Leslie Smith III
He plays jazz piano.
He quotes Richard Pryor.
He reads the Huffington Post, the New York Times and Time magazine.
He admires the Italian painters Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Fra Angelico.
He grew up in Maryland, went to grad school at Yale and lived in Brooklyn.
He is fascinated by human behavior at the micro and macro levels.
He digs German and Abstract Expressionism.
He is close to his father, who is also an artist and musician.
As Smith spent the day in his studio working on a set of paintings for a recent show, he listened to a steady stream of music, starting with the classic Motown feel of the Dramatics and ending with the recent mixes of DJ J Dilla. Somewhere in the middle were Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Chick Corea.
As a teen, he played the circuit of all the piano stores in town, jamming out on the best piano, acting as though he was testing it for purchase but with no intent to do so. One day, there was a piano that played "like butter" under his fingers, he said. In a matter of moments, an employee rushed over to stop him, explaining that it was one of Chick Corea’s concert pianos. Smith was never the same.
As a painter in a 640-sq-ft studio, "I have control over everything as it is defined by me… I am the king of the world," he said. Smith hopes to eventually be able to speak through his work without having to talk about it, even though he enjoys talking about it, he said. "(But) at the end of the day, I'm my biggest audience."
Smith strives for paintings that are naturalistic without being representational, and to tell stories whose characters are developed in light, shadow, texture and color. The stories are socio-political in nature, currently addressing struggles in the Middle East. He wants to make paintings that speak about psychological power dynamics and how psychological trauma leads to social taboos.
"Art lifts the protective quality of American news," Smith said, adding that art ought to illicit a response to a situation, or lack thereof. "People may not respond to whitewashed news, so I hope that through painting, people will respond."
Fitzsimons repeatedly finds herself in personal relationships with massive landscapes; she finds inspiration in geological forces and their counterparts.
She spent two years sleeping on a bed encrusted with sea salt and smelled faintly of the ocean.
The wood and steel bed was a 24-hour sculpture anchored on the shore of the Pacific Ocean where it was alternately submerged and revealed by the tides. Fitzsimons’ wanted the transition between above and below water to represent the zone between waking and sleeping, and the conscious and unconscious, she said.
“I was forced to think of that every night before going to bed,” Fitzsimons said.
She also spent months sharing her apartment with a cardboard mountain range that divided her bedroom and covered half her bed. Twice a day, she was obliged to climb over the mountains to get in and out of bed.
Fitzsimons has always been attracted to the landscape but especially the formations that are the most powerful, ominous and immovable: faults, rivers, volcanoes, mountains, oceans and tidal waves.
Pressed to explain the attraction, Fitzsimons said she guesses that it’s a “psychoanalytical response to the collision between the physical and the metaphorical.”
Her projects typically involve sculptures that she sets up both outdoors, where the surroundings provide meaning, and indoors, where she presents documentation of the outdoor process, she said.
Fitzsimons enjoys talking about her work because it allows her to look back and see the connections through her work over time, something that she may not see while working on any one piece. She finds excitement in learning about and exploring different materials and mediums, she said.
“One project creates opportunities for the next,” Fitzsimons said. “It’s a pleasure and joy to follow my curiosity and personal research.”
Next, she will set her sights on Wisconsin’s landscape and its glacial history.
Bakkom's primary medium stretches the boundaries of art-making in the 21st century. He chooses an image scanner for his aesthetic tool to examine the visceral qualities of archival material for what he calls creative non-fiction.
"The scanner is just as much a medium as the camera," he explained.
Bakkom's artistry draws on archival material presented in images, not just photos: "Think of me as an image importer."
The Minneapolis native received a bachelor’s degree in political and social science from the University of Virginia. During college, he began to explore music and cinema and returned to Minnesota to work in the film industry.
“At the same time I started working in the studio and exploring what it meant to be a fine artist," he said. "Ideas like installation were just starting to sink in then and I think that somewhere between creating venues and making objects I simply understood that the contemporary art world offered me so much more freedom than the film industry.”
New York City and the possibilities of the art world beckoned Bakkom. The Whitney Museum accepted him into its Independent Study Program in 1998, where he practiced conceptually-driven installations and sculptures. “I really dove into New York.”
Bakkom developed a conceptual project called "The New York City Museum of Complaint" in 2006. He "painted" an idiosyncratic portrait of the city through a scanned selection of complaint letters written to the mayor, dating from the late 1700s through the early 20th century. He created a booklet of the scanned letters and handed them out on the streets of lower Manhattan. The project made the front page of the New York Times.
After residencies in Paris and Ireland, Bakkom returned to Minneapolis to get his MFA while continuing his archival projects.
He recently created 3,000 editions of a 56-page newsprint publication called “The Invisible Hand of Jules Maciet.” The publication includes scanned images from a 5,000 volume, 19th century picture collection at the Musee des Arts Decorative in Paris.
Every time Mitchell chooses a subject for a new piece, she must make a decision about what medium or format will carry it best because the subject matters less than how she manipulates it.
If she wants to address the subject of economy, for example, she may explore plant-feeding tools, fuel economy or an actual system of goods, she said.
"I tend to pick an array of images or variety of ideas and distill them into a subject and then figure out the rest from there – whether it needs to be performed, or be a work of text, a scientific visualization or whatever,” she said. “I’ve never been a medium-specific artist.”
Mitchell dabbled in computer science as an undergrad but focused on art as a way to channel a social and political rejection of the corporate environment she had been working in after high school.
She started by studying photography and then sculpture, which continues to inform her work. “At some point in graduate school, I got back into the idea of using my computer as a primary tool and so I got sucked back into the computer world through the back door,” she said.
Mitchell applies criticism, satire or parody – often self-parody – to subjects that she draws on, especially social and historical issues around gender, power and the body.
She and a fellow artist created a documentary video tied to a performance piece in which they told a fictional story of an experimental art movement during the 1960s and ‘70s in Washington, D.C.
In the “Ian and Jan” project, they played the parts of an artist-couple who were praised for their collaborative pieces and performances that involved painting with, and on, their bodies. The piece addressed gender and power dynamics, art criticism, and the power of the media over our memory and social history.
“Often in my work, I will take images from pop culture and try to find the subtext or historical reference behind them that gives them their power, or loss of power, depending on your perspective,” she said.
Mitchell enjoys taking viewers beyond their initial reaction to the formal qualities of her work to the meaning behind it.
“I commonly have experiences with my work where people can appreciate it on a formal level – on an 'it's pretty" kind of level – because that's a way of getting a conversation started,” she said. “And as I talk to people about the work, I reveal the meaning. People going through that process with my work is really exciting.”