Tom Duimstra brings beguiling sculptures to UICA in “Zero +”

Zero+2By Steven Davison

Grand Rapids artist Tom Duimstra has been an activist and advocate for Outsider art for nearly three decades.  His tireless support for the Grand Rapids art scene over the years is evidenced in the “Camera and Collage” show he curated for the Avenue for the Arts in the spring 2013.  “Camera and Collage” brought together veteran Grand Rapids artists as well as gave new opportunities to burgeoning younger artists.

Like a musician who develops a signature sound, Duimstra has developed a visual style that is unmistakably his own.  His work investigates “the ways in which aesthetic value and meaning are created and assigned, by both the artist and the viewer”.

He has pieces in collections throughout the U.S. and Canada, Europe, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Australia.  Celebrity collectors include author Tom Robbins, actress Susan Sarandon and comedian Roseanne Barr.

His show “Zero +” opens Friday, November 15th at the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art.  Below is my interview with Duimtra.

ArtHack: Can you give us some background on yourself and when you started making art? Do you have a formal training in sculpture?

Tom Duimstra: I am not formally trained in any art-related discipline as far as attending classes or formal schooling. Rather, I’ve tended to be an autodidact; I’ve always been a voracious reader and researcher. When I become interested in an artist or artistic movement I just naturally immerse myself in learning all I can about it. This method has shaped and influenced my artistic development.

AH: When I documented the “Camera and Collage” show last spring, we talked briefly about all the changes you have witnessed in the Grand Rapids art scene. Can you elaborate on some of those changes?

TD: The Grand Rapids art scene has improved somewhat in terms of opportunities for exhibiting art, however, it is still lacking in the commercial gallery scene. Artists everywhere face enormous challenges if they are interested in trying to support themselves with their art, and the scene in GR is behind many cities of its size in supporting working artists.

A very small niche of people here are interested in the arts, and in my opinion, people in GR are more concerned with bar hopping and the restaurant scene. Art openings often become a social event which is okay to a certain extent, but it is frustrating sometimes that the art and artists are seen as the entertainment, or the backdrop for an event, rather than the main focus.

AH: Your “Zero +” exhibition at the UICA has a very thematic cohesiveness. Can you explain the process of creating these pieces?

TD: This work is a continuation of the work that I’ve always done; just the next step in the evolution. I’ve never been content to “rest” on a particular body of work. I’ve had times in my career where my work has been very commercially popular, but honestly that has never been a huge motivator. When I feel the urge to move forward in the work, I do, even if it means leaving behind a more “successful” style. I try to stay open to what is before me, and work from that place of uncertainty. I do have moments where I will see work that really resonates, or where I’ll have an idea and suddenly I see that same idea showing up in other artists work. Probably a combination of awareness and also that invisible “web” that does seem to connect us.

AH: A friend of mine once said that “it doesn’t come alive until you name it” and one thing I have noticed about your work is that the pieces all have very interesting names. Do these names offer any insight into the piece or is it something that is more of an afterthought?

TD: My older work definitely used titles to offer insight into the piece. Now, I’m naming work based on my Dutch roots, as a way to become more familiar with the language. Titles have always been important to me, and perhaps this is connected to my affinity for musical lyrics and the way that language can hold many different meanings depending upon personal interpretation. I have never worked from a title ‘though. The titles always come after the piece is finished.

AH: Your pieces tend to have a “warped geometry” to them. A very linear construct, yet not altogether concise. Is this intentional or is it an effect of the materials you work with?

TD: The warped geometry is both intentional and influenced by the materials. The construction of the pieces is informed by the materials, yet also manipulated when necessary. I tend to move away from formal constructions and do not care for classic “geometric” shapes. Line and edge are extremely important in my work. I’m not sure I could even describe how I develop the line in a piece; it is a very intuitive process. All I know is that when it works I can feel it, and when it doesn’t work I have to wrestle with the piece until it comes together.

 AH: Can you give some insight or thoughts about this show at UICA and what you hope to communicate to the viewer?

TD: For me it’s all about turning every day, common objects into something that hopefully can be considered “art.” I’m interested in context and ideas. It’s about turning a pile of rubble into something that can be observed and considered in a completely different context. As I described in my statement for the UICA show, the use of ubiquitous materials and discarded objects is important to my artistic process, which involves manipulating and presenting objects in new contexts. I am interested in investigating the ways in which aesthetic value and meaning are created and assigned, by both the artist and the viewer. These artifacts are representations of that exploration.

AH: You wife’s band is performing at the opening, can you give a little background about that?

TD: Melissa has been part of the critically acclaimed duo lovesliescrushing since the early 1990’s. They are focused on ambient, beautiful noise, and it is art as much as it is music. The aesthetic is very complimentary to this show in that it is about responding to the current context, the subtle shifts; it is not ever the same musical performance twice. At this performance she will be teaming up with our friend Russell Gorton who is an extremely talented electric cellist.

Zero+ is on view November 15-February 15. The opening reception is November 15, 6-9 pm.

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