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John Lamb, Published April 25 2010

Plains Art Museum presents Spring Gala

"The seeds of this exhibit started in my childhood,” Colleen Sheehy told a crowd gathered in the main floor gallery of the Plains Art Museum.

She explained that she grew up in a Catholic house, surrounded by religious imagery, but the seed reference is a joke of sorts, as Sheehy, director and CEO of the Plains, stands in front of a picture of Jesus Christ composed of small brome grass, grits, wild rice and poppy seeds.

The work, by the late Minnesota artist Lillian Colton, is one of more than 80 different profiles of both well-recognized and nearly anonymous personalities featured in “Individual to Icon: Portraits of the Famous and Almost Famous From Folk Art to Facebook.”

“There are so many connotations with icons,” Sheehy said. “I thought it would be fun for people to pick them apart.”

The show, the first Sheehy curated since taking over the Plains two and a half years ago, presents various personified images in a mix of mediums.

And that is seemingly where any similarities end.

Connections between the artists are minimal, and the mediums range from refined oil paintings to, well, seed art.

So what’s it all about?

Sheehy says while the show has certain subjects, mainly “fame” and “perception,” it isn’t making statements on those issues, instead allowing the viewer to respond.

“Rather than having a message, it really is asking people to reflect on the role of fame, what we want from people who want attention,” Sheehy says.

But not all the people portrayed are famous. While Colton’s seed portraits depict recognizable personalities like Christ, Judy Garland and Prince, on the adjacent wall, color photos by Alec Soth show characters he met on his travels up and down the Mississippi River.

But is just hanging an image of someone in a gallery enough to make the subject famous?

The quest for fame has risen to a “fever pitch,” Sheehy says, referring to constant access on cable TV, online videos and the dominance of reality TV shows.

“People can go from basically being unknown and obscure to being famous around the world overnight. … A lot of it has reached absurd levels,” Sheehy says, bringing up “balloon boy.”

“I don’t feel like (the show) is promoting it, just noting that (fame) is a prominent part of our culture and what artists are attracted to,” she says.

Particularly folk artists, Sheehy says, adding, “They love making paintings and sculptures of American presidents.”

To that note is Todd Severson’s “The Complete American First Ladies Dessert Plate Set,” which depicts the likes of Jackie Kennedy on china.

“I’m not dismissing fame. There’s good reason to respect and emulate some people,” she says. “In the United States, the bedrock of our philosophy is the importance of the individual. Every voice counts. Any one of us could go from rags to riches … . In some ways, our desire to be famous is a manifestation of our political philosophy.”

The theme of fame even transfers to the artists. Some, like photographer Annie Leibovitz, are well-known and revered for their portraiture. Within her own work, Leibovitz’s images show a range of icons, from Bruce Springsteen’s photos with the American flag used on the cover of his album “Born in the U.S.A.,” to black-and-white images of lesser-known names like a female rodeo rider and a chemist.

“I want people to reflect on who we admire and what kind of an impact they have on us,” Sheehy says, adding that she wants people to ask, “Why do I like to read supermarket tabloids and what role do they play in my life?”

What people think

The visitors

Sheehy stresses the show has no statement, but instead wants visitors to contemplate the images and fame and what it means to be famous or an icon.

“I was pretty amazed,” says Pausha Mastre, a novice artist taking some classes at the Plains. She says she’s been waiting for a portrait show and is impressed by the variety and quality in the show.

She was particularly wowed by Moorhead painter Zhimin Guan’s portraits of people in the regional art scene.

But are the subjects famous, or are they icons?

“If someone’s brought before you and shown to people, it does elevate them,” she says.

She points out that no one knows the name of the subject in Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” but more than 300 years later, most people recognize the work.

Fargo artist Merry Helm doesn’t see it that way.

While she enjoyed the exhibit, she doesn’t feel that an image in a museum makes it an icon. In particular, Christopher P. Baker’s video montage, “Hello World: Or How I Stopped and Learned to Stop Listening and Love the Noise,” which projects thousands of tiny talking faces from home videos.

“That was the one piece I question if it belongs,” Helm says. “An icon is instantly recognizable.”

Helm’s friend Renee Danz countered that Baker’s work was giving people the chance to become famous.

“I think people want to feel like they are special and want to contribute to the world … . It lets people feel good about themselves,” Danz says, calling the show “uplifting.”

The artist

Minneapolis photographer Soth appreciates being in the show but is a bit uneasy with his works associated with terms like “icon” and “fame.” “Magnum (the photo agency he works for) is in the business of making iconic pictures. I’m not so comfortable with that,” he said before a talk at the Plains in late February. “My job isn’t to make icons, just as my job isn’t to make great pictures, but hopefully they come along and hopefully an icon comes along.

“My goal is not to make celebrities of anybody,” he said. “I’m really happy to be a photographer of regular people.”

But sometimes those real people get some notoriety for the images he takes.

During a 2000 project in New Orleans, he photographed a woman named Adelyn on Ash Wednesday.

When she asked Soth to buy her a beer, he questioned whether that was reverent considering she wore the sign of the cross in ashes on her forehead. She told him not to worry, that the smudge was only cigarette ashes.

Soth says Adelyn has seen the photo in magazines and is OK with it.

A few days before his talk at the Plains, Soth was in New Orleans to meet Adelyn on the 10th anniversary of their encounter. He shot her photo and filmed her, but the meeting was all business.

“It’s amazing how much I didn’t talk to her the second time,” he said. “In a way I want to preserve the not-knowing.”

So has he created an icon?

“I think ‘icon’ is a strong term,” Soth says. “Photography has long played a role in making something ordinary exceptional.”

“I think it’s used pretty loosely,” Sheehy says. “Almost anything people talk about is an icon. A vintage car is an icon. The ideas have broadened a bit to represent something that’s emblematic.”

The art historian

Just whether the images in the show are icons is a matter of personal belief, but during a recent talk at the Plains, Kris Groberg, professor of art history at North Dakota State University, offered her definition of what an icon is.

“Technically it’s a visage, a face,” says Groberg, who studies Russian art. Typically the face is Christ’s or Mary’s, but sometimes (it is) a saint or people who brought Christianity to Eastern cultures.

Only an artist blessed by the Eastern Orthodox Church could create a recognized idol, and historically such a piece of work wouldn’t be displayed in a museum, only in a church or in a home. Someone who handled or restored icons would also need blessings.

Groberg acknowledges that the definition has changed but maintains some traditional aspects of reverence carry over into modern interpretation.

“An icon could be photos of one’s parents. It’s not religious, but it’s important,” she said. “If it’s a person worthy of being an icon, you can’t denigrate the fact that teenage girls would have posters of Miley Cyrus on their walls, because it means a lot to them.”

If you go

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533