Rural America Contemporary Art

Rural America Contemporary Art (RACA) is not an organization nor is it a group. RACA is an idea. It is an idea based on the premise that there are a great many serious and productive contemporary artists that live and create in the open spaces of rural America. RACA exists to promote and connect the artists of rural America.

Certainly this is not a new idea. For many years accomplished and serious artists have lived and produced their work in rural America. Every region across our nation has their artists that have created and still create strong important work. That work has then typically found an audience in cities like New York or Los Angeles.

Can rural America support, foster and delineate for itself a role in the artistic identity of this country? Certainly there is a long history of rural America informing and inspiring many of our most important artists. Throughout the Twentieth Century artists lived and worked in rural America. These artists were also responsible for some of the most important work of the Modernist movement. It can be argued that artists like Georgia O’Keefe, Marsden Hartley, John Marin or Charles Burchfield contributed to the creation of a distinctly American version of European Modernist movements. They did this by incorporating modernist concepts into an American rural landscape idiom.

So is Rural America Contemporary Art just another version of regionalism? In many ways it is. Yet there is one important difference, the Internet. The use of social media and the instant communication of our digital age provide a level of connectivity that is unique and unprecedented. Ideas, concepts, fashion and trends now move at the speed of light. An idea that once would take months or years to migrate now zips around the planet instantly. Imagine if Picasso had been able to post Les Demoiselles Avignon on Facebook or Flickr? RACA aspires to utilize this social media connectivity to create a place and to foster an aesthetic identity once again formed in rural America.

RACA is not about competing with our urban brothers and sisters. There is nothing that can replace the layered complexity of New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Conversely, it is impossible to replace the many qualities of rural life. The rural world is comprised of complex layers describing the infinite interrelationships of humans and nature. Most of us come from a rural background. Much of what we do is in relationship to our rural past. These are memories that are embedded in our aesthetic and in the art we make and the culture we create. Rural America Contemporary Art seeks to build on our past to create a future.

Brian Frink

Trying to See

trying to see blog post image

Most of the time I think the past is just as unknown and unpredictable as the future.

What if I had bought that lottery ticket?

What if I had turned left instead of right?

What if I crossed the street five minutes earlier?

It is fall. Fields of corn and soybeans are drying out turning yellow and then brown. One day all I see are expanses of green, the next day a barely noticeable yellow begins to creep across the horizon.

So it is with life, verdant, vibrant, green. Rapidly, yet imperceptibly, youth is drained into the air leaving a dry rustling.

Most things that are meaningful exist in vague state of deniability. I sometimes sit and try to see the green turn to yellow. I squint and stare at the soybeans or the trees. My feeble eyes are never up to the task of real sight. Something in my brain won’t let me see it. Something denies the change.

When I experience art, it is not what I see, hear or read that is interesting. Rather it is the stuff that escapes my perception that causes me to look harder. The thing that I can barely see. That’s where the art is. These are subtle shifts. Getting as close as physically possible, I still can’t see it. I can’t see where the shadow starts, the break in contour lies, or where the edge of a form dissolves.

I think I know the past, but that is an illusion. My past is entirely unknown to me. Fate is just a game I play. Projecting into the future, I imagine myself there, whole and alive. Yet that is an illusion based on hope.

So like the leaf turning from green to yellow, life is imperceptible and unknown. Art examines the places in between things. There is sacredness to these places where our heart and our imaginations merge with what we call reality. Embrace the subtle changes because that is all we have.

Atom by atom the leaves change.

Atom by atom we grow old.

We are not drama nor are we contrast. We are not noise or screens, digital outputs or numbers. We are organic, silently sliding toward oblivion. Like the trees and fields all around, art reminds us to pay attention. Pay attention to the places between what you see and what you think you see.

Brian Frink

Little Poems

Wilbur and I have been married for over thirty-two years. Last week I finally figured out one reason that I love her. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that there are many reasons why I love her, it’s just that I’ve never been able to really describe those reasons. Instead I make up little poems like this one…

I would rather
look at
the moonlight reflect off
her face,
than look at
the moon itself.

Obviously I’m no poet but it seems the only way I can describe the why of love. Certainly there are gestures of care that express love but no real words to describe the why. Why? Love, as everyone knows, is a mystery. A poem is an arrangement of words. A painting is an arrangement of material. The particulars of that arrangement are an attempt to understand and express love; to express the mystery.

Walking up our staircase I froze, in a revelatory moment I realized why I love Wilbur. I love her love of symbols. Our house is full of symbols. Little arrangements of things are scattered all around, small strange shrines, images of Goddesses, Christian, Pagan, Eastern or plain old Midwestern Knickknack. Symbols gather in corners peeking out of darkness. Wilbur will light a candle for some secret thought. As if fine-tuning an unseen cosmic vibration she will place a stone, move an icon, hang some fabric, turn a vase. What I realized I love about her is that she has developed a secret language with our world, the ghosts, the pasts, the imaginary. It’s a world of symbols jostling about nesting with each other.

She gives gifts of symbols. Objects that have accrued meaning or that are somehow significant in ways I don’t always understand. A shell, a feather, a piece of wood, a rock, resonates with meaning. I think sometimes it is an object’s shape, color or texture that provokes meaning. Other times it is the object’s history, where it was found or who gave it to her.

A painting, every painting ever made, is just an arrangement of material. That’s all a painting is. Actually that is all any art ever is.

I think of old Dutch Still Life paintings like this one:

Elias van den Broeck 1649-1708

A vast multitude of paintings like this one were produced in Northern Europe. They are called genre paintings and they were created for a burgeoning urban-centered, upper-middle class. While representing displays of wealth and class, there was also a moral component, reminders of death and the transient nature of life and fortunes. At any moment we can lose it all, or we can die.

There might be another purpose for these paintings. It’s total speculation but maybe in the arrangement of objects, relationships, proximity, distance there is an attempt to channel the imagination. Art becomes a communication with a magical, mystical world that cannot be explained or understood, just brought forth. It is a world of the mind and imagination. It is the negative shapes between objects. The way air and light are restricted, focused and released. Or maybe it’s the magic in the implied narrative of a certain object in proximity to a particular flower. Poetry is suggested by the way light bounces off a cut of crystal vase.

Wilbur and I walk an ancient narrow street in a small village in rural France. There is deep meaning here. An oblique breeze brings a smell, a bit of bouncing light catches the eye, a distant bell rings; memories are brought forward. Shuffling around jostling up against one another my thoughts overlap creating new meanings from ancient symbols.

Like the words to a poem each object, each thought, each memory is placed in accordance to a secret resonance. Symbols, in accordance to internal forces torque against each other driving aesthetic beauty, and thus, meaning forward. It’s always a language that needs to be teased out, drawn towards the viewer’s heart. I think this is a language of love. No, it IS love, it is art.

Brian Frink

RACA Cycles

With a hard thunk the trailer hitch drops on the ball. I slap the hitch lock down and the Spirit of RACA is securely attached to my truck. I am hauling my paintings for the next exhibit of my work in Minneapolis and this is the routine.

When he was a young man, my maternal grandfather, Jackson Rudolf Ratcliff, made his living hauling grain and selling farm machinery. I imagine him pulling trailers, loading trucks, moving stuff down gravel roads past the rows of fields. Rudy would look at the green and dream his American dream. I haul my art around, down gravel roads past rows of fields. Each time I load up my truck or my trailer, I think of my Grandfather driving trucks pulling trailers through the Midwest.

I watch the cycles of farming. The tilling, planting, tending, the harvest; all in a fixed pattern tied to the rhythms of nature. As the years go by, I sense a similar rhythm in my studio work. The winter has me hunkered down, focusing on death. The spring brings green and growth, expansion and life. Summer has a languid Italian feel, and then fall dries out, getting crackly.

Our farm neighbors know I make paintings. They see me out in the yard or walking around the roads looking at things. I draw or paint outside and I like to imagine that they think I am odd. Yet probably they are just thinking, “look at him paint.” Maybe being an artist in the country has a bland normalcy—I like that. They see me load my paintings. I see them, their pickups loaded with bags of grain, refilling their planters.

They plant their seeds. Perched at the edge of my window, I witness long green lines emerge from the dark earth. Initially thin and faint, they’ll soon bellow green, fecund, loamy and wet. I know that these seeds are quite calculated, the products of selective breeding and chemistry. But the green—the green has always been there.

The color of spring green is luminous and infinite. It is a color that exists in dreams and the hallucinations of the mystics. It is the color of the sacred robe. In the green of spring—that vibrant and unnatural green, soft and harsh, a color of immense promise—we are all compromised.

Always there is a bit of release when I load up the trailer with my labors from the past six months. I am sending my work out into the world. Are my paintings seeds? Or are my paintings the plants? Maybe they are the fruit. Or maybe they are the death before the spring. I don’t know. I do know that, like the green specks pushing through the mud, they have to be made.

Spirit of RACA

The wind tosses some dust into the air. My grandfather, long gone, hauled grain and farm machinery. I haul art. Our gravel roads are the same. We both ponder a past rich with memory. We both consider a future full of hope and love. The cycles of RACA continue.

The Face Frozen

Today it rained ice.

I sat looking out our bedroom window pondering how quickly nature can render us immobile. The rain fell and soon a shiny layer covered everything. Driving was impossible and walking outside was nearly deadly, the air and sky merged into a dark gray mass.

Encased in ice branches of trees hang low, skeleton fingers scratching windows and tapping the roofs of sheds. I sat on our porch listening to the branches give way snapping off like glass rods tinkling to the ground. Days like this in Southern Minnesota seem locked into the fragility of a Brueghel painting. Or maybe I feel like the person sitting for a Northern European Renaissance portrait like this one by Robert Campin.

Portrait of a Woman

The subjects of these paintings look like they are never warm. Certainly not the kind of warmth we take for granted. I’m sitting in my robe, typing on a laptop. Exactly two feet from my head, through a piece of super insulated glass–that also provides a lovely view–the still air temperature is ten degrees below zero. This would have been a miracle to the person sitting for the Campin portrait. They must have lived their entire lives being cold.

The paintings have a frozen, ice coated quality about them. The metaphor is one of dominance and control. To survive cold one must be organized, tightly wrapped and sealed. Their world represented in this painting is coated with ice. It is a world that is clear, observable, not prone to sudden movement… everything in its place.

“God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”  Genesis 1/28

Dominion, we are the masters of our world. We dominate, we rule, humans are number one. Cities embody our desire to master nature. Cities are edifices to dominance. That is part of their attraction, proof that nature doesn’t matter.

I recall back in Brooklyn maybe 1982, a massive snowstorm. That morning I walked outside to see a city bus turned sideways, listing a bit, stuck in a huge drift. Down the street at an intersection three cars were up on drifts their engines, doors and tires all had been stripped. Apparently not all businesses were slowed down by the weather.

It is entirely speculative but sometimes a lot of art made in urban places provide metaphors of dominance. The audience is reassured that markets will not fall, culture proceeds in a stable manner; change is slow and controlled. Vulnerability or weaknesses are ignored. Instead, strength, detachment and dominance are projected.

Out here in RACA we seem to be constantly vigilant, watchful of natural disaster.  Despite our machines, our furnaces and super insulated triple pane glass the power of nature is always beside us. Of course our connection to the natural world is mediated by industrial modernism. Yet part of a RACA aesthetic is rooted in a more aware and authentic relationship to nature. It is a relationship that is based on thoughtful observation and poetic engagement. I wonder if the art we make in rural America can be a model for a new aesthetic. An aesthetic that is less about dominance and more about relationships.

Perhaps an aesthetic of empathy.

It is 10 degrees below zero here in Minnesota a fire warms me. The cool light of a laptop illuminates my face. I take a photo of myself looking at the computer. Digitized, my face captured by math, I am frozen in gray, cold electronic amber.

Another time, another portrait, another life.

Brian Frink

Chopping Wood with Muhammad Ali

When I was a kid, I loved Cassius Clay. When I could, I would watch his fights on ABC’s Wide World of Sports with Howard Cosell. Secretly I agreed with his outspoken politics and anti-war stance.  Changing his name to Muhammad Ali was a statement of individuality and pride that intuitively resonated with me.  I remember seeing clips of him preparing for his matches. One of his training regimes was splitting wood with an axe. Supposedly it is one of the best types of mental and physical conditioning that a boxer can do.

I have split a lot of wood in my life. My parents ran a campground in Northern Wisconsin, called Frink’s Pine Ridge. Among my tasks was to split firewood for our campers.

I split wood and thought about Muhammad Ali.

Well, really, I would think about Ali before, in between, and after splitting the logs.  You see, when you are swinging down an axe you cannot think of anything else other than that strike. One must be totally mindful and in that moment or it is very easy to be hurt.

To split wood properly one must clear their mind, focus on the log, lift the axe, square one’s legs to the target, slide one’s hands together to the end of the handle, swing the axe tracing a smooth arc over one’s head, concentrating the full force of the impact on the log being split. This must all be done in a single fluid motion, with perfect timing, precision, and balance.

It helps to imagine the axe head planting itself on the base, under the log that has been cleanly split.  Imagine the split log before you split it.

In boxing or splitting wood, a focused force of impact, precision, and balance are necessary for success.

I draw.

I make a single mark on paper. The swing of an axe arcs across my imagination. My thoughts turn to the past. A dear friend from another time—in my mind always alive, making his art, doing things, active in our world—I discover, has long ago died.

I make another mark on paper. The axe head passes through the wood. Following the grain it splits the log clean, ending with a solid, satisfying thump in the splitting base.

I make another mark on paper. Cassius Clay is young and powerful, striking blows with lethal precision. How can anyone withstand such force? My small black and white television flickers, the signal is weak, there is static.

I make another mark on paper. I am in the north woods swinging the axe, my body learning balance, learning to concentrate force, learning to control and harness a violent energy. Sunlight filters through the jack pines. Sap is on my hands. The pungent piney smell of wood floats in the air.

I make another mark on paper. Life in contemporary rural America often has a way of distilling things down to an essential moment of clarity. We are all boxers, keeping our balance, trying to concentrate our force of impact.

Brian Frink

Winter is for Minimalists

There are moments in a good Minnesota winter where I feel like I am in an “either/or” state of mind. I suppose it’s a bit melodramatic but I think of it as an irreducible moment—I’m either alive or I’m not.

When I step outside, it seems like I’m on some other planet. One of those inhospitable places that would get the robot yelling “Warning Will Robinson!”  Winter is the only season that can kill without the noise and bother of a storm. You just fall asleep and freeze. Winter is all about protection and self-preservation.

Other times a light, grayish white envelopes the landscape. Death is still over the hill but the landscape could be a gallery in New York City. Cool, blinding white with subtle inflections marking the edge of a door or the bottom of the wall. Floors icy and shiny above a hovering monetized silence. I am walking into a Robert Ryman painting. Winter is a season for minimalists—it buzzes with a presence, subtle inflections, repetition, and systems.

Snowdrifts are hardened remnants of the ephemeral mysterious wandering ways of the wind. The delicate and complex variations of snowflakes repeat a theme over and over, one on top of the other, until you are buried in cool whiteness.

Point, 1968
Robert Ryman

A painting by Ryman is a statement of inflection. Like winter, slight variations in tone and color temperature become pronounced due to the lack of contrast; a single stick on the hardened white snow, distinctive by what is not there rather than what is. Like the period on the end of a sentence, Minimalism—the art movement—was the end of modernism. And afterward, all hell broke loose.

Footsteps, in other seasons ignored, crunch during winter. Each step produces a negative concave impression of my boots—negative spaces—lined up extending to a crisp horizon.

Either/or is a mental place that describes more of a state of mind than a choice. Minimalism is one of my favorite art movements, probably because it reminds me so much of winter. Minimalism, like the cold of winter, tends to force this either/or condition on my thinking. It is either/or and nothing in between. Other art movements are conditional; maybe there is some love or politics floating around, something about beauty or history, perhaps a bit of formalism or color theory tossed in. These are all parts of other seasons, not the either/or of winter.

Winter for the rural American contemporary artist is all about paring things down to the minimal: We are dead or we are alive. That is the either/or of art.

Brian Frink

Angels and Air Guitar

Wings of Desire the 1987 film by the German filmmaker Wim Wenders is about angels. It’s the story of an angel that longs to be and eventually succeeds in becoming human and in doing so gives up his immortality. The angels in the Wenders film exist in a world that always makes me think of the Talking Heads song, Heaven.

“Everyone is trying to get to the bar
The name of the bar, the bar is called heaven
The band in heaven, they play my favorite song
Play it one more time, play it all night long
Heaven, heaven is a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens
Heaven, heaven is a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens”

It’s a gray boring world shot in black and white set in Berlin during the final years of the cold war. Angels, unseen, and wearing long dark trench coats are everywhere. They exist in a state of continuous assistance to their mortal charges. Whispering advice they wander in space walking among themselves nodding and occasionally talking to each other, contemplating existence or their lack of. These angels have a particular existential quality that makes them complex and tragic–they suffer.

The angel protagonist falls in love with a trapeze artist. He desires her and surrenders his immortality to be with her. The movie concludes with the audience realizing that there are many “fallen” angels among us, living mortal lives.

What is intriguing about Wings of Desire is that it reverses our usual conception of angels.  They certainly have supernatural powers. Yet their world is so dull that they imagine themselves as human. They have a desire to give up their eternal life to live a life of sensuality, to be human.

Air Guitar Nation the 2006 documentary by Alexandra Lipsitz, is the story of two American air guitarists as they compete to become the world champions of their fictitious instruments.  There actually IS a world air guitar competition, it’s in Norway and the two heroes’ of this film eventually make it there. My favorite part is where one of them, a guitarist in an actual band muses with no irony, about how he is going to become more famous for playing the air guitar.

Initially, I thought, “These guys are real dorks”. The whole idea of a world air guitar competition seemed absurd. Yet, the film and the story slowly drew me in. The final climatic scene is the competition for the championship and the American’s have made it. Towards the end Air Guitar Nation feels like Breaking Away or The Longest Yard, movies that tell stories about competitions, yet they are not really about sports. Cheering on the obvious underdogs I was totally immersed in the final scene. I could see them playing their air guitars–I believed in their air guitars.

Both of these films are allegories of the artist’s life. Artists create something out of nothing.  We give power and meaning to what is essentially the vapor in our minds. Our ideas exist, gray, lifeless, silent, just whispers–they have to be born into the world connecting with people to become real.

Artists of all kinds, create meaning where none previously existed.

Stories, religion, art and even science and technologies are given meaning through our imaginations. Are angels real? How about ghosts, UFO or Santa Claus? What’s the big deal about a new year? Is someone playing guitar when they are playing air guitar? How about angels playing air harps?

It is our imaginations that make these things real.

The past year, like a gray silent angel, hangs over each of our shoulders whispering warnings. Our future year, waits like a noiseless three-chord progression full of energy, punk rock power and promise. Yet, both exist fully in our imaginations, only shadows of what once was and what will become. The past and future are mysteries.

Talking Heads again…Uh-Oh, Love Has Come To Town

“Wait, wait for the moment to come
Stand up, stand up and take my hand
Believe, believe in mystery
Love love love love is simple as 1-2-3”

It has been a momentous year for us at RACAonline. What began, as a leap of imagination, has gotten real. We have willed something into being and we thank you the readers and supporters of RACA for your help and encouragement. The RACA team, Stephanie Wilbur Ash, Matt Willemsen, David Rogers and myself wish you all a happy, joy filled, imagination powered 2013! Make those dreams real.

Peace and love to all.

Brian Frink

Art and Risk and Vegas

There is risk and there is the illusion of risk.

Coming down the center aisle of the plane was the biggest man I have ever seen. Shaven head, his clothes were worn and slightly dirty.

My fellow traveler and I exchanged a glance across the open seat between us. We knew that this would be our turn to sit by the guy that no one else wants to sit by.

It was 1 a.m. and I was on a plane after spending the weekend in Las Vegas. My brother, who lives there, had turned 50 and I had been celebrating with him. Not surprisingly this flight was packed with fellow Minnesotans on their way home from a weekend of letting things stay in Vegas. Most of them looked pretty tired and worn out, as did this fellow squeezing his way toward the seat next to mine.

He stopped, gave an apologetic look, and lowered himself down. I could see it was going to be a short flight but a long night.

He wasn’t obese; he was Russian and knew about five words in English. I know zero words in Russian so we didn’t do much talking. He did manage to communicate that he was a former Bronze Olympian in weight lifting, and had been in Las Vegas as part of a weightlifting exhibition.

Not only was he big he was also hard as a rock. My current seatmate was like a big hunk of marble that smelled faintly of cabbage and onions.

He had three children, one named Boris.

When I was growing up in the Midwest in the sixties and seventies, Russia was the enemy. I remember watching the Olympics and seeing all the Russian weightlifters—red robots on steroids.

For the next three hours I drifted in and out of sleep. I was dreaming of being suspended in the air, tethered to the side of a rock cliff. It was a horrible flight, though it landed safely, and so I was glad to be home.

Later I spent some time pondering the fact that I was next to a Russian—one of the red robots on steroids. They were always the bad guys in James Bond movies. This guy—the father of little Boris—was the bad guy of my youth.

But he was also a guy leaving Las Vegas after being part of a weightlifting show, a guy just trying to make a living in any way he could.

Sounds familiar.

I don’t like to gamble, so I spent most of my time in Las Vegas walking around hotel lobbies. There is a lot of art that decorates the hotels. Most of it is spectacular and utterly forgettable. Except for one.

I was in the Aria, a slick edifice to consumerism and overindulgence, when I happened upon an amazing sculpture. I have looked hard at art for most of my conscious life. In all of this looking I have found that my most powerful reactions to art are contextual. A particular moment in time, a specific place or an unexpectant slant of light will affect my mind, rendering a work that might be familiar utterly new.

Such was the case with the Henry Moore sculpture I stood before. Maybe it was the juxtapositioning of this work next to the entirety of the Vegas experience. Maybe it was because it was sitting all by itself, commanding a fair amount of expensive real estate. Maybe it was the pure mass of the thing, a chunk of marble the size of an SUV. Perhaps it was because there were no slot machines or black jack tables or fudge stands visible. I don’t know, but I was stunned. It was gorgeous and felt so real. I walked around it. I made my nephew Leo walk around it. I told him to observe how the forms interact. How they couple and uncouple from each other, cantilevering, defying gravity and weight. The heavy marble felt fleshy, warm, and alive.

Later that night we went to Fremont Street. This is the old Vegas; the Golden Nugget casino is there. To draw tourists they covered four blocks with an arching computer screen. Down the middle is a zip line. For twenty bucks you can zip line over drunken screaming semi-naked people while Bohemian Rhapsody blasts.

All weekend I kept thinking about risk and how people love to court risk. On a surface level, Vegas seems to be all about risk. Yet it is entirely controlled. The risks taken there are illusionary. We will lose our money and the zip line will not break. Risk always seems to be in a calculated relationship to what is really dangerous.

Except for the Henry Moore sculpture. It stood out because it embraced true risk. There is vulnerability in engaging with art because it feels risky or even dangerous. That risk of engagement is what terrifies people because they cannot anticipate a predictable outcome.

Risk is always followed by transformation. Art demands engagement and is potentially transformative. It is not backdrop or decoration. It might be beautiful or ugly but it always demands engagement.

Like Las Vegas, sometimes it seems that a lot of art is about the illusion of risk. It is an illusion based on marketing and safety, not innovation or progression. To engage with art is to court real risk—the risk of change and transformation.

My Russian friend crushing me on the airplane represented risk. His very presence made me physically uncomfortable. As I flew home from Las Vegas he became a reminder that we can’t predict the outcome of risk.

True risk doesn’t always look risky, but it always requires trust and courage.