Arts » Visual Arts

Ben Johnson's Spacetime and a Chat with Sarah Urist Green

Sarah Urist Green weighs in on the Indy art scene, and ponders her next Art Assignment


Vitreography Print by Ben Johnson
  • Vitreography Print by Ben Johnson

On Wednesday June 29, I had a conversation with Sarah Urist Green, former curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and host of The Art Assignment. It was a chat that stuck with me as I walked through the galleries two days later on First Friday.

In The Art Assignment, a PBS Digital Studios production, various artists from across the country are introduced; they're invited to talk about their art and to give an assignment of some sort to their audience.

Green’s husband just so happens to be John Green, vlogger and author of The Fault in Our Stars as well as other bestselling young adult novels. He also serves as an occasional co-host for the series. 

John and Sarah Urist Green
  • John and Sarah Urist Green

The Greens have lived in Indianapolis since 2007.

We talked about many subjects in her Broad Ripple office, which was full of art books, yet neat and uncluttered. The conversation ranged from the art in Tijuana—the subject of a forthcoming Art Assignment episode premiering July 14—to her tenure at the IMA to the state of art in Indianapolis. (I was particularly interested in her take on Tijuana, as I had also crossed the border late last year to see the art there.)

I also wanted her take on the nonprofit involvement in the arts scene in Indianapolis. I was wondering how Indy’s art scene – which is driven in large part by nonprofit involvement — measures up in comparison to other cities.

I wanted Green's perspective since she spends a good deal of time all over the country on (art) assignment. She had positive things to say about the Indianapolis nonprofit sector role in the art scene, but she also said that such involvement in the arts is not unique to the city.

And many of the cities that she’s visited, she said, have something that Indy lacks.

“They also have galleries,” Green told me. “I think that having a healthy gallery system not only serves to encourage people locally to buy work from artists who live here, but also it helps develop those artists.”

This observation—acknowledging the lack of a thriving gallery scene—was echoed by
encounters that I had had with a number of artists in town.

When the group of artists known as the Collective, organized by Constance Scopelitis, started showing their own work in their own pop up spaces in 2014– on their own schedule – it was due largely to the frustration with the Indy arts scene. It wasn’t that the Indianapolis Downtown Artists and Dealers’ Association (IDADA) monthly First Friday gallery showings were a bad thing. Far from it. But while IDADA First Fridays certainly generate foot traffic in Fountain Square and the Harrison Center and other downtown locales – and generate art sales – there are also some artists in town who want to set their own schedules.

"The concept of having an art opening every thirty days I think is torturous," Scopelitis told me back in 2014. "I don't think it's fair to the artist to be swept up in that. Who's creating fresh work every thirty days? It can't be major work. Therefore the artists are promoting the idea of the low price takeaway piece hoping it leads to a major sale later. I think it's a bad trend. Remember the days when a gallery was respectful to an artist, represented you, gave you a year at a minimum [to prepare a major body of work]?"

On the other hand, I could see that the First Friday thing wasn’t working out too badly for glass artist Benjamin Johnson who was displaying his work at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (iMOCA) CityWay location in a show called Spacetime that opened Friday, July 1.

The nonprofit iMOCA, which often functions as a gallery space as much as museum - with both a gallery at CityWay and a gallery in the Murphy Building at Fountain Square - is certainly in the forefront of the Indianapolis art scene.

(iMOCA is the recipient of a $4,000 challenge grant from the Art Alliance of Contemporary Glass to support this current show and a forthcoming show of Johnson's work at iMOCA's Fountain Square location. It is a 1:1 matching grant. That is, iMOCA needs to receive $4,000 in matching donations to receive the award.)

This was the first stop on my list of galleries on July’s First Friday in Indy.

His show was stunning. It consisted of 20 black on white prints depicting the phases of the moon but also the 7 glass plates used to make those prints.

The prints in this exhibit are called vitreographs: the images are transferred from a glass plate spread with ink and pressed onto paper while more traditional printmaking employs blocks of wood or stone.

Johnson has developed a national following for his glass sculpture and blown glass with his bold colors and richly-textured—often sandblasted and acid-etched—glass surfaces. But this was the first time that he had showed a media other than glass.

I liked the titles of the pieces, such as “Dark Sense of Time Waning Crescent” and “Time is Distant,” And I liked the minimalist depictions of that old standby in the nighttime sky. The impressions pressed into the paper by the plates are just as important as the ink in these prints. 
You may get the impression that Johnson sees the moon as a sort of silent witness looking down on all of our frenetic human activity. From the moon’s perspective – if the moon would have a perspective – it would be a geologic one where centuries count as mere seconds.

As impressive as these prints, however, I was struck even more by the glass plates that Johnson used to make these prints. The largest of them made me think of the alien black monolith in the motion picture 2001: A Space Odyssey, even though it was mostly transparent. In that movie, this monolith - placed on the moon by an alien civilization - had been waiting around for millions of years for man to find it.

While I was admiring the art in that sleek, naturally lit gallery space, Jill Ditmire, Public Media News Anchor/Reporter for WFYI Indianapolis was on hand filming a Facebook Live presentation for her network. 

I recalled then, another part of my conversation with Sarah Urist Green, no stranger to new media.

I’d told her that I was impressed by how fast things move in her video work.

“Well, I think there is a lot of good video and film about art that is at a slower pace,” she replied. “And I think that works well for people who already like art... And I think as TV and online video become more similar, very soon they will become the same thing. For now, the style that’s evolved on YouTube is faster. And a lot of people are viewing internet video on their phones. That’s not something that I view as negative necessarily. But I want to make video about art that is designed for younger people, for people who don’t already love art, and for people who need a little convincing.”

And then there are the Art Trip components of her Art Assignment series where things really move. Green, who’s been hosting this series now for two and a half years, came to a certain realization while filming her episodes. That is, she was going to various cities around the country to film for The Art Assignment anyway, so why not document the trip?

When Green approached PBS Digital Studios about starting an Art Trip component for the Art Assignment, they were very supportive. 

In addition to documenting in video her tour of gallery and museum spaces, she also goes with artists to their favorite restaurants. Why, after all, would you want to see art on an empty stomach? Seeing galleries and restaurants whir by—punctured by her concise observations and wry commentary—just might make you dizzy, or hungry—or inspire you to see more art.

“For me it kind of seems similar to the actual experience of it,” says Green of her Art Trips. “You’re in a town for a few days and you’re going to try to pack in as much as you can.”

And certainly for me, that’s my experience every first Friday in Indianapolis. Things often go by in a blur.

I realized that I had spent a lot of time at Benjamin Johnson’s exhibition. It was certainly worth spending that time. But it was no time to space out, as it were. It was time to move on to the Harrison Center for the Arts, to General Public Collective, and perhaps even to a gallery yet undiscovered.

I wondered then if I’d see Sarah Urist Green out and about. And it was then that I recalled another thing she had told me.

“So I’ve actually thinking about doing Art Trip Indy,” said Green. “I live here; it’s not really fair, but I want to time it well.”


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