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What’s up with the art and zeitgeist in ZIP code 55408?

Birds of a feather? Michael Carina's painting evokes innocence and peacefulness cracked by time.
Birds of a feather? Michael Carina’s painting evokes innocence and peacefulness cracked by time.

You know how when you finally meet your new neighbors — the couple who is on the other side of the fence from you in nearly every aspect — and you learn you have strange connections that go beyond proximity?

If the artwork in “55408: The Intersection of Art and Community” is any indication, artists in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis (ZIP code 55408) have a unifying obsession with childhood. Many of the pieces in the current Intermedia Arts exhibition are whimsical and nostalgic, childlike and innocent, satirical and comic-book-inspired, and in some cases, just plain childish.

Perhaps it’s the zeitgeist — the one that either paints everything in the past as pure or reduces it to a symptom of irony or cult status — that’s the reason this exhibit seems to draw from youth and quaintness. Or maybe curators Bridgette Rongitsch and Sergio Vucci are lured by the candy-colored dreams and fantasies that found their way into the local artists’ works.

Whatever the reason, a few of the more nostalgic pieces have charm beyond their candy coating. Take the “Monkey Marionettes” and “Paper Dollhouse” by Tim Haugen. The clay monkeys — the female outfitted in a flower-trimmed felt dress, the male bearing pink roses in a polka-dot vest — are incredibly detailed and dreamlike.

Ellen Mueller's images are intriguing and whimsical.
Ellen Mueller’s images are intriguing and whimsical.

Haugen’s dollhouse evokes a fantasy world where machinations occur behind closed eyes and paper picket fences. His work is eerie and sweet without being contrived; it exposes an earnest duality without catering to cutesy sales trends in the art world. In fact, Haugen is so serious about his playfulness that neither of his artworks is for sale.

Childhood grows up

Isaac Arvold’s pieces, made from acrylic, pen and paper on wood, seem inspired by “Where the Wild Things Are” and the “lowbrow” SoCal art that Ox-Op gallery was known for before it closed a few years back. His peculiar creatures are outfitted in otherworldly animal costumes, or more accurately, layers of isolation. They make their way through a fantasyland of twisted branches and bubble-gum-tinted clouds.

Tonja Torgerson’s screen print, “I Am Fine,” is a portrait of a girl with snaking leaves framing her head, the ends of which are festooned with two syringes. The word “okay” has been crossed out and replaced with “fine.” While the design and colors are cheery and childlike, the image tells a more complicated story: a struggle, an illness, a push to put on a pretty face in the midst of it all.

Rachel Orman explores Picasso-like imagery from a female perspective.
Rachel Orman explores Picasso-like imagery from a female perspective.

As a white girl who grew up on the edge of the White Earth Indian reservation, which was majority-owned by non-native Americans, Torgerson’s childhood experiences are still deeply embedded. “In a sense, I feel unable to escape my childhood,” she says. “And at the same time, I feel torn between appreciating my upbringing and rejecting it.”

Torgerson juxtaposes innocent designs with dark imagery to make disturbing subject matter more inviting. She says the softer “girly” colors help her explore connections to femininity and adolescence, when her mom told her she’d be better off marrying a rich man.

“I understand that some of the subject matter can be dark and disturbing,” Torgerson says of her images. “But I believe that juxtaposition of sweet imagery and dark context makes the message of the work more powerful.”

Tonja Torgerson uses childlike imagery to explore dark subjects.
Tonja Torgerson uses childlike imagery to explore dark subjects.

Plenty of pieces in the show don’t nod to the sweeter days of childhood. Some works are more focused on technique and form, like the earthenware sculptures by Janna Schneider. Her untitled pieces are complicated structures inspired by ear canals and sea mollusks. One looks like a corroded piece of lemon-lime coral, as if a sunken old bike part sprouted tentacles and was reborn, only to solidify and die again.

Not all of the pieces here come to life: Some collages and mixed-media images aren’t on the same scale as some of the show’s stronger works. Just because you can wink and nod at something doesn’t mean it’s worth it to do so. Irony as an art form is pretty meaningless when it exists without a deeper counterpart. Maybe the nostalgia zeitgeist gnaws at me, but I long for something a bit more meaningful. Like, you know, back when things really mattered, before we became jaded adults and such.

Intermedia Arts, 2922 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
When: Through May 10. 12-7 p.m. Monday through Friday
Events: This Friday, March 21, the Cultural Society, Letterbox and Intermedia Arts present “55408 The Beat,” featuring music and poetry by local musician Bill Mike and writer Zac Barocas, among others. The event starts at 8 p.m. at The Beat Coffeehouse, 1414 W. 28th St., Minneapolis.

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