So, You Think You Can Curate ArtPrize?

Let me preface this article by saying that generally speaking, Rapid Growth does not cover individual artist entries or venues at ArtPrize. It's not that we don't like the event, or don't like artists or venues, but it would open a proverbial can of worms for us; a big stinky can of worms.

Starting in late August, artists, venues and PR professionals from around the world begin inundating us with promotional materials about ArtPrize. There's no possible way that we could give a fair representation of what ArtPrize has to offer without looking like we're playing favorites. In addition, several of our staff are heavily involved in the artist community, so it would be difficult to choose what specific entries to cover, again, without playing favorites. And lastly, we have a limited budget every week to try and fit in all the exciting things going on in Grand Rapids, inside and outside of ArtPrize. So to all those ArtPrize participants making their pitches to get picked up in Rapid Growth, we apologize.

With that being said, we're going to make an exception this year for some very notable reasons. Paul Amenta, curator of Site:Lab at the old public museum at 54 Jefferson, was gracious enough to give Rapid Growth a tour of their venue this past week, right in the middle of ArtPrize. If you have not heard of Paul, he's an artist, curator, adjunct professor at Kendall College of Art and Design, MFA graduate from the School of Visual Arts in New York City and was recently featured in an incredibly poignant writeup on ArtPrize that appeared in this September's GQ Magazine. The guy has a curriculum vitae longer than most Rapid Growth articles.

If you have not heard of Site:Lab, it's a series of artist exhibitions that moves around the city of Grand Rapids to different (generally vacant) properties, infusing them with light, sound and experiential treatments. Sometimes Site:Lab is part of ArtPrize (it won a juried Outstanding Venue award last year), and other times part of other art events like Art.Downtown earlier this year. Paul breaks the mold of how artist/venue matchups usually happens with ArtPrize, and hand selects artists up to a year in advance. He reaches far out into his network of artist friends from around the country, predominantly drawing on international artists.

So on a dreary rainy Friday afternoon, Paul Amenta took time out of his busy schedule to give us a first hand look at the 18 entries this year at Site:Lab.

It's clear within a couple minutes into the tour that he knows his stuff: art history, the intent of the artist, construction materials, the inspiration for the entries, his passion for art and so much more. He also quickly admitted when he didn't have the answer to one of my questions, and sprinkled in stories of going to an exhibit in New York and not understanding the exhibit at all until someone explained it to him -- "a refreshing humility rarely seen in the art curator world," stated a person on the tour afterward. While on the tour, he frustratingly removed a series of paper "tags" that someone had left behind the night before -- little poems or impressions that someone had about each exhibit.

Without missing a beat, he went on to describe linear forms and grids, the psychology of "scaring" people into buying the latest safety device (lightning rods in one particular exhibit), the interesting shapes and landscape scenery in old museum dioramas, the creepiness of hoarding in an old house in Detroit, science fiction books and the weapons of war.

He shared stories of emails to a friend in Brooklyn begging her artist husband to exhibit, and how he was able to bring back international award-winning artists such as Shinji Turner-Yamamoto and Alois Kronschlaeger. It's hard to envision anyone saying no to the guy.

Since Paul's time is valuable and his schedule hurried (even though he seemed pretty laid back on that Friday afternoon), he can't possibly give personal tours to every visitor to Site:Lab. So that's why we thought it was time to make an exception to our "ArtPrize Rule" (more of a guideline) and give you a sneak peak of Site:Lab this year. It really warrants taking your time, reading the artist statements and clicking on the kiosks set up at several parts of the building, to truly appreciate the varied and fascinating entries Site:Lab brings this year.

The whole site is worth spending a couple of hours exploring, but here were some of our favorites:

Alois Kronschlaeger: Habitat

This is obviously one of Paul's favorites this year as well. You may remember Kronschlaeger's large grid structure rising up out of the old elevator shaft of the JA Building last year, puncturing right out of the top of the building. This year, Alois took over 12 -- yes, 12 -- of the museum dioramas and built diorama-specific grid and screen structures in each. One even allows you to walk into the diorama and turn around toward the lights, giving you a firsthand view of what it feels like to be a stuffed fox hiding in the bushes with its young pup. The most moving diorama for our group was a family of elks, seemingly trapped in a gridded cage, with the male appearing to be skewered by the grid.

Scott Hocking: The Reptile Room

I've been a fan of Redford, MI artist Scott Hocking's photography ever since I saw photos of his at the Detroit Institute of Arts earlier this year. The photos featured an odd pyramid of bricks stacked inside of an old abandoned auto factory in Detroit. Was it aliens? Mayans? Out-of-work factory workers? According to the artist: "He is left-handed and wears contact lenses. He has a speech impediment. He is a Pisces, born on the day of creative isolation in the week of the loner and the year of the cat. He can read palms, has 3 tattoos, has been arrested 6 times, and is the 6 of spades." If you don't get anything out of this article, remember one thing: DO NOT step on the little silver stones on the back side of the car, please.

Blane De St Croix: UnNatural History

De St Croix has done quite a bit of work surrounding global and geopolitical struggles, using large scale sculptural works. This is the "hanging clouds" exhibit in the main Grand Hall of Site:Lab that you've probably seen online recently. The green and gray stickly cloud-like forms are meant to represent islands of destruction and regeneration, as was exhibited in massive grass fires in the Florida Everglades in the last few years. Be sure to check them out from below and above, as their impression changes from each direction.

Filipo Tagliati: Viaggio a Roma

Assistant Professor of Photography at GRCC and Italian-born Tagliati treats the viewer to an incredible array of photography from his time in Rome. The mix of stills, stop motion, "tilt shift" and timelapse photography of a Roman waterfront piazza were particularly a favorite. Pay particular attention to how each section of the video moves at different speeds, while pedestrians strolling along the riverfront move from one section into another.

Gary Schwartz: PUBLIC MUSEUM

You may remember Sesame Street and the stop-motion segments for the "Number of the Day" or "Letter of the Day?" The man behind those, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Gary Schwartz, makes an appearance at this year's Site:Lab. He was apparently so enamored with the Public Museum itself that he created a long "animated stop-motion/timelapse Camera Obscura installation" Yes, it's as interesting as it sounds. Keep your eye out for the segment in the video shot through a pinhole in paper on the museum's front door. I'm personally not a fan of video entries at ArtPrize, but pull up a bean bag chair in this little theater and give it a watch.

Lisa Walcott: Breathing Room

A recent Cranbook Adademy graduate, installation artist and sculptor Lisa Walcott took over the taxidermy lab at the old public museum. In it, she creates a fun and interactive exhibit of a "lab gone mad," with the raised floor bubbling to life from what appears to be a bad mixture of mint Mentos and Diet Coke. Though we found the exhibit fun and humorous, according to the artist's statement: "There is a constant growth and loss in the falling and rising suds. Corners, cracks, gaps and nooks are mysterious by nature alluding to a darker unknown." Paul recommends coming in the evening, as a moving light in an old shaft creates an eerie ominousity to the exhibit. And yes, you can walk on the wooden floor.

Nicolas Touron: Girafe

According to Amenta, French-born artist Nicolas Touron generally exhibits in stark white gallery spaces. But after seeing one of his works recently, Paul thought Touron would be perfect for a grass- and tree-filled diorama in the museum. Touron responded fabulously. In it, he places a large giraffe made of mirror like metal plates, which seem to both reflect images and create a transparent like appearance. Is it one giraffe or two? You decide.

P.S. if your kids like the zoo, they will like this one especially.

Wes McGee and Catie Newell: Specimen

Think of every Ridley Scott science fiction/horror movie you've seen, and you'll get a good idea of the impression that Specimen leaves. Ann Arbor-based architects Wes McGee and Catie Newell return to ArtPrize this year (at GRAM last year) to partner on this large-scale glass sculpture using "catenary slumping." The lights and superstructure supporting the heavy glass weight (somewhere in the hundreds of pounds we imagine) are positioned very carefully to create an interesting bending of light in the forms. "Cut the power? How could they cut the power, man??!!" - Lt. Hudson, Aliens

Lily Cox Richard: Strike

Apparently upon setting her eyes on the old log cabin exhibit at the old museum, Lily Cox Richard had a stroke of inspiration. Based upon a book she had read involving a lightning rod salesman who worked out of a cabin in the early 20th Century, she transforms this section of the museum into a historical perspective of this strange industry. It includes actual pamphlets and sales manuals on how to scare the gaggles out of customers and force them to buy lightning rods, with horrifying pictures of churches and homes burning and people permanently scarred by lightning strikes. Be sure to enter the cabin, you get to hear a narration of what she imagined the sales pitch to sound like.

Thomas Wagner/Paul Amenta: Sunrise at Isle Royale

Paul Amenta couldn't help himself this year and partnered with London-based artist Tom Wagner to create their own "diorama of a diorama." They built a wood and screen curved structure onto which images are projected of all (or many) of the dioramas in the museum. With Amenta returning to this venue year after year, we venture to say he has a certain love affair with the old museum.

Site:Lab at the old public museum during ArtPrize is one of 161 venues this year. Venue hours run from Monday - Thursdays 5 p.m. - 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays Noon - 10 p.m., and Sundays Noon - 6 p.m.

If you happen to see Paul Amenta at Site:Lab, a tall, thin gentleman wearing thick-framed glasses, be sure to flag him down. If he has time, we have a feeling he'll answer just about any question you might have, except perhaps about science fiction movies and books. He self-admits he doesn't know much about either.

Jeff Hill is the Publisher of Rapid Growth Media.

Photos by Nya Beaubien and Tom Wagner.

Editors note: since the writing of this article, Five Site:Lab artists have been nominated on the Jury Award short lists, and Site:Lab has made the short list for Best Venue Award.