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An aesthetic revolution
By Dan Swartz
Fort Wayne Reader
Art for art’s sake has been both applauded and criticised repeatedly, and this cycle has accelerated within the contemporary art world. While various movements have valued this aesthetic and idealized it, it has not become a predominant mode for midwestern art. Culturally, the Midwest has always been a stronghold for conservatism. To produce something without regard for economic output, or potentially even reason, is tantamount to sin in certain worldviews.
Thankfully, this has begun to change as the internet and contemporary culture has bled together and the democratization of the artwork has accelerated beyond the dominant trends flowing out of the auction houses, major galleries, and academia.
This democratization has been accepted in the Midwest, especially in areas which have become known for urbanization, unionization, and labor in all concepts of the word. In Fort Wayne, this has existed in various artists from time to time as artists have built themselves into collectives, created collaborative art works, and produced work to be consumed freely. Currently, Jerrod Tobias represents this aesthetic most prominently within our local scene, as he regularly creates work with others, and has been pushing very diligently to build a case for public art in our community, and has been successful multiple times most recently.
Tobias’ work can be seen currently in Jennifer Ford Art’s exhibition “Carnie’s Coup”, a three person show with Jerrod Tobias, Daniel Baxter, and Jason Rowland. These three artists have exhibited their works in shows together multiple times and have collaborated on works together as well. Their individual art practices vary considerably, with Tobias working in a folk magic realism combined with bright abstraction, while Baxter primarily creates sculptural craft akin to dolls and set pieces, and Rowland’s work sits squarely within the realm of pop and street culture. The common thread between their practices is an aesthetic of popular use and shared visual language.
Jennifer Ford Art (JFA) describes the exhibition through the eyes of twentieth century philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin who wrote about the “carnivalesque,” a term that describes carnivals in Medieval Europe which allowed temporary anarchy against the political, legal and ideological authorities of both church and state. Carnivals provided individuals an opportunity to engage in public discourse about new ideas and challenge the oppressions they faced. This period of suspended disbelief perfectly describes the efforts of Tobias in his bids to bring the arts into Fort Wayne’s daily life and provide people a respite from the mundane. JFA continues to explain the artists with, “Baxter, Rowland, and Tobias identify themselves as part of a contemporary arts revolution through their use of color and subversive subject matter. By acknowledging the ubiquity of art in our day which seeps into all aspects of our daily lives, the work in Carnie’s Coup aims to unite a growing arts community divided by age and socioeconomic background.”
Tobias’ work tends to be two-dimensional, and have connections to propaganda and Soviet social realism. The content of his works however is far from it, usually with images of his children or anthropomorphised animals as the protagonists in broken narratives which pick up and drop off throughout the individual pieces. Tobias prescribes to the conviction that the arts are the voice of the culture and the agent of social change. This belief is demonstrated by patterns in his work which echo the geometry of natural forms, while his subjects represent the chaotic state of humanity. Tobias’ palette tends to be bright and diverse, and borderline acidic. In pieces like “Dawn of a New Age”, and “Spirit Fox”, Tobias uses these consistent bright colors and imagery to draw the viewer into a different world where symbols collide and gulf between man and nature subsides. Smaller pieces like “A Different Story” are markedly different for Tobias, where he scales back the color and opens up his imagery making them feel more sketched out and vernacular. Between these multiple bodies of work, Tobias finds ways to draw audiences in and tie together the public and private in new ways.
Daniel Baxter creates both two- and three-dimensional work which invites his viewers to see alternative possibilities in objects they hadn’t considered before. This challenge of subjectivity is most acute in his “Kreepy Dolls” which are animated by the gaze of each individual viewer. Formerly the production director of IFC’s “Food Party”, the pseudo-reality cooking show filmed on an elaborate, technicolored cardboard kitchen set, Baxter’s work literally knows no bounds, and quickly pulls the viewer into an alternative reality. Soft sculptural pieces like “Red Dragon Head”, and “Champion Trophy” exemplify the range of this intriguing artists.
Jason Rowland’s combined pop and street art style challenges contemporary culture by subverting viewers’ expectations of traditional storylines in pop cultural icons with his own personal narrative arc. With iconic series like his “Sad Girls”, spoofing the Lichtenstein comic strips of the 60s and 70s, and modified household characters ranging from Disney to Marvel and everything in between, Rowland pushes out his own creative space within a niche filled with many contemporary artists. The quality of Rowland’s craftsmanship and the wit he infuses into his pieces is a breath of fresh air. Rowlands work ranges from absurd pieces like “Mickey/Danzig”, to “Ironman/Calavera”, a modified image of the Marvel Comic’s character Iron Man, which is designed to look like a sugar skull in the manner of the Mexican Day of the Dead Celebration. “Calavera” actually means skull in Spanish, and the representation of the Iron Man mask as a skull is an interesting one. Often the mixtures of cultural references within Rowland’s work takes on a somewhat melancholy or pensive tone, with characters wrestling with their own existence or mortality in various ways.
The artists in “Carnie’s Coup” present a variety of art forms, and ways to look at the art world through the viewers own eyes, not needing a former training or wide ranges of experiences within it. Bringing the art to the people in this way provides the necessary base for a stronger art world to grow out of in the Fort Wayne community and the results of these artists’ work is already evident.
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