Downtown 101:

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February 16, 2004 // UPDATED 2:55 pm - April 24, 2007
By: sue rich
sue rich

Don't worry, be arty: an introductory guide to Downtown's galleries

A black-clad, part-time performance artist saunters over to give you the hairy eyeball

-- "Are you planning to purchase this piece?" he asks/demands. The price isn't even posted, so you sputter, "Um, perhaps, but I have to see how it fits with the rest of my, um, collection," and slowly back toward the door.

Art galleries have long been portrayed as havens of pretension -- fodder for Saturday Night Live and Monty Python skits. However, recent ventures into the dozen-plus Downtown galleries turned up nary a cold stare.

Even if you dress down, (this reporter wore a stained army coat with flapping epaulets) a gallery worker at worst offers a polite "hello" before getting back to work/ignoring you. On occasion, there will be a terse overseer, but most maintain a friendly, "happy to answer any questions" demeanor.

Whether you need to spruce up a drab corner, invest in fine art or take in some eye-candy on a gray wintry day, local galleries offer a chance to view quality artwork in a wide range of prices in hassle-free environments.

Even if the sales staff is friendly, though, some price tags can be intimidating -- pieces often go for as much as a good used car. However, many galleries depend on $7 to $100 items (jewelry, small paintings, prints, hand-painted postcards) to get through leaner times.

To help even the most hesitant get comfortable stepping into a local gallery, we've compiled this guide. We found that most galleries roughly fit into the following categories:

  • Traditional (classic landscapes and portraiture)

  • Fine art by up-and-coming artists

  • Artist-centered or style-centered

  • Eclectic (many different styles)

    (We didn't include places that primarily sell other goods, such as antiques or coffee.)

    Traditional

    Step out of the street/skyway bustle into the realm of never-ending classical music, soothing landscapes and graceful, romantic figures. In the traditional galleries, which cater to Americans' favorite styles, you can almost smell the roses in the vivid still lifes, and the old masters themselves must smile upon the newer works they've inspired.

    In LaSalle Plaza's Vern Carver-Beard Gallery, small placards offer a brief biography of each regional artist. Many seem to be retired businesspeople; accordingly, their work seems nostalgic and reflective. For example, James Kube lovingly depicts the bustle of what appears to be Nicollet Mall in soft summery colors; the women waiting for the streetlight wear matching sleeveless dresses. Flowers and softly glowing landscapes abound.

    To a certain extent, this is the role of traditional art: paying homage to and engendering appreciation for the scenes and people around us, and to remind us of better days and peaceful places. (Prices here are $125 to $40,000.)

    Sometimes those better days occurred in other people's lifetimes. In the Kramer Gallery, also in LaSalle Plaza, most works recall precivilized shimmering horizons, when full-bodied women were appreciated and noble savages roamed the plains. A thickly painted American Indian man in a headdress sits atop his horse; he looks toward two other men from his tribe and away from the fine-lined plates depicting fox hunt riders nearby. (Prices $100-$19,000.)

    The Wilcock Gallery in City Center mixes the traditional with the unconventional, interspersing the occasional jarring lithograph between playful nudes, soothing watercolor depictions of local lakes and '80s-looking abstracts. The Wilcock also peppers its displays with encased dead spiders, butterflies, feathers, geodes and shells, all for sale as works of natural art ($7 and up).

    While the Nicollet Mall's Jean Stephen Galleries isn't necessarily traditional in terms of style, it tends to promote more established artists who have made their name on the international scene. There are the idealized young men and women and Christian-themed sculptures of Frederick Hart and the Moulin rouge-inspired paintings of Joanna Zjawinska. While each painter and sculptor has their own style, you can often see the influence of the masters - Matisse, Cezanne, Chagall, Botero, etc. (except for maybe the colored acrylic polar bears of Louis Von Koelnau. Prices are $125 to $40,000.)

    Emerging or mid-career fine artists

    Galleries in this category tend to be the most pleasantly challenging. (Does that bunny have hands? Did she actually give the Mona Lisa a bob cut? Why paint people at their most embarrassing moments?)

    These curators skip right over Monet and Van Gogh-inspired works; their galleries look least like a traditional museum space (although some have sold pieces to institutions such as the Minneapolis Institute of Arts).

    While exhibited works are often beautiful, they usually eschew romanticism and seem to capture life's darker and more fleeting, whimsical moments. (A young girl featured in a Circa Gallery painting, "Girl in the Center Ring," is clad in a tangerine orange dress and black patent leather, little-girl shoes in the center of what seems to be a black hole rather than a circus. Prices range from $XX to $XX.)

    Many of these works are only possible to categorize in the most general terms. The epitome of this group, The Kellie Rae Theiss Gallery in the Warehouse District, specializes in surrealism (where realistic and fantastic imagery collide; for example, bunnies with human hands or Dali's watches that melt on branches), imagism (making an idea physical, usually in sculpture) and expressionism (where the artist factors in his or her subjective emotions and responses -- for example, using colors that reflect how the artist feels about the object or person, rather than how it looks in real life). (Works cost between $400 and $10,000.)

    In addition to enchanted ceramic hares, hot pink nudes, and '50s-era nuclear families placed in decidedly un-'50s situations, these galleries have still lifes and landscapes, just not shrouded in rosy-hued nostalgia.

    Some landscapes include urban features -- smoke, hulking grain elevators, sharp angles on city homes that appear to be both sinking and aiming for the sky. Others appear almost devoid of any specific structures, resembling large colored squares (some of which probably inspire the "Geesh, my kindergartener could do that" response).

    Staff at these galleries tend to be particularly friendly, perhaps because they see their role as stewards of the art world -- bringing worthy talent to the attention of the art establishment and, in turn, bringing people who have recently established themselves on the regional and national radar screen into the homes of collectors.

    Generally, prices vary from $200 to $4,000 with most around $1,000. (Rosalux gallery, by the Metrodome, is notably less expensive, featuring mostly $200-$400 works by local artists.)

    Artist- or style-centered

    At some galleries, the artist's identity is just as important as the artwork.

    Interact Gallery in North Loop displays the works of people with mental disabilities. This is the gallery for those who fear sticker-shock or pretentious atmospheres -- original works range from $40 to $150, and the vibe is friendly and open.

    The gallery is located in the same space as the Interact day program, where people with mental disabilities work during the day and learn marketable skills (in this rare case, the visual and performing arts). Physical boundaries are vague; program clients/artists often walk through the exhibit space to get to the bathroom or visit with staff about lunch. You can hear the renowned Interact theater troupe developing their next production just around the corner.

    Many of the pieces for sale are bright and cheery -- full of energy-pulsating lines and squiggles that famous painters strive for. Don't be fooled, however, there is subtle social commentary in these explosions of color. An oversized post card of mail art (successfully sent through the United States Postal Service) invites viewers to join in a glittery "wish you were here" fantasy beach, but flip it over for an idea of what life is actually like: a number 18 bus running over the brain of a nicely-suited gentleman.

    Next door to Interact is an artist-centered gallery: Allen Christian's personal playground, The House of Balls. Christian carves into bowling balls to reveal their inner souls -- they become the faces of towering kings and mobile creatures that comfortably coexist with Christian's two cats. (Pop in when the "open" light is on or call ahead -- there are no posted hours, or prices -- at this gallery.)

    Elliot Park's Outsiders and Others caters to people who neglected to go to art school. Past exhibits have featured works by lawyers and tattoo artists. Their current "African and African American Show" includes works on beauty standards and black assimilation by local TV anchor (and former gallery owner) Robyne Robinson. Outsiders is currently taking entries for the upcoming "Jewish Artists Living with Mental Illness" exhibit. Prices range from $2 to $2,000.

    Tucked into the back of Grumpy's Bar, 1111 Washington Ave. S., Ox-Op shows works by professional graphic designers and illustrators who don't buy the whole "that's not art, it's advertising" split and don't spend sleepless nights wrestling with whether they've lost their soul. Their personal and professional works can be displayed side by side, or not--it doesn't matter, because the focus is on the artists' body of work, not its vocational category.

    An Ox-Op trip can help viewers get to know emerging local and national designers, such as Jeff Soto (who recently drew the tire-eating, flaming metal monster on a "City Pages" cover) and Shepard Fairey, whose "Obey Giant" guerilla posters dot the nation, including a decrepit old building on the corner of Washington and 3rd avenues north in North Loop. Viewers can expect colorful, multilayered images -- and sure, some pictures of flowers, but they'll probably have thorns. (Original paintings usually range from $1,000 to $3,500. However, posters, CDs and Ox-Op art-toy figures range from $7 to $60.)

    Eclectic

    Some galleries offer works of art that truly span the traditional, modern and other categories.

    According to Douglas-Baker Gallery's owner and curator Douglas Koons, a study of Americans' art preferences revealed that 60 percent prefer traditional art; 30 percent, modern art and 10 percent like both. Koons says he fits into that final dime, in both his Downtown home and 225 S. 6th St. gallery.

    On one side of Koons' desk, a serene lake scene invites Minnesotans to recall their last trip up North; on the other blooms a thickly painted, vibrant bouquet of bold hot-colored strokes. The balance continues throughout. On a dresser in one of the three street-level display windows that comprise most of the gallery, a small portrait of an insect with a human face invites closer inspection (and perhaps a revisiting of one's relationship to the Orkin man) while larger abstracts taunt and twirl the iris into mental arabesques above. (Prices range from $120 to $16,000.)

    At Artistic Indulgence in the Nicollet Island/East Bank neighborhood, nearly half the storefront is devoted to their framing business; however, the 20 or so displayed works are worth a stop. Currently, the paintings are brilliantly colored and depict dark-haired "Amelie"-looking and empowered women, stately American Indians and looping, needle-eyed abstracts. Calm, lush landscapes greet sidewalk-side passersby, and the pillar separating the framing from the gallery space sports high-energy ink renderings of punk bikers. (Works cost between $100 and $4,000.)