One of my favorite parts of writing this column is the opportunity to see artwork in spaces that aren’t strictly off-limits to the public, but are spaces that you wouldn’t necessarily visit unless you had a specific reason to be there – like in the corridors of the state Capitol, or in futurist suburbs, or in college art-supply stores.
Anyone can visit those places, but most people don’t, unless they’re, say, politicians, neighborhood residents, or art students, respectively. It’s a reminder of how little of the cities you really see, and how your outlook and perceptions of where you live are very tightly controlled by who you are, how you travel, and where you’re in the habit of being. There are probably remarkable things you see on your commute everyday and don’t give a second thought to – things that I would be amazed by, if I’d traveled the same route.
The world of college students and faculty is one of those largely hidden in plain sight to people outside of it. The University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus is a sprawling, multitiered collection of buildings, streets, surface, signage and people that covers large swaths of the city, a place that most everyone knows how to find. Navigating it from within, however, is difficult to those without a Gopher card in their wallet.
The Washington Avenue Bridge that connects the West and East Banks at the University of Minnesota is one of those places that thousands of people walk through every day and take for granted. Besides being a popular destination for macabre-minded local cultural tourists, being the site of poet John Berryman’s suicidal leap into the frozen Mississippi River in 1972, it also contains one of my favorite collections of public artwork in the cities. The bridge has a covered pedestrian walkway, once envisioned as a sort of collegiate Ponte Vecchio on the prairie, with shops, cafés, and other amenities inside. That never quite came to pass, so the walkway is now just a hulking, empty metal structure that seems like it should be filled with something, like it’s eternally in the first phase of an ambitious build-out that will never happen.
From amateurish to slick
What is inside, though, is a collection of hundreds of painted advertisements on the walls’ panels, underneath the windows, created by student organizations to recruit passersby to their causes. They change out every semester, and run the gamut from spectacularly amateurish to dishearteningly slick.
The semester ended about a week ago, so the murals in the walkway now are part of the university’s storied past (as the presence of some Mitt Romney-supporting contributions from various Young Republicans groups indicate). There is still time for an end-of-semester final critique, however. Gathered below are some of the best of the current crop, singled out for their excellence.
There are a few different types of these signs, but there are similarities between all of them. Most appear to have been painted by the most artistically gifted member of the student group, which obviously varies widely. Acrylic paint is a modest tool, as well – it’s easy to use and is pretty resilient, but it can look somewhat plastic-y, and has a tendency to turn to mud if you mix together too many colors. Given these limitations, the painters’ real advantage is in the execution of a good idea. An amateur-ish painting with a brilliant hook can make a bigger impact than the slickest come-on from the best-funded fraternity. In the truest spirit of the great college films, the field of student-organization advertisement painting is truly an arena in which the underdog has a fighting chance.
Speaking of slickness, some are traced from electronic templates, giving them a rather conventional and uninteresting quality. I have chosen not to highlight these types of signs.
A standout in pastels
There are some great city scenes. Some panels go overboard on blinding color choices, but the Twin City Chinese Christian Church / Cantonese Student Fellowship’s skyline makes excellent use of a limited pastel palette that stands out among its neighbors. The Circle of Indigenous Nations also presents a stirring, abstracted scene of the Minneapolis skyline, featuring a palette limited to a few splashes of color, and an ominous Metrodome looming in the distance. Three eagles soar overheard.
Den Svenska Klubben should receive special commendation for its mural. It demonstrates how a good concept, executed simply, can make an impact. Two androgynous, disaffected Nordics engage in a deadpan conversation worthy of the films of Lukas Moodysson: “Hey,” says the brunette, in Swedish. “Yeah,” replies the blonde. Next to the alluring possibility of cool, disaffected banter with icy hipster Swedes, the offer of “fika, film, friends” is almost secondary.
Obviously, longtime fans of manga have an advantage here – many have been sketching anime characters in their notebooks for over a decade by the time they get to college. The Manga Anime Society’s mural is predictably brilliant, with its pink background and flawlessly rendered Shōujo figure.
Manga styles often crop up in the work of clubs unrelated to the genre, as we see here in this advertisement for the Model UN Student Association. A bespectacled, competent-looking fellow in a gray suit stands with a flowing cape, hands on his hips. He’s not rendered in a traditional anime style, but it’s clear the artist has a background in the genre. I used to teach cartooning workshops for kids, many years ago, and I saw thousands of figures drawn in this style. This style of drawing has been the default for millions of young artists in America for the past fifteen or twenty years.
A rooster, the U.S. flag, Socrates
A few other standouts: Bohemian Press, a student printmaking cooperative, give us a simple, monochromatic depiction of a rooster driving an old-timey steamroller, the group’s name belching from the smokestack in a psychedelic cloud reminiscent of 1960s-era protest art. The Army ROTC’s image combines stencil-styled lettering, a muscular depiction of the American flag mid-wave, and the old Armory for a characteristically aggressive message about leadership. The Experimental College’s dramatic scene of the drudgery of the degree-seeking process (featuring an evil corporate boss and academia in flames) utilizes narrative to make a bold point about the value of an education. And for sheer mastery of technique, few rival the Socratic Society Philosophical Reading Groups’ splattery, Ralph Steadman-esque depiction of Socrates.
Perhaps my favorite this semester is from the Forensic Science Club, which presents a grisly murder mystery tableau on its panel. Someone has brutally slain beloved Wisconsinite Bucky Badger, mascot of the University of Minnesota’s Big Ten archrivals east of the border. All that remains is his chalk outline and some bloody handprints – someone clearly wanted Bucky dead in the most gruesome way. However, there are clues: The suspect has left some footprints fleeing the crime scene. Unfortunately, the footprints have University of Minnesota “M”s embedded in them, indicating that they may belong to one Goldy the Gopher.
I hope Goldy has a great alibi, because everyone knows he had the motive to murder Bucky. On the other hand, this could be an elaborate frame job – would Goldy be so foolish or careless as to literally leave his tracks on the crime scene? Perhaps this is the handiwork of Herky the Hawk or Biff the Michigan Wolverine or some other anthropomorphic denizen of the Big 10, slowly knocking off their rivals while in a brilliant disguise, and leaving Goldy the blame. Presumably these are the sorts of conversations one might have upon joining the Forensic Science Club.
These are the best, but most of them are worth seeing, especially en masse. You may not have a reason to be at the U, but if you can make one, it’s worth a trip across the Washington Avenue Bridge to take the pulse of amateur student design and lettering techniques.