Melissa Merli: Check out Wegman works, takes on modernism

Melissa Merli: Check out Wegman works, takes on modernism

In their many visits with artists, two guest curators for Krannert Art Museum noticed a theme emerging in some of the artists' work.

Born before the emergence of modernism, they in their sculptures, videos, photographs and other objects were literally and conceptually commenting on modernism.

So the curators, Judy Hoos Fox and Ginger Gregg Duggan, came up with the idea for an exhibition they named "MetaModern," opening Thursday at Krannert and then traveling to five other museums.

The exhibition — I saw it being spotted on Thursday — features works by 20 artists worldwide.

"Most of them were born before the '60s, so they're too young to experience modernism themselves," Fox told me. "It's always been a historic emblem for them so they have this kind of historical distance."

Before I get back to "MetaModern," I want to mention another exhibition opening Thursday that will be a crowd-pleaser as well — particularly to art lovers with a history in this community.

"Artists Including Me: William Wegman" features his photographs, drawings and newer "postcard paintings." In those, he incorporates postcards — some are reproductions of canonical works from Western art such as "Mona Lisa" — affixing them to his large canvases and then painting around them to create narratives about what might be happening beyond the postcard frames.

Exhibition co-curators Kathryn Koca Polite and Kathleen Harleman, director of Krannert Art Museum, went to New York to interview Wegman. He received in 1967 a master's of fine arts degree from the UI School of Art + Design.

He later became famous, mainly for his weirdly whimsical photographs of his Weimaraner dogs, starting with Man Ray, in costumes. I'm psyched: Wegman will return to campus to give a talk at 5:30 p.m. March 5 at the museum.

Here's what he told Harleman and Polite about his time at the UI: "The experience I had at Illinois was really amazing. They had a great school of electrical engineering, which I had a fellowship with, and having access to Heinz Van Foerster and his engineers helped me make my thesis project.

"I also loved the music school — John Cage and Merce Cunningham were in residency at that time and I did some work with them as well. The art department had a hard time with me because it was the mid-1960s and art was very threatening, I think, to a certain type of painter.

"I was arrogant and grandiose, so I imagine I was kind of threatening in some ways, as were some other students, like Robert Cumming. We kind of huddled together in our little place on 11 E. Springfield and became friends with people in the photo department like Art Sinsabaugh. I became really close with filmmakers there — Ronald Nameth was one — and did lots of collaborations with them. So even though I was pretty unhappy in the art department I was really happy about the University of Illinois and what it gave me.

"Dr. Shipley (chair of Art + Design from '56 to '77) wound up, unintentionally, doing me a big favor. I was applying for a job at Alfred University; in the morning I had the job and in the afternoon, they told me that I didn't have the job. I found out later that Dr. Shipley called and told them not to hire me — that I was a troublemaker. He saved me from something I really wasn't qualified for. So I had to go to (University of) Wisconsin, and when I wasn't rehired there I had to move to Los Angeles and get a dog. So all of the things that you're upset about turn out to be really good ... It taught me a great lesson about chance and opportunity."

Now back to "MetaModern," the biggest of the five exhibitions this spring at Krannert. It should appeal to many of us — after all, a lot of us own or crave objects of modernist design — and seek them out at thrift, resale shops and other places.

Fox said the current embrace of modernism has a different meaning than when modernist design emerged, first at the Bauhaus, an art school in Germany. Modernism then focused on function and utility and became nearly a religion. Looking back, the artists in "MetaModern" realize that's not so and explore those and other themes in their work.

The only area artist in "MetaModern," UI art Professor Conrad Bakker, does that by making sculptures from wood and paint, or paintings, often of modernist objects he finds on eBay.

"MetaModern" includes several Bakker pieces, among them "Untitled Project: Eames Armchair Rocker," which he made of maple wood and then painted. The seat is that familiar bright orange.

A series of Bakker oil paintings on panels, "Untitled Project: eBay (Ding)," were inspired by photographs on eBay of "dings" or damage to the modernist objects for sale.

"Conrad Bakker's approach can be seen as either cavalier or extremely respectful," Duggan and Fox wrote for the exhibition catalog (University of Washington Press, Seattle). "Making a painted wooden sculpture of the 1948 Eames 'Rocking Armchair Model RAR' elevates this mass-produced item into a one-of-a-kind work of art, which belies Bakker's critique of consumerism and the marketplace."

Among other works in the exhibition:

— "My Decoy" by Brian Jungen, who encased two back-to-back 1958 Verner Panton cone chairs in elk hide held tight with tarred twine, turning them into a traditional drum of the Dane-zaa of British Columbia and Alberta, thereby transforming the chairs culturally and economically.

— A video by Dorit Margreiter that takes viewers to the 1963 John Lautner-designed Sheats-Goldstein house in Los Angeles. The house appears in scenes in many Hollywood movies as well as in music videos. Margreiter exploits cinematic conventions to visually explore why the house and its spectacular setting have become so ominous in pop culture, the curators wrote.

The two other new exhibitions on view this spring are:

— "Versions and Revisions," showcasing from the museum collection works dating from the 1960s through early 2000s "that relate to recognizable artists or styles in the same way the artists in the 'MetaModern' exhibition are riffing directly from these iconic modern designs," curator Polite told the UI News Bureau.

— "Speculative Visions of Pragmatic Architecture," curated by UI architecture Professor Jeffery Poss, featuring the work of four UI faculty members in the School of Architecture's Detail and Fabrication program. It also highlights the design and preservation work of architecture professor Erik Hemingway on mid-century homes in Illinois and California.

Continuing through May 17 is "With the Grain: Japanese Woodblock Prints from the Postwar Years," curated by UI art history Professor Anne Burkus-Chasson.

The opening reception for all the exhibitions will be from 6 to 7 p.m. Thursday, with opening comments at 6 by Duggan and Fox.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at

Topics (1):Art