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Award-winning art documentary series premieres in Grand Rapids

Director Susan Sollins and featured artists Leonardo Drew and Katharina Grosse present "Art in the 21st Century" and talk about their process of working on their artwork. Sollins, Drew and Grosse are this year's Grand Jurors for ArtPrize.
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For audiences perplexed by much of contemporary art, there is perhaps no better way to understand it than listening to living artists talk about their process. Not their completed work, but rather their process, preferably while they are doing it.

Since 2001, ART21, based in Manhattan, has produced short films that provide an experience of the visual arts that goes beyond a gallery visit. Viewers observe artists at work, watch their process as they transform inspiration into art, and hear their thoughts as they grapple with the physical and visual challenges of realizing their ideas. 

Susan Sollins, founder, curator, and Executive Director of ART21, was in Grand Rapids on Thursday for the third installment of Critical Discourse, a series of hosted talks and panel discussions organized by ArtPrize to spur conversation among audiences, critics and jurors. She was joined at the ArtPrize Hub on Sheldon Blvd. by two of the artists featured in the organization's upcoming broadcast series, Leonardo Drew and Katharina Grosse.

This year ART21 has partnered with ArtPrize to advance public engagement with contemporary art, including workshops for teachers and a film competition for high school students. Sollins, with Drew and Grosse, will also award the Juried Grand Prize of $200,000 on October 10.

Deceptively linear, the complex short films are shot in multiple locations and are beautifully edited. Since 2001 ART21 has produced segments about 135 artists, which have attracted some 25 million viewers and have been shown in 50 countries. In her introduction, Sollins said they maintain a relationship with each artist after the films have been aired, "like 135 children who need attention," she laughed. But her summary of the mission of the films was succinct, "There is no interpreter explaining their work to you."

Segments about Leonardo Drew and Katharina Grosse were screened at the event Thursday night. Both are eloquent interpreters of their own process and product. Grosse is a German artist who works with large colorful shapes integrated into and responding to indoor and outdoor spaces.

"Am I a painter? Am I a sculptor?" she asks in the film. "I don't know. I'm talking to the world while painting on it or with it or in it." The fundamental question she asks in her work, she says, is "How can painting appear in space and what do I need to show the painting?"

Drew's segment was slightly more biographical. He started his career as a child in Connecticut in a community animation workshop, and after youthful success as a skilled draftsman, he said he "had to get beyond his ability to draw." His most recent work resembles found object/detritus assemblages, but he uses new materials and weathers them himself to create configurations. He says that his goal now is to be always searching, always reaching.

"You're comfortable," he says in the film, "how do you get to the next place?"

Following the screening of the two segments, each about 15-20 minutes long, Sollins, Grosse & Drew took the stage to answer questions from the audience. Both artists were as personable on stage as they were on screen.

The first questions centered on their practice, such as "What do you do when you get stuck?" Katharina Grosse, after describing her early process of worrying about getting every detail correct, said that finally she found that boring, and decided that "nothing can ever be wrong."

When asked for advice for young artists (by a young artist), Leonardo Drew stressed the importance of being aware of what's going on around you.

"It can take your lifetime to find your voice," Drew says. "Make your own way through your journey."

Grosse compared finding your voice to falling in love.

"Once you have it, you'll know it right away," she says. "You stop arguing with yourself."

The dialogue part of the program ended rather abruptly, before anyone could ask about the trio's role in selecting the winner of the ArtPrize Juried Grand Prize. As pointed out by a previous Rapidian reporter, the events are scheduled to run until 9:00, but both ended at 8:15. A few minutes of discussion more pertinent to the local event would have been welcome. 


The event on Thursday was a preview of the upcoming season of ART21's Peabody Award winning series, "Art in the Twenty-First Century," which has been broadcast on PBS since 2001. Season 7 begins October 24 at 10:00 p.m., aired locally on WGVU-TV, Channel 35. New episodes air each Friday through November 14.

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