Exhibition Essay: Energy Palimpsest & The Third Megaton

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

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That creative inquiry is culturally bound has long been argued. But when artists travel the fissures of philosophy, politics, or technology in search of new combinations or reconciliations, boundaries change and things can come apart and recombine in amazing ways.

Cubism, Surrealism, and Dada revolutionized art’s purpose, freeing art from its job as a mere signifier of beauty or a moralizing didactic tool. Modernism allowed art to be self-referential—to occupy its own plastic features, to be as real as the paint on the canvas. Abstract Expressionism and minimalism took us to the far reaches of the sublime through scrims of light and allover abstraction. Art became an arena for critiquing human culture. Postmodernism recognized “point of view” as critical to making, looking at, and understanding anything, thereby deconstructing the hierarchy of modernism. And as the nineties morphed into the twenty-first century, advocates of neo-conceptualism used irreverence and irony to refute the notion that art has inherent meaning.

Still, many contemporary artists are searching for the truth of things. As a species, we live in precarious times. Environmental degradation has become a global concern; new technologies have disconnected us form the world we inhabit; conflicts among cultures and religions proliferate. Where are we? What do we need to face? Where do we need to go? These are serious questions. One thing is certain. Irony isn’t going to deliver the answers.

Daniel Kaniess and Yang Yang began their creative inquiries at opposite end of the earth, Kaniess in rural Wisconsin and Yang in Jiangxi Province, China. Kaniess left the countryside to study art at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he earned a B.F.A., and moved to Minneapolis in 1979. Since then, he has been an active player in the Twin Cities music and art scene. Yang was already trained as a teacher when he left China in 1984 to study art at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He earned a master’s degree, did graduate work, and served as an instructor of Chinese culture at Augustana until 1991, when he moved to the Twin Cities and became a full-time artist.

Though Kaniess and Yang grew up in different cultures and have evolved distinctly different bodies of work, they are both known for figurative abstraction (although Kaniess abandoned the figure three years ago to concentrate on purely non-objective work). Both are driven by curiosity about what it means to be human; they are husbands and fathers. They study the perceptual constraints of culture and make art that provokes a rethinking of what we perceive and what we understand about our place in the world.

Their latest work is on view in a double exhibition—Kaniess’s “Energy Palimpsest” and Yang’s “The 3rd Megaton”—presenting figurative paintings and drawings by Yang, including a twenty-eight-foot mural. Kaniess makes one thing very clear: however much these works may resonate with the viewer, “You can’t really go there.” This art is what the great Taoist philosopher Chuang-tzu might have called “not-even-anything land.” But from nothing comes everything. No matter what trip you are on. It is from this place that both Kaniess and Yang address the twenty-first-century disconnect between humans and information and the universe.

Cynde Randall is an artist. She served as the Program Associate for the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program from 1984 to 2006.