Through an artist's (and ears)

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May 12, 2008
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

Richard Rock and Abinadi Meza interpret the MIA

The Doryphoros, an idealized male figure posed in the classic, relaxed contrapposto, is one artwork nearly everyone who ever set foot inside the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) will remember.

The 2,000-year-old Greek statue stands alone in the second-floor rotunda and is the first thing visitors see after climbing the steps to the museum’s 24th Street entrance. Ancient, weathered, cracked and broken, the marble figure is still imposing, still dynamic, as if it’s ready to step right off its pedestal.

Both painter Richard Rock and audio-visual artist Abinadi Meza were drawn to the Doryphoros in their explorations of the MIA. Their dual exhibition offers very different interpretations of the museum through an artist’s eyes — and in Meza’s case, an artist’s ears, too.

“Picturing History: Paintings and Studies of Art, Artifacts and Architecture from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts” is a collection of Rock’s paintings made in the MIA galleries since 2001. Those paintings began as studies for Rock’s historical scenes and landscapes but, over time, became something more than a means to an end.

Meza’s medium is sound. He pieced together a sound collage from hours of recording in the museum, then shot an accompanying video for his installation piece, “Found Voice, Solo Museum.”

Many familiar works from the MIA collection show up in both Rock’s and Meza’s exhibitions. Familiar because the MIA is a part of our shared cultural heritage, the destination of so many school field trips and weekend family outings.

That point was driven home on a Wednesday afternoon in April, when bus after bus pulled up to the MIA, disgorged a gaggle of students and drove off. School groups just finished with their tours waited on the sidewalk for a ride back to school.

The daylong cycle of comings and goings is business as usual at the building housing Minnesota’s most comprehensive collection of art.

Rock said he didn’t shy away from painting some the best-known pieces from that collection, like the boulder-sized “Jade Mountain,” an intricate scene of rocky cliffs, pools and tiny figures originally carved for a Chinese emperor. When he started painting regularly at the MIA in 2001, he never intended the pieces for public exhibition.

The studies would form “a painter’s clip file of historical objects,” he said. An oak table from the museum’s Tudor room might show up later in a Rock painting set in Medieval Europe, for example.

Rock’s early work in the museum concentrated on the period rooms on the third floor, but he soon felt himself pulled toward the Asian art and antiquities down one level.

“I really appreciate the beauty and design capabilities represented in the Asian collection,” he said. “… A lot of the objects were made from bronze and had a wonderful, beautiful patina.”

In one of Rock’s later paintings, an ancient Chinese bronze ceremonial bell from the 5th century BC floats in swirling crimson. It was completed after he realized the museum paintings were more than studies and could stand on their own. Instead of faithfully recording the setting of each piece — its pedestal, the gallery wall, a glowing exit sign in the distance — he celebrates the object.

Not that Rock could ever take himself out of the museum setting. Painting in the gallery meant contending with curious onlookers who sometimes formed a small crowd a few feet behind him.

The curious who fill the MIA every day became an integral part of Meza’s installation. Their voices, chopped and reworked, mix with samples of gift shop Muzak, guards’ walkie-talkie chatter and rustling footsteps to create what Meza called a sound sculpture of the “sonic life of the museum.”

When you enter the darkened room where his looped sound sculptures play one on top of the other, you might hear the sound of chirping insects, the low rumbles of distant thunder or a bird’s wings flapping — not necessarily hushed museum voices.

“I wanted these sonic metaphors to take place,” Meza explained, adding that he expected listeners to create their own images.

Playing simultaneously is a video shot one night when Meza roamed the halls alone with a video camera in one hand and a flashlight in the other.

As he walks through the galleries, disembodied faces pop out of portraits and sculptures emerge from the shadows. Paired with the cacophonous sound collage, it’s spooky — although that wasn’t necessarily Meza’s intention.

“I guess it depends on your personal relationship to the dark,” he joked.

In that unfamiliar context — by flashlight, after dark — the artworks reveal something of themselves Meza said was there all along.

“To me, there’s a mystery imbued in all these objects,” he said.

Go See It

“Picturing History” and “Found Voice, Solo Museum” run through May 25 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave. S. Admission is free. www.artsmia.org. 870-3131.