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John Lamb, Published June 16 2013

Special delivery: Annual Rourke Art Gallery show has added meaning

MOORHEAD - Tania Blanich got quite a surprise when she went to get the mail one morning recently.

The director of the Rourke Art Gallery Museum opened up the organization’s mailbox to find a bleached white bone.

It wasn’t a threat, and it wasn’t a joke. Rather, it was an entry for the organization’s 54th Midwestern Invitational Art Exhibition.

The show, which opens every June 18th to celebrate the organization’s anniversary, always attracts an array of sights and styles.

But a bone in the mailbox?

“That’s a head-scratcher,” Blanich recalls thinking.

Not for Mike Marth, the Moorhead artist who submitted the piece.

“Sometimes the themes take a while to gestate,” he explains. “I was in the studio one night and I thought, ‘I’ll mail them a bone.’ ”

This year’s Midwestern theme is “Signed. Sealed. Delivered.” It’s a nod to the 100th anniversary of the building the Rourke Art Museum is housed in, the old Moorhead Post Office.

This is Blanich’s first year selecting the theme, not an easy task, but she feels she found a winner.

“People responded to the theme, and they’re so tied to this building and the Rourke. There’s such a synergy,” she says, looking at the show. “It makes me happy. I’m really moved.”

Finding synergy in a show of about 90 artists is no easy task, but Blanich says there are threads throughout the exhibit.

The main wall is hung salon style with no one dominant piece, though some of the works seem connected through color and their collage and assemblage styles. A Walter Piehl painting hangs over a Joel Heggerle assemblage. Both use maps and cowboy imagery, as does Ross Rolshoven’s adjacent photo piece.

Heggerle also uses an old Rourke card with one of founder James O’Rourke’s prints of the building.

The building is indeed the star of the show, appearing visibly in symbols and references.

Jeff Weispfenning depicts a similar, straight-on view of the structure, giving it a more playful touch with dots of color.

John Scott Postovit adds a spirited angle with “Anniversary Stamp,” a charcoal and watercolor image of the stately facade with a zeppelin floating above, presented in the shape of a postage stamp.

Illustrator Trygve Olson takes a bird’s-eye view of the building, one Blanich particularly appreciates because it shows the Rourke with its fences down (the tall, black metal fencing was removed this spring) and the property crawling with visitors.

“It feels like that’s what this place should be,” she says, smiling. “This whole show is about community. We gather a community of artists and gather the public to admire all of the creativity. How could you not love this show?”

Juror Michael Strand agrees. The associate professor and head of visual arts at North Dakota State University was pleasantly surprised by how well most artists stuck to the topic and the creativity displayed.

Like Mike Marth’s piece, “Endova Road.”

“It really seemed dedicated to the theme of the show,” Strand says.

Marth says he got some looks when he brought the bleached cow bone into the post office and had it sent without any packaging.

There’s a bit of a commentary on the state of the postal system.

“It seems so symbolic of the dire straits the postal service seems to be in,” he says.

As an extra jab, the piece carries a “perishable” stamp for a bit of “Duchampian fun,” Marth explains.

Blanich and Strand both appreciated pieces that used packaging as part of their medium, like “Small Gifts,” Sherry Lee Short’s painting of a parcel, or Susan Morrissey’s wrapped figure drawing or Judith Feist’s series of postcards, “I Can’t Bring Myself to Mail Them.”

Strand also liked the curiosity created by Christina Johnson’s “Waiting for the Male.” The painting depicts a seemingly naked man from the waist up, blindfolded and his arms bound above his head. Below the waist, an ornate section rests over the lower part of the figure with a lock, what Strand calls a “visual chastity belt.” Keys will be given out during Tuesday night’s opening, and the person with the winning key has to decide if they want to reveal what’s underneath or retain the mystery.

“I don’t know how successful this piece is until the night of the opening,” Strand says. “But even by imagining the success of it, it’s a really compelling piece.”

Still, the most compelling figure in the show remains O’Rourke, more than two years after his death.

His face is featured in Mark Strand’s (no relation to Michael) poster-like stamp, “Deliver Us from Evil.”

And while O’Rourke is gone, his work remains, particularly in this show, his signature.

Artists and patrons alike recall looking forward to getting mail from the proprietor just for his stylish handwriting. Two artists even use such pieces of mail in the show.

Joyce Savre’ collage includes a letter he sent to her in, “Handwritten: The Care He Took, Homage to James O’Rourke.”

T. Hunter Strand (Mark’s brother) also tips his hat to his late friend with “A 2010 Rourke Mailing from the George Pfeifer Archives – March 3, 2012.” The photo shows a hand holding a large envelope sent to Pfeifer, a St. Paul painter and long-time Rourke associate. In the background, figures gather in a room to remember O’Rourke on the one-year anniversary of his death.

“It’s a wonderful homage to what Jim accomplished and it’s a nod to the future,” Blanich says. “It’s a happy show. It’s an uplifting show.”

If you go

• What: “Signed. Sealed. Delivered. The 54th Midwestern Invitational Art Exhibition”

• When: 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday

• Where: Rourke Art Gallery Museum, 521 Main Ave., Moorhead

• Info: Tickets are $25 for members, $30 for non-members and $35 at the door.

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