by Andy Sturdevant   October 4, 2013

Andy Sturdevant offers a love story of sorts - about a Minneapolis bar, its many regulars, and a certain moody landscape painting with mystery and loads of apocryphal tales, which he argues may just be the most beloved artwork in the city.
The much wondered-over John Bowman painting, "Crossings", in situ at the 331 in Mpls
The much wondered-over John Bowman painting, "Crossings", in situ at the 331 in Mpls
Photo by Kurt Froehlich, courtesy of the author

This essay originally appeared in January 2012. We're reprising it in honor of Andy's just-released book of essays from Coffee House Press, Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow, in which this piece has been reprinted (along with a passel of other articles he has written for mnartists.org over the years). 

WHAT, DO YOU SUPPOSE, IS THE SINGLE MOST BELOVED PIECE of artwork in the city of Minneapolis? "Belovedness" is pretty subjective (in addition to not being an actual word), so the metrics for determining this sort of thing are admittedly a little shaky. But there are a number of ways to consider the question: What piece of art, were it to disappear or be otherwise deaccessioned tomorrow, would provoke the greatest outcry from the widest cross-section of people? What piece, if brought up in conversation, would prompt a person to say, "Oh, yes. I love that piece," and then have them gazing off for a moment, thinking about the good times they've spent with said piece? What work of art incites the most speculation about the artist, or about its origins?

In short, what piece of artwork sets the most hearts aflutter?

I will stop you before you give the obvious answer: It's probably not Claes Oldenberg and Coosje van Broogen's Spoonbridge and Cherry in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Certainly that's the most recognizable piece of art in the city, but I doubt it's actually the most beloved. I suspect people like the Spoonbridge in the same way they like the idea of loons. But if you were to apply an emotional electrocardiograph to the city's collective heart, measuring its warmth in reference to the work, I think the slow and steady boop boop boop you'd hear would indicate that more people like the sculpture (or accept it as an important local landmark or photo backdrop) than actually love it. That's still no small feat, mind you, and as an emblem of Minneapolis, the famous spoon-and-cherry nicely fits the city's image of itself -- as a place that likes big art, and likes it a little self-consciously wacky. But while the work is consistently popular with both natives and visitors, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone passionately discussing what Oldenberg and van Broogen were thinking as they sat in their studio and made the rendering. Most discussions around the Spoonbridge I've heard are related to where a person should be standing in the camera frame when they have their photo taken next to it.

What else, then? The portrait of Lucretia by Rembrandt at the Minneapolis Institute of Art comes to mind. It's a beautiful painting, for sure, and historically important. But it seems like a stretch to judge it the most beloved. (And, please, let's not even bring the TV Land Mary Tyler Moore sculpture on Nicollet into this.)

This topic came up at a panel discussion for gallerists I attended recently at Intermedia Arts. Mike Bishop, the director of XYandZ Gallery in South Minneapolis, was asked to name his favorite piece of art in the city. He thought for a moment, and then gave an answer that sent a ripple of sympathetic murmuring and nodding heads through the audience. Hearing his answer, I thought, "Oh! I do love that piece. I have wanted to write about it for years."

The work Bishop named as his favorite -- and that garnered such a warm response in kind from the assembled audience -- is a 1986 painting by John Bowman called Crossings. But he didn't refer to the work by name, though; instead Bishop described what it looked like, and where it was. And here's the thing: everyone knew exactly what piece he was talking about. I'll bet you know it, too: "the orange and black painting on the north wall of the 331 Club on University Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis."

I'd posit that Crossings, the John Bowman painting, pictured below, is actually the most beloved piece of artwork in the city of Minneapolis.

Or, at least it's the most beloved painting for that subset of Minneapolitans who often find themselves at the 331 Club -- though I'd argue that's a pretty broad subset. The 331 is itself a much-loved bar, well known to anyone that lives in Northeast, and one that consistently draws people from other parts of the Twin Cities as well. It's located on what may just be the best commercial intersection in the state: 13th Avenue Northeast and University, home to numerous fine shops, art studios, restaurants and other businesses (as well as being the subject of a vindicating 2010 write-up in The New York Times). The 331 is a place that encourages return trips. And a lot of Minnesotans have logged many hours sitting underneath that painting.

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If you've never seen the work up close, it's like this: it's primarily black, orange, and iridescent silver. There are a few deer standing atop what looks like a bluff or canyon, overlooking a group of high-rise buildings. It's night out, and the buildings' windows shimmer with light reflected from either stars or streetlights. The painting is a few feet long, landscape in orientation as well as subject matter, and appears to have been made using stencils and possibly spray paint. Formally, it's a lovely piece. In terms of subject matter, medium, and origin, it's completely enigmatic.

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Art shown in a bar context fuels the conversation that naturally happens in such a gathering spot, and freed from the formal strictures and didactics of a gallery setting, these informal displays open up avenues for more free-wheeling considerations of the work.

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In fact, ask anyone about this piece and, if they know of it, you'll get a different description from each person. When I talk to those familiar with the painting, all sorts of imagery is proffered: some insist there are hunters in there, too, or, at the very least, other human figures, possibly making their way across a post-apocalyptic landscape. Some say the animals pictured are elk, not deer. Others describe the setting not as urban, but as a "suburban office park." Several people are sure the area pictured is San Francisco -- those hills, it's got to be! -- while another says he's certain it is the 3M corporate complex in Maplewood. Some claim the landscape is "definitely Los Angeles," with clearly visible dry brush fires burning in the distance. "I have stared at the painting for hours," says one friend, "but I can never recreate the details outside those walls."

Perhaps it is a stretch to say Crossings is the city's most beloved piece of art, but I can say this: I spend a lot of time talking about artwork, and I can honestly attest to the fact that there are very few pieces which inspire such a wide range of discussion and speculation as this one.

It is, in some respects, the anti-Spoonbridge, perhps even anti-iconic: the painting is small, it's dark, and it defies easy description. People know exactly what the Spoonbridge looks like. They stop for a moment to consider it, maybe take a picture of it, and then they leave. No one takes a photo of or with this particular painting. But people camp out underneath it for hours all the same, nursing drinks, watching bands, talking to their friends. One grows, over time, familiar with the work. And even if regulars at the 331 don't come to love it, I'm willing to bet they spend a little bit of time thinking about it.

The setting plays a large part in all this. In a bar, there are no didactics. There's no panel on the wall providing the name of the artist, date, and medium for the work. In fact, no one knows the painting is called Crossings -- I didn't know myself until writing this piece. Rather, the story of the painting's subject matter and its provenance is one that you provide for yourself, based on nothing other than your powers of observation.

In fact, when Bishop told the story of the piece at that panel discussion, he related that he'd heard that 331 co-owner Jon Oulman found it in a dumpster in an alley in Northeast. He said he'd also heard it was painted on an old bathroom door, and not a canvas. He thought the artist must be unknown -- some anonymous Northeast-area crackpot, maybe someone like the Philadelphia Wireman, whose work was found after being discarded when he or she died.

Turns out, some of what Bishop related about the work turns out to be true -- the part about the bathroom door, at least. Of course, Jon Oulman knows the whole story. Oulman is the proprietor of the 331 Club, as well as its aesthetic director. That means the bar is his, and so are the paintings.

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As noted above, the painting is not by some anonymous Northeast Minneapolitan, but by an American painter named John Bowman. Oulman showed his work several times at the eponymous gallery he ran at the Wyman Building during the art boom of the 1980s ("while the conservatives were running things," he notes dryly, "the liberals were buying art"). Bowman, a native of eastern Pennsylvania and graduate of Rutgers, is an associate professor of art in the Department of Drawing and Painting at Penn State. Since the early 1980s, he has exhibited work all over the world.

"I showed some of his early stencil work," Oulman says. "That's what was showing New York at the time -- mechanical work. Kids are doing that now." The painting in question is indeed on a bathroom door. Oulman points out, "It's an important work in his repertoire. It's his first piece on a door panel." In fact, Oulman has a few other Bowmans in his collection, including some hanging at his other bar, Amsterdam, in downtown St. Paul. Like the painting at the 331, the Bowmans at the St. Paul venue also depict what Oulman calls "imagined landscapes": collections of skyscrapers off in the distance, usually massed against roiling nighttime skies, the whole scene appearing as if viewed through orange or blue gauze. Bowman spent some time in Prague, and some of the scenes do look vaguely Eastern European ("he always puts the proletariat in his work," explains Oulman, somewhat mysteriously). Taken with the rest of Bowman's body of work from the mid-1980s (viewable on his website), the 331 piece feels right at home.

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Oulman has been in the art business for decades, making the decision to exit the gallery scene in the early 1990s ("I was tired of trying to find new contemporary art I was interested in: romantic, introspective and beautiful," he explains). His entry into the world of tavern-keeping came as a result of some real estate deals. He'd acquired some property over the course of a few years, and traded it for a run-down biker bar in Northeast: the 331. Describing the clientele at the time: "If ZZ Top was to do a Civil War reenactment on Harleys, they'd have done it there," he says. He thinks for a moment. "Actually, that's giving the bar more credit than it deserves, bringing ZZ Top into it." There's still a biker gang-styled screaming eagle on the floor of the entrance of the bar when you walk in, remaining as a reminder of the venue's roughneck heritage.

Under the circumstances, it seems natural that the artwork in Oulman's collection found a home at the bar.  "A lot of it was just having something for people to look at," he says. "People like to see something when they're at their watering hole." A bar, he explains, is a place where people can choose to come or go. And the conversations you end up having are with people who have made the commitment to be there. Everyone is gathered because they want to come to a public house, to talk, argue, and be social.

Considered in that light, a bar is indeed a great place for a painting, and has been so historically. Painting, as a discipline, didn't get marquee billing, right up there with sculptural mediums, until the Renaissance. As a form, it was less rarified, much dumpier. Of all the so-called "plastic arts," writes Yara Flores in a recent Cabinet magazine article on art in Ancient Greece, "painting falls to tavern walls." Most writing about early Western painting tends to dismissively associate it with public houses and the sort of unwashed, tasteless slobs that hang out there. Woltmann and Woermann's 1880 History of Painting has this to say about early Roman efforts in the field: "Most of them are roughly painted and with direct reference to the spaces they are practically intended to fill...Thus we find scenes of tavern jollity, fullers at work in their factories, and grossnesses of the brothel."

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Indeed, one could write an entire 2,000-word piece on the works currently in semi-permanent rotation in the Twin Cities' bars and taverns: the W.C. Fields drawing at the Red Stag; the bizarre athletic mural at 1029; the humanoid otters outside the U Otter Stop Inn; the reclining nude at Barbette; the drawings by Charles Schulz on the wall at O'Gara's; Michael Bahl's griffin skeleton at the Black Dog. You've got the Scott Seekins pieces at Nick & Eddie; the black-velvet conquistador collection at the Kitty Kat Club. And of course, there's the signed, wall-sized print, from 1970, of Richard Avedon's 1963 photograph of the Daughters of the American Revolution, hanging at the Black Forest Inn and featuring two bullet holes added by a disgruntled patron in the mid-1980s. Incidentally, in the contest of beloved pieces of Minneapolis art, this piece is at least a runner-up, with a fascinating history of its own, recounted here by Christy DeSmith in a 2004 article in the late, great Rake magazine.

Like any place where people gather, bars are spots where stories are told and ideas exchanged. Artwork shown in this context fuels that conversation, and freed from the formal strictures of a gallery setting (Oulman likens the typical didactics to an order: "this is what you should think -- obey!"), informal displays open up avenues for more free-wheeling considerations of the work. I don't believe I'd have spent half as much time thinking about the deer overlooking the office buildings in that painting if I'd seen it once or twice in a gallery. But I think of it now every time I am in Northeast.

And I am certainly not the only one. When Oulman first opened the 331, the Bowman piece was one of the first on the wall. Of all the work he showed, it was the one that seemed to consistently attract the most interest. "I'd rotate it out, and people would ask about it -- 'it's, like, at night...there's deer.' So I said fuck it, I'll leave it up." People seem to respond to it. Oulman recounts the story of a blogger who wrote about the 331 when it first opened: "He said some nice things, and he said some nasty things." One of the nasty things: the worst part about the place was "that poster of the Minneapolis skyline."

Oulman smiles, and waits a moment for me to figure out the piece of artwork to which that blogger might be referring. I chuckle. "It's obviously not the Minneapolis skyline. San Francisco really makes a lot more sense."

Oulman just shrugs and grins. "OK," he says.

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About the author: Andy Sturdevant is an artist, writer and arts administrator living in South Minneapolis. He has written about art, history and culture for a variety of Twin Cities-based publications and websites, including mnartists.org, Rain Taxi, Art Review and Preview!, Mpls. St. Paul, and Heavytable.com. Later this month, he'll also be the visual arts columnist for MinnPost.com.