CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In March 1950, Look magazine published a two-page photo spread about the University of Illinois’ third annual contemporary arts festival. The headline read “Corn Country Campus Puts on Biggest U.S.A. Arts Festival,” and the caption under pictures of abstract paintings explained that this artwork would spark “heated back-country discussion.” Despite the cultural jabs, the article went on to describe the event as “the biggest, most ambitious program of its kind on any U.S. campus.” In addition to the photos of paintings, one image showed the student orchestra rehearsing under the baton of famed composer Igor Stravinsky. Other guest artists included composer John Cage, choreographers Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham and writer Dylan Thomas.
Mike Estabrook and Ernest Concepción | Kangarok VI (detail) | 2009 | Chalk and black paint on wall | © Mike Estabrook and Ernest Concepción
Beginning Jan. 27, Krannert Art Museum will celebrate its 50th anniversary with exhibitions recalling those cutting-edge festivals, which were held annually and then biennially on campus from 1948 through 1974. Paintings purchased during those festivals helped inspire the building of Krannert as a permanent home for the school’s burgeoning art collection. Some of those prescient purchases, along with documents and ephemera from the festivals, will be displayed in a new exhibition, “Building a Modern Collection.”
Kathryn Koca Polite, given the assignment of choosing which paintings to include in this exhibition, said the university officials who curated those early acquisitions showed incredible foresight.
“The list of artists who exhibited in these shows is quite impressive – Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Salvador Dali, Louise Bourgeois, David Smith, and many others, and I imagine the task of selecting works to purchase from a limited budget was quite difficult,” Polite said. “However, what I hope the public can see from this exhibition, which will only be showing a third of what the university and Krannert Art Museum actually acquired from the shows, is that the selection committee chose some beautiful and important works from major modern and contemporary artists at the time.”
Although the “Building” exhibition will anchor the anniversary celebration in the Noel Gallery, it will be surrounded by fresh exhibitions that recall the spirit of those contemporary arts festivals. In the Asian Gallery will be works from “a3 Afro-Asiatic Allegory” – Iona Rozeal Brown’s paintings of Japanese youth imitating American hip-hop culture. Brown, who lives in New York, heard of the “Ganguro” (literally, “black face”) phenomenon while studying at the San Francisco Art Institute in the late 1990s, and later experienced it firsthand on a trip to Japan. The New York Times described her painting technique for this series as the visual equivalent of a hip-hop artist’s sampling: “The results are zany hybrids, from kimono-clad M.C.’s and gun-wielding gangsta rappers to sassy courtesans with darkened faces, dreadlocks and long painted nails.”
The East Gallery will feature “OPENSTUDIO,” which, as the name implies, will be a place for art not only to be displayed but also to be created, specifically under the guidance of a cast of artists in residence. Marlon Griffith – a Trinidadian artist whose medium crosses the boundaries of performance, sculpture, and installation, all inspired by the carnival traditions of his home – will collaborate with faculty and students in the department of theatre and the School of Art + Design to create a public procession to be performed at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 17, followed by a gallery conversation. The following month, self-exiled Zimbabwean dancer Nora Chipaumire will collaborate with faculty and students in the Department of Dance and perform on March 17, beginning with a film at 6 p.m.
These events will be staged in and around The Speaker Project – a large sculpture by Chicago artist Juan Angel Chávez. Constructed of found materials such as billboards, wood paneling and traffic cones, The Speaker Project will serve as a stage for bands and DJs during the anniversary celebration, which ends April 3.
Other events scheduled for OPENSTUDIO: On Feb. 2, a sound and light installation featuring ambient world music composed by Jason Finkleman; on Feb. 3, “Young, Gifted, and Black: OUR Story”– an open microphone poetry performance featuring Malik Yusef; avant-garde jazz concerts on Feb. 10 and March 10; a showcase of music, video, and graphic design along with a reading by one of Ninth Letter’s featured writers on March 31 at 7:30 p.m.; and a dance performance by Kristie Simson and Tim O’Donnell on April 3 at 3 p.m.
Gallery space behind “Building” has been painted black in preparation for “The Kangarok Epic” – scenes of a fantastic battle between fictitious mantids and demonic kangaroos, wrought in colorful chalk drawings that will cover the walls from floor to ceiling. These scenes are the specialty of a Brooklyn-based duo known as The Shining Mantis – actually collaborators Ernest Concepción and U. of I. alumnus Mike Estabrook. They will begin drawing on Jan. 26 and complete the “Epic” on Jan. 29, two days after the exhibition officially opens. The public is welcome to watch the work in progress.
On the lower level of Krannert Art Museum, visitors can interact with the Astral Convertible stage set used in February 2010 at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts for choreographer Trisha Brown’s iconic modern dance piece. Faculty from the departments of dance and theater collaborated with faculty from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications to incorporate wireless communications systems, remote control music players, and advanced projection surface plastics in this 21st-century set.
An opening reception, with music by the Robert E. Brown Center for World Music, is planned for 6-7 p.m. on Jan. 27. The museum is open until 9 p.m. More information about the exhibitions and programs is available on the museum’s website.