Friday, 24 October 2014 13:17

Artful Exploration of the Practical Mind

Written by  Kerri VanderHoff
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Looking Forward: The Art of Kirk Newman
Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, Grand Rapids
Nov. 7, 2014-Feb. 8, 2015, (616) 454-7000

A cultural study of the Midwest reveals an interesting trajectory. In The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture, geographer James R. Shortridge notes around the turn of the last century, the Midwest enjoyed a prosperous time and was revered in the national consciousness as the most “American” part of the nation. The self-reliance of the inhabitants secured the region’s identity as the ideal America. There was a strong commitment to progressivism, with an emphasis on education, women’s rights and temperance.

By the 1920s, however, the perceived character of the Midwest was changing considerably, especially when the bottom dropped out of the grain market, causing a power shift back East. Socially, Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (1920), according to Shortridge, “exposed cultural flaws that the public knew were there but had not wanted to admit. He struck at the heart of traditional values, brought these issues into the open and thereby set the agenda for a decade of discussion.” The perception of the area now moved toward the notion of a conservative, provincial society that placed too much “emphasis on agriculture, home economics and business management” and was too “practical minded.”

Subsequent decades saw transitions from postwar boom to industrial decline to Reagan-era nostalgia for a simpler time, yet that underlying perception of the practical-minded, business-focused Midwesterner never really disappeared. Whether the attribute is considered a strength or weakness, or a little of both, is debatable.

Perhaps this cultural feature is one reason why artist Kirk Newman found great success in the Midwest. His work resonated deeply, especially with local business leaders, and can be found in major collections throughout the region.

Born in 1926 in Dallas, Newman began experimenting with abstract sculpture and painting in the postwar era. He became increasingly intrigued with the human figure and began creating small sculptures of anonymous businessmen.

Newman moved to Michigan in 1949 as an educator with the University of Michigan’s extension program at Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (KIA). He was instrumental in developing the nationally recognized Arts School that bears his name at KIA.

Newman continued explorations of the business world, capturing the complexities of power, anxiety, authority and vulnerability in the figures he created. His work shifted over time, reflecting the changes throughout the decades. His figures became more whimsical and satirical, poking fun at inflated egos and social pretensions. By the 1980s, the images were distorted, flattened and shadow-like to convey the fast pace of contemporary life.

An exhibition at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA), Looking Forward: The Artwork of Kirk Newman, provides a fresh look at his prolific career.

It’s a little 'Mad Men'-esque,” said Alexander Paschka, exhibition curator. “Early in his career, Kirk Newman owned a business and he understands the life he depicts – the responsibility, burdens and rewards. He found his niche continuing to analyze this.

Plus he was one of the most fun artists to meet,” said Paschka, adding Newman’s personality helps infuse his art with an engaging human connection. “Now in his late 80s, he’s still got a lot of zip to him. That’s the word that comes to mind: zippy. His optimism is so great.”


Buying Friends:The Kortman Collection
Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts
Nov. 15, 2014-Feb. 15, 2015, (616) 454-7000

Rife with coyness and wry sensibility, Buying Friends presents the contemporary art collection of Ryan Kortman. More than 80 works by nationally and internationally renowned artists including Adam Scott, Brian Belott and Sayre Gomez are on view together for the first time. Within this 36-artist exhibition, elements of humor, horror and pop culture intertwine with painting, sculpture and mixed media.

Tanglefoot Holiday Open House
Tanglefoot Building 
314 Straight Ave. SW, Grand Rapids 
Nov. 21, 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Nov. 23, noon-4 p.m.

The Tanglefoot artists open their doors for this annual holiday event, which encourages people to meet the artists and purchase pieces. This year features an artist who had an installation in the GRAM's 2014 ArtPrize collection. Take your guess on who it could be.

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