Elements of the Surreal: Kalamazoo Institute of Arts’ West Michigan Area Show

by Joanne Heppert

Walking into the West Michigan Area Show at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts it was hard not to notice the sheer number of pieces: around 100 pieces completed by 93 West Michigan artists could be found in the two rooms of the KIA’s main gallery space. The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts accepted submissions in 2D, 3D, and digital media with a size limit of 72 inches in any dimension. There were no digital media pieces included in the show and two-dimensional works dominated the gallery. There was a sculptural piece that was hung from the ceiling; however there were no installation or site-specific pieces as a result of the restrictive size constraints. The large amount of work in the show and the close proximity of many pieces in two rooms created an atmosphere where various works from diverse artists interacted with each other.

The West Michigan Area Show was a juried exhibition focused on showing work from artists living and working in the West Michigan area. Vincent Desiderio, a New York based artist, was chosen to be the guest juror for the exhibition. There were five prizes awarded to the juror’s top five pieces and there were also seven additional prizes awarded by various community sponsors. The show ran from March 17th to May 6th, 2012.

The awards offered seem to have affected the pieces selected for the show. For example, many of the awards granted by community sponsors corresponded to a specific medium. Many of these specific award reflected processes that are traditionally craft-oriented. There were awards for fiber, jewelry, quilting, and book arts. In order to accommodate these prizes supported by community sponsors, art objects that fit into these categories had to be included in the show. In comparison to the dominant presence of two-dimensional pieces in the show, these few jewelry, quilt and book art pieces played a small and almost negligible role in the show as a whole.

In the chapter “Being In Place” from The Lure of the Local, Lucy Lippard explores the idea of regional art and she asserts that “today a region is generally understood not as a politically or geographically delimited space but one determined by stories, loyalties, group identity, common experiences and histories (often unrecorded), a state of mind rather than a place on a map.” [1] While the “West Michigan” region explored in the KIA’s West Michgan Area Show was in fact determined by county lines (including 14 different counties), the juror’s selection of works and the curating of the show asserted a regional identity and point of view.

A common thread linking a large portion of the show was the presence of the surreal in many pieces. Whether through invocations of the morbid, dreamy references to people’s connection to nature and the cosmos, or a bizarre juxtaposition of visual elements, the juror maneuvered the viewers through this surreal, otherworldly way of representing experience with his choice of works. Largely representational, these works were infused with the juxtaposition of content, color, or mixed media elements that create this sense of dream-like surrealism. These pieces that varied in media were united in themes of dreams, death, illusion, the cosmos and the human connection to the natural.

Chris Laporte, Funeral Drawing, 2012, pencil on paper.

Chris Laporte’s graphite drawing Funeral Drawing, fit in with this theme of the surreal and the morbid. This image, a black and white photograph of mass of children at a funeral, was made even more haunting through his strong and dramatic use of mark. Exaggerated and visible enough to make the piece seem photorealistic from afar, the mark obscured the detail and faces of the children upon a closer viewing. John Leben’s digital paintings also contributed to this theme of the surreal. Both of Leben’s pieces in the West Michigan Area Show, The Bird Cage and Balloon Suitors, portrayed three identical, ominous men in vague, dreamlike situations.

The photography in the show also explored this theme of the surreal. Both Jim Riegel’s Nude with Mask, a piece which utilized the visual effect of a mask to confuse a traditional figural photograph, and Nick Arnold’s Piazza de’ Pitti, Florence Italy, 2011, an infrared photograph which transformed a traditional Italian piazza into a deserted ruin with a post-apocalyptic sky, contributed to Desiderio’s surreal selections despite their traditionally documentary medium.

There were a few two-dimensional pieces that stood out from this theme of the surreal, though. For example, Dean Clark’s watercolor piece Shadows and Keith Downie’s acrylic painting Under Water explored the mundane and daily through a photorealistic lens. The winner of the juror’s Grand Prize, James Collins’ Untitled, an optic black and white piece, also stands out in its abstraction. Clark and Downie’s pieces were prize winners as well, with Downie receiving the Third Prize and Clark receiving the Director’s Choice Purchase Prize. Although these pieces stood out in their straightforward approach and understated content compared to the other predominantly surreal and dreamy pieces, the curation of the rest of the show influenced the viewer’s reception of the pieces. For example, the dreary, simple suburban scene of Keith Downie’s Under Water became allegorical and increasingly bizarre when compared with pieces such as Ben Groggel’s Family Dissection #5, a dark abstraction with domestic and familial undertones. The viewers’ reception of Collins’ optic piece was also affected by pieces such as Susan Caulfield’s Veil Between the World and Sarah Youngman’s What do you see when you close your eyes?, both of which invoked and attempted to portray the unseeable or unseen.

James Collins, Untitled, 2012, oil and acrylic household paint on canvas.

While the West Michigan Area Show attempted to gather art from artists working in the region, the New York-based artist serving as juror for the show selected a collection of work that reflected themes of the surreal, of the mystic and of the unknowable. Whether it is reflective of a local aesthetic or the product of the curator’s personal preference the overwhelming presence of pieces with surreal elements granted surreal or allegorical qualities to the few abstracted pieces in the show.


[1] Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicultural Social (New York: The New Press, 1998), 34.


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