Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Eternal Funk - review of "Soul and Funk: The Naptown Sound" - April 27, 2005

Exhibit Review
By Mary Lee Pappas
Soul and Funk: The Naptown Sound
Indiana History Center
Through Dec. 31

Actor Samuel L. Jackson greets visitors to Soul and Funk: The Naptown Sound at the Indiana History Center’s Rapp Family Gallery, evangelically hollering, “The Church of Eternal Funk is open!” from a TV screen swathed in floral orange fabric circa 1972. Outkast performing “I Like the Way You Move” starts to drown out his voice during this video from the 2004 Grammys’ Funk Tribute. It’s a booty swinging overture for a look into Indianapolis’ own unique funk scene that arose from political and cultural shifts in the African-American community during the 1960s and ’70s.

Stevie Wonder’s voice singing his 1972 hit “Superstition” greets visitors upon walking into the small exhibition space where assortments of disco lights waver in the dimness. The music bounces through the gallery. A black velvet portrait of a blue Afro-ed Stevie, Op art fabric art and an orange shag wall hanging further set the tone for the spirit of the era and the music.

Faux brick walls suggest the historic African-American Indiana Avenue strip of music clubs lost to the construction of IUPUI. More than music, this exhibit sadly only brushes the surface of what black residents in Indianapolis were challenged with during these times. Unigov, initiated by then Mayor Richard Lugar, unified city-county government and added 250,000 more whites to the voting base. City planners razed African-American neighborhoods for IUPUI and Interstate 65, leaving people displaced and underrepresented. These local events underpinned the music and culture of the time and could have been delved into further for the sake of depicting our local history in a truthful, and in this case, not so sanitary light.

But fabulous interactive components allow visitors to thoroughly engage with the funk music and musicians who created what’s become known as the Naptown Sound. Local promotional posters for Rufus Thomas, The Vanguards, The Rhythm Machine and even one for Ayr-way’s Soul Browser Center flank a room outfitted with a 1950s chrome kitchen table made to look similar to Club TBD. Pick up a phone on the tabletop and listen to Rodney Stepp, jazzman and producer formally of the Spinners, talk about buying a Beatles record on Illinois Street. Hang out at one of the Funk and Soul listening stations to hear local funk hits including The Highlighter’s famous track, “Funky 16 Corners.” Written by James Bell in the bathroom of the Ford Motor Company where he worked, this song contains what has been called the greatest soul scream of all time — that’s a heavy-duty distinction. Open a salvaged stage door and bear witness to a “Superfly Doodad” or two, like a guitar or a wide-collared stage costume. Or just boogie down on the exhibition dance floor.

Though small, this exhibit is overloaded with features and data that require a lot of time to thoroughly absorb. Despite the overstuffed, climbable, platform shoe, the show is better suited for adults than children unless your child has a penchant for funk. This exhibition, despite its success as is, could be realized on a bigger scale with even more interactive components like maps of the Westside neighborhoods or a WTLC disc jockey booth where you could select your own Naptown Sound rotation. As great as it is, it’s only halfway there. Visit for more on the history of Indianapolis funk and soul and for more on the exhibit. Through Dec. 31; 317-232-1882.

Seducing unsuspecting audiences - Tom Otterness in Indianapolis, various public locations - April 27, 2005

* Pictured - "Male and Female Tourist" is part of Tom Otterness' installations in Indianapolis.

Tom Otterness’ collection of 25 bronze sculptures of various sizes have unavoidable impact. With pieces like “See No Evil” perfectly poised in front of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, they are hard not to encounter. Visually accessible with sculptural protagonists characterized by playful, bulbous bodies and anthropomorphic, iconic smiley (and unsmiling) faces, they successfully seduce unsuspecting audiences.

“Big Big Penny,” a sculpture on the steps of the World War Memorial, does this exceedingly well. A top-hatted capitalist character recalling Monopoly’s Rich Uncle Pennybags sits atop a big penny with a drink in hand and nuclear family at his side while trying to steady himself as a poor family rolls the penny from beneath him. Two little male workers (with realistic parts) kiss next to the penny as if unaware of the turmoil while another worker gets squashed.

Most works, with context being key, are smart and complicated social commentaries, particularly the “Tree of Knowledge” at the City Market. This tiny revolution has multiple layers of interpretation that could easily inspire insightful conversations as well as photo-ops with tourists and families. It, like so many other pieces on view, is a commentary on the little guy’s plight to get ahead and the ugly side of capitalism.

Otterness’ ability to parlay conflict and disenchantment through initially sweet, pudgy, harmless looking characters has effectively provoked public interest (meaning usurped or not) by simply being enjoyable to view, as successful public art should do. A prime example of this charm is seen in the smallest piece in this collection, located outside of Starbucks on the Circle, of a pint-sized panhandler, “Boy and Dog.” Though sweet at first glance, upon close inspection it defies Disneyfication.

Otterness’ approach and refinement of craft have garnered him places in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and The Whitney Museum. His pieces are beautifully, sympathetically conceived from their materials.

Now the question becomes whether Indianapolis will be able to maintain this quality of public arts exhibitions and arts philanthropy. Who in Indianapolis will match and continue this level of public patronage now that this precedent has been set?

Tom Otterness in Indianapolis runs through July 31, Thanks to the Arts Council’s Mindy Taylor Ross and the Deborah Joy Simon Charitable Trust for giving Tom Otterness due credence and bringing his exhibition. Simon made a $50,000 grant. The Cultural Development Commission funded $238,000. Through July 31. - Mary Lee Pappas

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Oldfields-Lilly IMA Gardens Tour - Indianapolis Museum of Art - April 13, 2005 - 4 stars

Metasequoia glyptostroboides. It’s a tree that was once thought to be extinct and known only through fossil records until it was discovered in China in 1941. Specimens were collected in the mid 1940s, then cultivated in the U.S. One such conifer emigre exists where the former grass tennis court was on the IMA grounds. I learned all about it while taking a volunteer-guided walk through the IMA's gardens last Saturday. The Oldfields-Lilly House and Gardens have been lovingly restored to their 1920s splendor. From the European copper beeches to the tulip trees and Carolina Alispice bushes, the nuances and significance of the IMA landscape was explored on this hour-long tour. I'll be back for another tour midsummer when the oak leaf hydrangea are in bloom. Guided walks through the IMA’s gardens are offered from April through September at 1 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Groups meet at the Lilly House entrance. 317-923-1331. -Mary Lee Pappas

"They Will Never Go To Sleep..." - Big Car Gallery - April 13, 2005 - 3 stars

This is the first exhibition in this new 1,250-square-foot gallery space located on the second floor of the Murphy Arts Center featuring work by Josh Johnson, John Clark and Jessica Robinson. Johnson's work is, frankly, touching. Seven green washed paintings recalling comic book cells titled "Life of an Organ Grinder Monkey" tells the tale of a baby monkey plucked away from its mommy in the jungle only to sail across an ocean to become a fez-wearing sideshow entertainer. The pencil drawn monkey possesses such subtle expressions (even with his hollow Orphan Annie eyes) that his fear and other emotions immediately connect with the audience. John Clark shows four new large-scale surrealist works while Robinson offers up dream-like scenes of oil and graphite on mylar, like "Cattle Drive," where 23 bulls and the multitude of horns behind them suggest an unreal scene of hundreds packed together. The artists' collective known as Big Car, a non-profit public relations company serving other non-profits, will be offering many unique events to the city which include multigenre collaborations. This space will also be shared with Motus (, an experimental dance company. Visit to get acquainted with this new group that wants to push the art scene forward without competing. Though April 30, 2005; 317-339-0911. –Mary Lee Pappas