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Into the opening of NEW WORK at Olson Larsen

September 7, 2012 – 6:34PM

Art Beacon contributor, Chad Michael Cox, enters Olson-Larsen Galleries for the opening of New Work featuring artists Michael Johnson, Mary Merkel-Hess, and Dan Mason. (On display through October 6th.)

Observation #1: Not a single person in the gallery is actually looking at the artwork.

CMC and his daughter fight through the middle of the room where thirteen people stand with drinks in hand discussing the finer things in life, perhaps they mention the artwork. CMC and daughter enjoy the wide-open spaces surrounding each of the Michael Johnson photographs. This is safe art. The kind that sells and keeps a gallery in business, but it obviously doesn’t inspire anyone in the room to contemplate deeper meaning. The viewers sip their wine and pass cheese cuttings between pierced lips.

Mary Merkel-Hess’s BOWER Gampi, paper board, hand printed paper 17 x 10 x 10

Observation next: Bower by Mary Merkel-Hess resembles a female breast.

Observation by daughter: Enfolded by same artist is “cool!”

Mary Merkel-Hess's ENFOLDED, Paper, paper cord, acrylic paint, 7 x 18 x 11

CMC and daughter both agree this is pretty impressive work as they realize the “grass” effect is achieved by individually rolling strips of paper before combining them to create artwork that begs to be touched – or felt up, depending on the work. And yet, no one in the gallery is paying any attention. No one is being verbally accosted for daring to feel the art before them. They aren’t interested. The viewers, avoiding all artistic engagement, are much more adept at conversation this night.

Observation as revelation: Artist Dan Mason is boycotting all the rules.

Detail of Dan Mason's WILLIAMSBURG III, Oil on linen, 44 x 44

CMC remarks to daughter that every square in Mason’s work fades at the edges. Mason apparently failed geometry class. 90 Degree angles are merely suggested. There are no hard lines taken, no strong stance. Typically rigid cityscapes offer a soothing embrace. Gone is the concrete jungle. In its place, Mason has propped up a series of sponges.

Observation final: Who gives a damn?

The city of Des Moines longs to be a thriving art community. We boast about our annual Art Festival, and (with good reason) we take pride in our ArtCenter. We have world-famous sculptors displayed in our parks. For what? So we can enjoy polite conversation over wine and cheese? So we can engage in dialogue with the artist rather than dive deeper into their work? Then why bother with the art – why not attend a wine tasting, instead?

September 7, 2012 – 6:58PM

CMC and daughter leave Olson-Larsen Galleries. They walk hand-in-hand down the Valley Junction sidewalk discussing the art they have just seen. What was your favorite piece? Daughter responds, “I liked the paper ones.” They’ve inspired her to go home and try to make one of her own.

Observation reality: I wonder if anyone will notice.

IN REGAL SPLENDOR, the Great Byron Burford at the Olson Larson Gallery

Byron Burford, Olson Larsen gallery

April 13 - May 26th 2012

Review by Rachel

April 19, 2012

The paintings and prints of Bryon Burford are now on view until the end of May at the Olson Larson Gallery in Vally Junction. Student of Grant Wood and Philip Guston, Burford  was a professor of art, veteran and circus director for a large walk-in painting he called “The Great Byron Burford’s Circus of Artistic Wonders”. After years of traveling in the circus, Burford designed this interactive art exhibition with lights, sound and painted wood cut-outs to recreate the feeling of circus in pure form.

As a boy, Burford’s father ran a YMCA in Mississippi and regularly offered a refuge for traveling circus and sideshow performers. This was Burford’s introduction to the cast of characters who would evolved into the subjects of his paintings and prints over the course of his life. As a kid, he was hired to run candy and soda pop to Baby Ruth Pontico, the 750-pound fat lady who dreamed of weighing 1000 pounds. On another job, Burford babysat twin microcephalics or “pinheads”. These early relationships taught Burford about how to see a person for who they are, not what they look like.

“I began to wonder about ‘normal’,” said Burford. “Who’s was abnormal? Who was normal? Grownups would tell me about this business man who was normal, but he didn’t seem half as nice as some of the show people I knew. I started to wonder just where a human being starts.” -Iowa City Press Citizen Wednesday June 30th 1976

Burford’s father acknowledged young Burford’s interest in the circus and arranged for him to travel in the Tom Mix Circus. This experience solidified a lifelong dedication to the circus, both in participation and documentation. During his 38 years as art professor at the University of Iowa, he spent his summers traveling in circus troupes, playing drums in gorilla suits and painting circus advertising and signage.

His years designing the visual aesthetics for the circus appear conceptually in his painting style, emulating the attractive and eye catching qualities of a hand painted circus sign. The composition is designed like a map, his figures constructed from a flattened geometry of light and shadow.  The application of paint is thin with quick scratchy brushwork. The portraits painted in monochromatic tones of green, red and yellow feel other worldly and intimate.

“I would like to be remembered by the total body of my work as a printmaker and painter. It all comes out of the whole conception. I’m a figure painter. I don’t paint the figure as if it were a hunk of meat. Not as an object, but as a vehicle with internal feelings.” -Byron Burford, -Iowa City Press Citizen Wednesday June 30th 1976

The pieces on view in this mini-retrospective feel like a tease. It’s just a taste from Burford’s large body of work. When I arrived at the opening, I was greeted by Burford’s son Kevin and Kevin’s wife Helen, and their daughter Maddy. Together they began to tell their story of the late Burford, but struggled to find the exact words to describe the immensity that was Byron. “He was bigger than life,” said Helen. 

Burford with his cut-out self in the Circus of Artistic Wonders


From the words of an old fellow circus traveler, the following memory was written in response to Byron’s death last summer. It offers a peek into the life and experiences that brought together the works at Olson Larson.

The last time I was with Byron Burford was under a wet circus tent.  It was in Walnut, Ill., and both of us were with the Franzen Bros. Circus. Byron was playing drums while I worked the center ring as Silly Billy the clown with another goofy white face I knew only as Dutch.

It was an awful night. It was pouring and blowing. It was blowing so hard that the handful of performers and Emma, who was working the front end selling hot dogs, ran into the downpour to pound wind stakes and tie down ropes in circus knots.

We were scared of a blowdown, which strikes terror into all circus people. A blowdown is when the quarter poles jump out of the ground like sticks and the center poles begin to sway before the big top collapses on the crowd.

The winds calmed, but the rains kept soaking the big top. The show went on. I kept fumbling the plate spin with Dutch in the center ring. That was no distinguished honor because there was only one ring in this tiny show with which I was spending my vacation as a clown.  

Burford, a noted American artist who was a professor at the University of Iowa, kept drumming away in the two-piece circus band. In all the chaos of the storm, Byron smiled. He said that a circus band always sounded better in a wet tent.

AS A SERIOUS HOBBY, Byron drummed with many circuses. He loved the circus. I knew that Byron was good as a drummer, and I knew that he was a good artist, but I didn’t know he was that good as an artist. Before the storm at Walnut, I had watched him draw a sketch of a tiger, snarling like all circus tigers should snarl. The sketch was to be a pattern painted on one of the Franzen Bros. circus trucks. I don’t think it ever got painted because, in a season to come, Wayne Franzen, the circus owner, was killed by a lion while performing in the steel arena.

 After the night of the great storm at Walnut, Byron — along with me and my son, Tim, who had been working the circus with me — wandered into a town bar to call our wives and report that we were still alive and well. The bartender growled that he smelled elephants and didn’t like that smell. We had elephant doo on our shoes. He walked the three of us out of the place.

Out and about through the years following, I’d cross paths playing circuses with Byron. We’d part with the showman’s farewell, “See you down the road.” (Source)


Byron Burford’s works will be on display at the Olson Larson Gallery until May 26th.