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Wex on Wex

Visit the Wexner Center on any given day and you’re likely to encounter something you’ve never seen before. It’s a hive of creativity, a “laboratory,” as the institution’s benefactor Leslie H. Wexner prefers to call it, for both the Ohio State University and the city of Columbus at large. Much like the priceless pieces of [...]
Kevin J. Elliott

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Visit the Wexner Center on any given day and you’re likely to encounter something you’ve never seen before. It’s a hive of creativity, a “laboratory,” as the institution’s benefactor Leslie H. Wexner prefers to call it, for both the Ohio State University and the city of Columbus at large.

Much like the priceless pieces of art Mr. Wexner has been collecting since the early ’70s, the center is “one of a kind.” Just within the last 12 months – with exhibits showcasing modern Brazilian art to the warped comics of Daniel Clowes – the space has proven to be a beacon for contemporary art not just in the Midwest, but globally.

So how does the Wex choose to celebrate 25 years? How do they plan to top heralded shows of the past, which have included Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, and Julie Taymor? Well, beyond the many performances, concerts, and screenings planned this season (see our Fall Arts Guide), they’ve gone full circle and asked Mr. Wexner and wife Abigail for a public view of the master works they’ve accumulated over the years.

Transfigurations: Modern Masters from the Wexner Family Collection is just that: a detailed survey of modern art’s 20th century turning point culled completely from a collection which has, up until now, only hung from the walls of the Wexners’ New Albany estate. Curated by Robert Storr, current dean of art at Yale and a former curator at the MOMA, the exhibit will focus intently on Mr. Wexner’s love of three artists in particular – Picasso, Giacometti, and Dubuffet – but will also feature a smattering of other heavy-hitters from the 20th century, with the likes of Edgar Degas and Willem De Kooning. It’s truly unlike anything the Wex has been a part of before.

I recently got to speak with the Wexners about how they’ve amassed such an unparalleled collection and why it’s taken until now for them to share it with the world.

I recently read an interview in the Wall Street Journal where you recall the early ’70s and discovering that people lived with “significant” works of art. So I’m curious to know how the two of you decide what goes where? Do you have space in your home allotted just for viewing or do you purchase pieces with a particular place in mind?

Abigail Wexner: Never. Part of that is, if a piece is acquired, having to think about where it will go, but I think that would be a funny way to approach it – buying something to fill a particular space.

Leslie H. Wexner: There are collectors who have hundreds of objects – massive collections in warehouses and they really just like to collect. There are different styles of collecting. Our style is that we like to live with it and see the things. These are pieces that start discussions. Once a year, we walk the house and decide if we should move something here or there. For us, collecting is very personal.

When you first started collecting, it sounds like you were interested in the New York school of abstraction, with Rothko and Kline, and then some cubism and surrealism. How did you come to focus on the three artists – Picasso, Dubuffet, and Giacometti – who are prominent in this exhibition?

LHW: It began purely by accident. During the time I was interested in abstract expressionism and the New York school, going to shows and visiting dealers. I was at a Chicago art fair and saw a Picasso drawing. It didn’t fit into what I was collecting; it wasn’t what I was looking for, but it haunted me. Three days later, I went back to look at it and there was something about it that forced me to buy it. Before long, I had two Picassos, and it started to make more sense in my mind. I became really interested in just these two pieces, while I was bored with 10 others that I had. I guess there’s an open-mindedness to collecting. You have to go with the flow…your tastes change. It was the same with Giacometti.

What prompted your decision to show your collection at the Wexner Center? Have you loaned out parts of your collection in the past?

AW: We’ve done a lot of loaning of individuals pieces over the years to collections around the world, but we’ve never really thought about the collection as a whole. I don’t think Les ever really thought of it as an important collection because it happened over time. That was never the goal. We never set out to create an important collection. It just kind of happened. There was a certain modesty about seeing this as something that people would be interested to see, or go out of their way to see. That changed in recent years. I was the one pushing that this would be worthwhile and a great thing for the university, not just for its access to the students but also a larger community. I had to convince Les to do it, but once we brought in some outside experts to tell us that this collection was unparalleled, we knew it was very much worth sharing. It was never out of selfishness that we haven’t shared this until now, it was more not believing it was a lot to see.

Are there any contemporary artists that you’re particularly fond of these days?

AW: Susan Rothenberg’s work, her “Horses” in particular, are part of the collection. I love her work and love that series.

Can we ever find you at Gallery Hop purchasing any local art?

AW: No, not usually.

This is all part of the Wexner Center’s 25th Anniversary. How do you think the Wexner has evolved and progressed since the museum first opened?

LHW: When it first opened, I don’t think the center had an idea of what it wanted to be. Initially it was just a facility. The notion of showcasing contemporary artists, which they do well, the notion of an international advisory board, with initiatives that show collaboration with places like South America and Africa, none of that was part of the original ambition. Now though it has viewers and participants from all over the world. When I think of the arts center I think of creativity, openness, energy, and democracy. It’s a model for every other college and university.

Transfigurations: Modern Masters from Wexner Family Collection opens September 21st. Visit www.wexarts.org for more information.

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Arts & Culture

The Interview Issue: Artist Ann Hamilton

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

Artist Ann Hamilton ensures her viewers are not passive bystanders.

Sometime this week, this month, you might receive an envelope in the mail, nestled among the barrage of holiday gifts and well-wishing cards from family and friends.

You open it to find not a family picture or holiday greeting, but a dated photographic scan of a single fallen leaf. It appears stark on the page: quietly elegant, strangely canonized, its veins and creases made beautiful after being blasted with light.

This scan would represent a small part of Columbus-based artist Ann Hamilton’s project when an object reaches for your hand, an interactive installation currently on display at OSU’s Thompson Library. The work encourages viewers to take pieces from the exhibit that Hamilton has created and share them with one another.

Hamilton, a professor in the OSU Department of Art, is also undeniably one of the most prominent and lauded names in the world of contemporary art. With a portfolio that includes decades-worth of large scale multimedia installations and other work, the Ohio-born artist has earned herself coveted Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships, among countless other honors.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

Because of this, Hamilton could likely call any place in the world home. Yet she chooses to do so in Columbus, where she now both teaches and operates out of her locally-based studio.

“You know, you don’t really know the consequences of those decisions at the time, but I can really see how being here, having that family support, the economy of Columbus, being able to have this space, and my affiliation with the university; all those things have led to my being able to develop practice that responds to a lot of different forms of work, and I’ve really been tremendously supported. The way that I’ve been able to pursue projects has been a consequence of all that support,” she said.

“When I moved here, Columbus wasn’t one of the “move-to” cities; people were asking me what I was doing. Sometimes what’s good for you is also good for the work and I have to trust that will be the case.”

Hamilton’s when an object reaches for your hand, displayed as part of Here, a recent exhibit at the Wexner Center for the Arts that also featured pieces from artists Jenny Holzer and Maya Lin, shows the benefits of this support in more ways than one.

“We have a fabulous public and university library system. When I was invited to do the new project at the Wexner, I was also already thinking about doing a project in the library,” she said. “You know, partly, ever since the library opened, I’ve always thought about that vertical glass spine where you can see the stacks, and the two sides of that is this amphitheater space, inviting sociability, inviting potential performance.”

Using outdated scanners, some likely nearing 30 years old, Hamilton and her studio team scanned hundreds of different items over the course of nine months from personal and university collections, which were then printed on details paper and stacked on irregularly-arranged platforms throughout the library’s second floor.

Due to the scanners’ age and shallow depth of field, the images created by them (which often featured unique or rarely-seen items), became ghostly, and quietly beautiful in their own right.

But Hamilton’s work is about more than just the acts of crafting and display. Visitors to when an object reaches for your hand are more than static viewers; they play an integral role in the work itself.

Each person who sees the show is invited to take one of the scans displayed in stacks throughout Thompson Library, either to keep for themselves, or to mail to a friend or family member via a mailing station at the installation.

In this way, the work becomes a platform for connectivity, for people to share the things that move or matter to them. In the same way that Ohio State and the private collectors Hamilton worked with shared their prized items with her, viewers are able to do the same with whomever they choose.

“Everyone I talked to was so helpful; people want to share what they love and what they take care of. What an incredible gift that is. We were able to wander in and out of so many different parts of the university. I would say the piece isn’t so much site-specific; it’s just responsive to what is here, to that spirit of wanting to share,” Hamilton said. “This is why the mailing is so important, wanting to share what comes forward in the collection. When you mail something, it’s still carried by hand; the address is written out by hand. And that’s also about touch, and touch is what’s made visible through light in the images.”

This sense of community and shared details is also apparent in how Hamilton manages her Columbus studio. Located in an unassuming but spacious building just south of downtown, Hamilton both works out of the building and uses it to host collective dinners, where visiting artists and speakers are able to interact with invited OSU arts faculty members and students.

“The events get set up and everybody sits together and it’s a beautiful meal. We have candles, wonderful food, and I think it’s part of what we do through positions at the university,” she said. “It’s a chance for people to actually be in conversation. Like, for example, with the architecture of our art program, there really isn’t social space, and so I hope in some part this addresses that.”

And even though Hamilton is now one of the figures firmly entrenched in the canon of contemporary American Art, it wasn’t a vocation that she necessarily saw coming.

In fact, she couldn’t recall a moment that she said to herself that she wanted to be an artist; she simply made art. “There’s some large gap between recognizing you love something and calling yourself something. I just grew up loving making things, and I had a ton of support from my family,” she said.

Hamilton has learned from her adventures, and as a professor, has opportunities to share her wisdom. “It was never a straight road,” she said, “but I always tell my students: do what you love.

Hamilton’s when an object reaches for your hand is on view in Ohio State’s Thompson Library through April 28. Learn more at annhamiltonstudio.com.

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Arts & Culture

The Interview Issue: Comic Artist Jeff Smith

J.R. McMillan

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

Starting in the pages of the Lantern, Jeff Smith’s comic series BONE will finally be coming to Netflix. It only took three decades.

Being at the right place at the right time is rare in any industry. Jeff Smith is the exception several times over.

An a able ambassador and native son of Columbus, Smith’s infatuation with illustration and storytelling emerged early and in equal measure, creating his first characters when he was five, which evolved into complete comics by the time he was 10. The Columbus College of Art & Design helped hone his craft, and the prototype for his acclaimed series BONE appeared in Ohio State’s student newspaper The Lantern at length. Just as independent comics were breaking into the mainstream, the self-published creator became both a folk hero and a rock star of the emerging scene, inspiring artists and earning industry accolades, including ten Eisners, essentially the comic world’s equivalent of the Academy Awards.

But there were also some setbacks just now being set right. A failed Nickelodeon effort to adapt BONE for television in the ‘90s, followed by a similarly stalled big-screen project by Warner Brothers, ironically paralleled the saga of Smith’s cartoon characters navigating a foreign landscape in an unforgiving world. But Smith took all of it in stride, and bided his time. This past October, Netflix announced the long- awaited animated series fans new and old had been long-denied, a project that just as easily may not have happened. Much like Smith’s history of impeccable timing, he seems to have arrived again at just the right moment in popular culture.

“I made a deal with Warner Brothers a decade ago, and they hadn’t done anything with it. They optioned it for two years, but I wasn’t particularly happy with the direction it was taking and didn’t want to renew. Then they purchased it outright and told me to sit on the sidelines,” Smith recalled. “But it was in the contract that if they didn’t make a movie within ten years, then the rights reverted back to me. So I had to wait. It was such an unpleasant experience, I decided I didn’t want to sell it again. But word got out and I started getting calls from streaming services and Netflix was the best match. That’s how it happened.”

Motion picture and television rights are esoteric legal devices that often give studios and networks the “option” to turn a story into a lm or series within a given span of time. They come with lots of conditions and fine print typically serving those purchasing them, but occasionally those selling them. It’s a way to buy time, but also ensure projects don’t stay idle indefinitely.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

BONE was really an early mashup, before that term existed, of comedy and swords and sorcery. It was Bugs Bunny meets Lord of the Rings. I think it’s got to be the comedy and the combination of characters that made it popular,” Smith said, speculating on the mystery behind the series’ somewhat unexpected success, even internationally. “BONE is published all over the world. It’s still weird to pick up one of my stories and see the characters speaking French. If I knew the secret, I’d do it again.” A decade ago, Netflix was mostly dropping DVDs in the mail and was producing zero original content. A year later marked the premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead, a television adaptation that was so dicey at the time, they only gave the first season six episodes. Now Net ix accounts for more than half of all internet traffic in the U.S. on Sunday night, and The Walking Dead draws more viewers than all Sunday NFL games combined.

“The real problem we had with Warner Brothers was making a 1,500-page book into an hour and a half movie. It couldn’t be done, so it didn’t get done,” he said. “But a streaming animated show was perfect; it’s just like the comic book. It’s serialized and can progress chapter by chapter. It was the right time, and the right company.”

Netflix isn’t the only streaming service clamoring for content, and it’s easy to forget House of Cards, their first original series, only premiered in 2013. With Amazon Prime and Hulu well- established, and Disney and Apple both investing heavily in production for their own freshly-minted subscription services, Smith again seemed to capture the right moment to reach the right audience, all while maintaining the artistic integrity of BONE.

“We’re still looking for showrunners. If everything goes well, we’re hoping to have shows in the fall of 2022. I’ll be a creator on the show and an executive producer, but it’s really just one more project,” Smith noted. “I still want to draw comics. I don’t need to be out there the whole time. Once the show is up and running, I can work here.”

As if BONE alone weren’t a sufficient source of inspiration for veteran and aspiring comic artists, Smith is also a founder and the artistic director of Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC), an annual, and increasingly international, celebration of the city’s commitment to illustrated storytellers across every genre and format. But even before CXC, Columbus was arguably already a comic town. From esteemed exhibitions at the Columbus Museum of Art and the Wexner Center to nationally renowned institutions like the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum and Thurber House, our city has always recognized comics as art worth appreciating as much as any medium of creative expression.

“The idea behind CXC was that it would be more like a European show and not be all in one room at a convention center or hotel. It would be at different venues throughout the city. But it would also be a show that was more collegial, that would nurture comic creators and encourage connections,” he explained. “When I grew up here, there were neighborhoods in Columbus where you wouldn’t go at night. Now we’re a chef-driven town with galleries everywhere. We’re a cultural crossroads. It’s why we wanted to have events all over town, to showcase the city. And it’s working. People will go to an exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art, then go to an event at OSU and stop in the Short North along the way, grab a bite to eat and talk about comics.”

Even as he prepares for the production of BONE the streaming series and the sixth year of CXC, Smith sees the similarities in both projects and the role he plays—getting the right balance of characters working toward the same goal and creating a story that compels audiences to return.

“You have to start each with a recap, so everyone knows the story so far. Tell your new episode, then end it with a cliff hanger,” Smith explained. “That’s the secret to any serial, whether it’s a comic, a television show, or a convention. You have to give people a reason to come back for more.”

To learn more about BONE and Smith’s other work, visit boneville.com.

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Arts & Culture

Watch: “World’s largest mural” in Short North is more than meets the eye

Regina Fox

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At a glance, "The Journey AR Mural" adorning the Graduate Columbus hotel in Short North is stunning. Look a little harder, and it actually comes to life.

Standing at over 107 feet tall and over 11,000 square feet of augmented reality, "The Journey AR Mural," is the world's largest AR mural, offering technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user's view of the real world, thus providing a composite view.

The gaily-painted snapdragons, hibiscus, Easter lilies, and hummingbirds bloom and fly when viewed through the Journey AR Mural app (free for iPhone and Android). Watch the murals come to life in the video below.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B7PRvBxpBkI/

Los Angeles-based artists Ryan Sarfati and Eric Skotnes (going by “Yanoe” and “Zoueh," respectively) are the creatives behind the project.

In an interview with Short North Arts District, Skotnes revealed he was inspired to take on the project after learning that Columbus is home to the second largest population of Somali immigrants in the country—he hopes the murals symbolize strength and prosperity for its viewers.

To learn more about The Journey AR Mural, visit shortnorth.org.

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