Our Art Fair analyzes Iowa Arts Festival

BY ELLE WIGNALL | JUNE 07, 2012 6:30 AM

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Participatory. Engaging. Perception shifting. These elements are part of what drive Hideous Beast's desire to dive further into the meaning of art while engaging people to do so as well.

Hideous Beast is the product of a collaboration between two artists, Josh Ippel and Charlie Roderick. Their exhibits rely on the public to actively engage in the art in order to draw meaning to them.

"We insist that the viewers who come to our show somehow have a role in creating or making our work happen," Roderick said. "[We] always insist that the viewer has to do some kind of work."

Art is very reliant on social systems, he noted, and the art that Hideous Beast creates almost consistently relies on factors outside of what the two artists produce to work.

What began as a college friendship at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign in 2003 has grown into a collaborative effort to change the meaning of authorship, create active and participatory art displays, and encourage audiences to diverge from the mainstream ideas of what it means to make art.

Bored with the forms of entertainment offered on their college campus, Roderick and Ippel wanted to create a space with the high energy of a party but with positive and participatory elements. They wanted to do something fun and interesting and not completely developed, Ippel said, and that is what they have been doing ever since.

Public Space One Director John Engelbrecht said Hideous Beast was first introduced to Iowa City in a 2009 show called Public Document Files, by artist Jen Reyes.

"Their part [in the show] was just kind of a file in the cabinet about them and the kind of work they do," Engelbrecht said.

Their work interested the Public Space One organizers in jump-starting a collaboration between Hideous Beast and the venue.

"They can come into a space and put stuff on a wall that is meant to provoke the audience," Engelbrecht said. "[At Public Space One], we tend to savor that type of relationship to art."

Our Art Fair, Hideous Beast's exhibition at Public Space One, located in the basement of 129 E. Washington St., opened on the same weekend as the Iowa Arts Festival. Our Art Fair aims to look at art festivals, and more specifically, the Iowa Arts Festival, as a physical form, Roderick and Ippel said.

The artists said their hope, as well as the hope of Public Space One, is that audience members will come into the gallery with last weekend's Arts Festival in mind and be challenged to think about the differences of the art that happens in an arts fair versus in a gallery space.

The installation at Public Space One consists of physical elements of art fairs separated and standing alone without their human and object counterparts. A tent typically used to house crafted glass, homemade jams, or price-marked oil paintings hangs suspended, and empty, from the ceiling. Artisan chairs sit vacant and unwarmed.

In addition to the gallery installation, Hideous Beast hosted a community forum on its opening day, June 2, as "an opportunity for the representatives of Public Space One and maybe some representatives who come closer to what the arts fair represents to hash out some ideas about what [the arts fair] means," Roderick said.

Eric Asboe, the art director of Public Space One, anticipated that the forum, consisting of a panel of art intellectuals and commercial gallery owners, would "pose a question of how we can all work for one another." Along with a dialogue about art fairs, the panel was set to discuss big-picture concepts about the meaning of art and culture.

"It's a way to sort of organize our impressions," Asboe said.

Roderick and Ippel said art fairs are set up for commerce, while art galleries are set up to challenge audience members to think about what they're looking at.

"Difficulty is useful," Ippel said. "It slows down the experience of pleasure."

The differences between art fairs and galleries are crucial discussion points for art intellectuals such as Roderick and Ippel, contributing to a long-standing dialogue with art and its history and its forms. During a discussion between the two, the artists said art fairs create a type of experience that may ask for less mental participation from the audience because the artisan's goal is to sell work.

"[The] artisan in a booth in a fair is right there to explain work and pitch it [in order to make a sale]," Roderick said.

And in a society that deeply values consumerism, commercial art allows messages to be passively consumed at a rapid pace, Roderick said. Because the values of an arts fair and the values of a gallery exhibition can differ so greatly, Roderick and Ippel questioned whether the word "art" can be used to umbrella both forms.

"The word 'art' is being used to describe it all," Roderick said.

The Iowa Summer of the Arts provides a good opportunity to "break apart and flatten the discussion," Roderick said.

Public Space One organizers invited staff members of the Iowa Arts Festival to participate in the forum, but because of the timing of the event, officials were unable to attend.

"It's totally the timing of it," said Lisa Barnes, the executive director of the Iowa Summer of the Arts. "I would definitely like to participate in some of the discussions at Public Space One in the future."

Engelbrecht said Hideous Beast's exhibit is a way to contribute to the discussion surrounding the Arts Festival.

"There is excitement when the art fair comes to town, and it's always a bit frustrating because you walk through and you want more of Iowa City's voice being represented," he said.

Hideous Beast's exhibit does not aim to detract from what the Arts Festival does but rather to think about it in a critical way, Engelbrecht said.

Engelbrecht said Iowa City has a rich community of artists and a top art school that could produce good participatory events that aren't on a "here to spend money so I can keep doing what I want to do" agenda.

"The expectation on our end is to raise awareness about art making that happens in Iowa City year round," Engelbrecht said.

Our Art Fair is free to the public during regular gallery hours and available on the website, for community members to ponder and define their own positions and relationships to art and culture. The artists will not be present in the gallery.

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