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John Lamb, Published January 08 2014

Weekend Watch: Show includes about 50 works by 34 artists who claimed Minnesota as home

MOORHEAD - For most of the past two years, every day was something like Christmas morning at the Rourke Art Gallery Museum.

After the passing of founder James O’ Rourke, the staff was tasked with inventorying the full extent of the museum’s collection, approximately 4,000 works. This job led to constant rediscoveries of work, some packed away for years.

“Once we finished the inventory and scratched the surface of trying to understand what we have, we thought it would be great to take a little bit of focus and look at the Minnesota artists and start a conversation about what is interesting and important about work made by local and regional artists,” says Tania Blanich, executive director of the museum.

The result is, “Minnesota: Inside & Out,” which opens with a Friday evening reception. The show includes about 50 works by 34 artists, all of which claimed Minnesota home at some point.

“We like to put labels on things and say, ‘That’s a Minnesota artist,’ but what makes a Minnesota artist?” Blanich asks. “Do you have to be born and bred here? Is it some kind of longevity of working here?”

While the Rourke’s core artists are present – Charles Beck, Cyrus Running, George Pfeifer – so are some artists Rourke regulars may not recall, like Gail Kendall, Michael Daniel and Eldrid Running, Cyrus’ wife.

The show reaches back about 100 years, opening with early 20th Century painters Annie Stein and Adolf Dehn.

The former received some recognition featured in the recent exhibit, “Prairie Daughters,” at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. The latter was a discovery for Blanich.

“He was a fascinating character,” says Blanich, referring to the master lithographer who was imprisoned for being a conscientious objector during World War I.

With five pieces in “Minnesota: Inside & Out,” three portraits and two landscapes, Blanich hopes visitors will learn more about the artist from Waterville, Minn.

“We felt he was a little enigmatic and people haven’t seen them and we wanted to show them off a little bit,” Blanich says.

Many familiar artists whose works haven’t been displayed for years make welcome returns to gallery space, including Elizabeth (Betty) Strand, Jack Youngquist, Leroy Aasland, Robyn McDaniels and Bela Petheo.

For artists which visitors may be more familiar with, Blanich tried to show a different side to their work.

“People see Beck prints a lot,” she says of Fergus Falls, Minn., artist Charles Beck, best known for his woodcuts. “They don’t see his paintings as much, or his bird forms.”

Knowing that not all of Minnesota’s great artists could be included in the show, the Rourke revised a gallery upstairs to showcase other artists, like Carl Oltvedt or Philip Thompson.

With an overwhelming collection of regional artists, Blanich got some outside help with assembling the show. Maria-Christina Villaseñor, a New York-based curator, came in early October and helped the staff compose the exhibit.

“Our hope was that someone with a very fresh pair of eyes would give us a little different take on this work. It’s easy, if you know the artists, to read into it more than there should be,” Blanich said. “We may not see because we know the stories too well.”Villaseñor enjoyed what she called, “an enormous job of unearthing” to compose the show.

“To me it was really fascinating that (the art) did speak to a history of the region, it was a bit of the tale of the last 100 years. I wasn’t expecting that at all,” Villaseñor says.

The former curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum knew about Beck and Running (the former a student of the latter at Concordia College). She was intrigued by their woodprints as well as the ceramics of Richard Bresnahan, who uses local clay in his works.

“It was very exciting to see artists work with the materiality of where they were,” she says.

Blanich says Villaseñor’s input helped not only produce this show, but affirm what the Rourke’s mission has been for more than 50 years.

“We wanted someone to validate what we know – that we have an amazing artistic history in this region and it stands up. These aren’t name-brand artists in your art history class, but they are to be respected,” Blanich says.

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

If You Go

WHAT: “Minnesota: Inside & Out”

WHEN: Exhibit opens with a reception from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Friday

WHERE: Rourke Art Gallery Museum, 521 Main Ave., Moorhead

INFO: (218) 236-8861, Therourke.org