Like money, art never sleeps: artist John Ilg opens gallery in Coffman

Sculptor John Ilg brings his money-oriented work to Coffman Union for a new exhibit.

Artist John Ilg spends time in his studio downtown St. Paul on Friday, 23 Jan.. Ilg's new work,

Juliet Farmer

Artist John Ilg spends time in his studio downtown St. Paul on Friday, 23 Jan.. Ilg’s new work, “2D 3D 4D 5D,” is opening 30 Jan. at Coffman Union.

Jared Hemming

Unlike the archetypal starving artist, sculptor John Ilg doesn’t worry about putting money into his art.

 “There’s about 400 bucks worth of stuff hanging there,” Ilg said in his studio, pointing out a sculpture.

One piece, “Honesty,” consists of $316 in cash positioned in a way spelling  ‘honesty’ in a wire-mesh frame. Ilg displayed the sculpture without a glass barrier at the Minnesota State Fair a few years, allowing onlookers to interact with the cash.

“My idea was that after an hour at the fair, it’d just be an empty grill,” Ilg said.

Ilg earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art from the University of Minnesota in the early ‘80s. He’s bringing “Honesty” and other tempting traps to the school for “2D, 3D, 4D, 5D.” His art gallery is opening on Friday in Coffman Union.

Rachel Daly, visual arts director at the Bloomington Theater and Art Center, said when Ilg’s dollar exhibition was displayed at her museum, he ended up earning some unexpected dough.

“People actually added dollar bills to it,” Daly said.

Though the original piece was stolen in 2010, its replica will be at the University show.

“From my point-of-view, the money’s already gone — whatever happens to it is whatever happens,” Ilg said.

Another wealth-themed piece, “Not Getting Better,” features 11 medical needles with (fake) $100 bills in their syringes.

Ilg said audience member’s interpretations of his art complete the pieces.

“One guy came in here having ongoing chronic medical problems,” Ilg said. “That’s what it is: it’s all about money.”

Through his work, Ilg attempts to show how people perceive capital.

“It’s something that’s incredibly mundane — everybody’s had a dollar bill,” Ilg said. “[Yet] it has such an odd power to it — freedom and security.”

Ilg manipulates the idea of freedom with his piece, “War On Terrorism,” a sculpture that depicts an American flag through the use of glued mousetraps painted red, white and blue.

John Schuerman, a director at the Instinct Art Gallery who’s curated Ilg’s work in the past, said “War On Terrorism” evokes comparisons between the U.S. government and a death machine.

“A mouse trap stands for a lot of things, like something that’s mass produced, dangerous,” Schuerman said. “[It’s] something that helps us avoid pests, but also kills.”

Ilg said the brand of mousetraps — Victor — is the piece’s tongue-in-cheek twist.

“If there’s a sense of humor about it, if a guy goes, ‘I get it,’ that’s good,” Ilg said.

But Ilg’s tone is somber with his reflective piece, “Untitled (Elegy to Sandy Hook),” a tribute to the 2012 elementary school shooting.

In the piece, 26 white butterflies are arranged in a preservation process Ilg learned in 4-H club as a child.

“I wanted to use a skill that I had when I was that age to make a quiet memorial,” Ilg said. “When things like that happen, artists have to fill the sadness.”

For Daly, the work’s subtlety gives way to its universal melancholy.

“Ten years from now, if you don’t know the title, it could apply to something else,” Daly said.

While the elegy won’t appear in “2D, 3D, 4D, 5D,” Ilg said the Coffman show spans his career, especially his perspective on America’s obsession with the almighty dollar.

“Democracy isn’t free,” Ilg said. “It costs something to live in a civilized society.”

 

What: John Ilg: “2D, 3D, 4D, 5D”

When: Friday – Sunday, Feb. 22

Where: Coffman Union, 300 Washington Ave. SE, Minneapolis

Cost: Free