point and shoot. I am in adjacent galleries so I can still hear Williams’ words which are consistently followed by laughter. A good sign.
The small gallery I first click in is chock-a-block with Williams’ “constructions”. I snap away hoping that the beautiful pastel works on the walls will translate into pixels. As I circle the small room I am struck by the juxtaposition of the two mediums. On the wall are lyrical, almost magical renderings of human-like nymphs, anthropomorphised fish, almost new-agey calm and colours. They are very pleasing to view and, without spending a lot of time analyzing each work separately, hold what one could assume to be deeper symbolism than just a fish fishing. Then, turning 180 degrees and beholding his found material assemblages you almost “L.O.L.”. Well, at least I did. Not that they are stupid funny or anything like that (well, a couple of them might be borderline; see Dr. Papschmeres) but they are just interesting, joyful and fun to look at. An old pull cart for golf clubs holds a euphonium which holds, shockingly, a putter. But then also a woman’s arm with a vise clamp on the forearm and a pink finger nailed hand holding an old school phone, two egg beaters, and a large wooden maul or mallet. On the pull cart’s hand grip perches a large, red velvet parrot benignly gazing down upon the euphonium bag. Very accessible and none of that “one arm crossed, the other hand stroking your chin” museum posing. Just good stuff.
I must admit, though, that I do favor the pastel pieces—some are very large and hung throughout the rooms. I think that somewhere in my own forgotten past I used pastels and just liked their characteristics. The square shape, the heft, the sound on and then the rendering upon the paper. This guy has them down. As I toured the exhibit and focused on the pastels, it struck me that the pieces covered a 20 year time span (1992-2012), yet I could not carbon (pastel?) date them thematically. The figures, content, and craftsmanship told no tales. In fact, when I thought I could time stamp them using the above criteria, I was sadly mistaken. I am not sure if that is good or bad but, as with all art, it just is. The colours and intensities flow into one another as do the symbols and figures he depicts, creating a kind of harmony that the viewer cannot help feeling if their inner tuning fork resonates with this style of art. If you are into crushed velvet dogs playing poker…not so much.
Williams hails from Fergus Falls (“Circus Balls”; he actually had mail delivered to his address with Circus Balls listed as his home town; an omen perhaps?) and, as I roamed the upstairs galleries during his talk, I wonder what is in the water over that away. Artist Charles Thysell also hails from that general geographic location (Hawley) and also uses pastel shades and tones in his work. Two of his pieces are on display in The Rourke as are, astoundingly, a James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jim Dine and Roy Lichtenstein! I could almost throw a blanket over all of them and start calculating. Millions, millions of dollars of high-end pieces from a pivotal era of American Pop Art sitting here in a small brick building in Moorhead, MN across from an M&H gas station. Ding, ding…the mind reels…
I wait my chance to introduce myself to Williams and it takes a while. He has a lot of support in this community and their love for him shows. Finally he is free and I approach him. “Do you know Cork Marcheschi?” I ask. His face goes blank and then begins to glow as I explain that Cork is an old friend of mine from my Minneapolis and San Francisco days. “Cork is the one who opened my mind to what could be with art!” he proclaimed. Marcheschi was an instructor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) when Williams attended the institution in the 1970’s. Marcheschi, a self-proclaimed “Outward Bound for Young Professional Artists” wove his way through those 70’s when Art became a commodity and a small cabal of gallery owners controlled not only the distribution of but, to a large extent, the content of the American Art. Marcheschi spent his twenties in NYC trying to “make it” in the art world and grew distasteful of what he saw, showing his art from 1973 through 1990. Originally from San Francisco, he spent 13 long winters (tough on a California Boy) at MCAD guiding students like Williams through the hoops of artistry and business. Marcheschi returned to San Francisco in 1986 and has continued making his art and installing his (often massive) work from Toledo, OH to Fukuoka, Japan. A mature and self-realized artist, craftsman (welding, electricity, etc.) and businessman, he has recently eschewed the public art world and large installations to return to his roots—making art for display in small, regional galleries like The Rourke. Still, he has a major retrospective in the works for late 2012-early 2013 in NYC and revels his time in both worlds.
His teachings at MCAD were greatly influenced by his NYC experiences in those transformative times and as a result he stressed to his students that they should “…manage (themselves) into art without corrupting art…”. When he was inevitably asked, “What can I do and how can I do it?” he replied, “Work where you are and influence who you can. Art is as good as gun control. If you have an idea, act on it. Do it. Get involved.” Words that made sense then make even more sense now in this hyper-connected yet strangely disconnected I-Pod/Internet World we find ourselves in.
I walked back over the Red and thought that Kirk Williams had done exactly that. He found his way to make terrific art where he was, Circus Balls and all. Too often museum shows seem stodgy and far too cerebral, almost musty. This show made me happy. I enjoyed looking at it and let my mind go where it would, as far as it wanted to go on a chilly Sunday afternoon. Sometimes that is not too far, just to that Golf Thingy over there. But sometimes I was sucked into the deep pastel hues to join the figures he decided must live there in those colours. Go and see how far you are willing to go…