Contemporary artworks, provided context

Walker Art Center's contemporary art conversation series continues next week with photographer Alec Soth

Erin Adler

Contemporary art is not something ordinary folk commonly want to discuss between observations about the weather.

Listening to others talk about it, though, seems like a far more pleasant idea.

That is, if the popularity of the Walker Art Center’s Conversations in Contemporary Art series is any indication. The series, which has run three Thursday nights in June, has drawn between 150 and 450 people per session; the previous two installments this summer have sold out.

“The attendance has been amazing,” said Sarah Peters, public programs manager at the center.

The series brings together two people with different perspectives on contemporary art, including visual artists, poets, photographers, writers and critics, to engage in public conversation about their work. Thus far, the series has featured visual artists Kara Walker and Mike Kelley, art critic John Welchman, and writers Paul Auster and Eric Lorberer.

It continues July 14, and Peters said another speaker series will likely return at some point to the center’s programming schedule.

Unexpected results

“So far, we’ve had really great conversations,” Peters said. “The pairings have been really well-matched.”

The original concept behind the talks was to pair a well-known artist or author with one who is lesser-known, she said.

The idea did not pan out as intended, but as often happens in artistic endeavors, the results have been successful in unexpected ways.

Kelley was able to display not only his work but his sense of humor when he talked to Welchman.

Peters said the two knew each other well, and the talk allowed the public to see the unique dynamics of their artist-and-critic relationship.

“(Kelley) was so casual and easy, not to mention hilarious. He did a great job explaining complex work,” she said.

Upcoming Conversation

The final scheduled installment of the summer series will take place July 14. It includes a discussion between photographer Alec Soth and poet/writer Andrei Codrescu.

Soth, who works in Minneapolis, is best known for his 2004 book, “Sleeping by the Mississippi,” of unusual photographs – of people, landscapes and interiors – taken along the Mississippi River.

Codrescu is an English professor in Baton Rouge, La., at the other end of the Mississippi. He is a Romanian-born poet, novelist, essayist and screenwriter who also does commentaries on National Public Radio and edits “Exquisite Corpse,” a review of art, culture and books.

The two will bring their shared love of narrative to chat about the Mississippi and Soth’s latest Niagara Falls photography.

Codrescu has been quoted as saying literature and poetry, in particular are in dire need of such “chats” – in fact, they are “sick from lack of public debate.”

The observation is not lost on the center, an institution that has vowed to increasingly involve the community since its reopening in April.

Peters said she thinks the initiative has been working so far.

“People are excited that the Walker’s back, and that they can see artists of this caliber for free,” she said.