Up in the air: Michael Tingley’s massive work, “Giant Killer Ship” is hanging above the American Dream show at Arts Illiana. Staff photo by Austen Leake
Up in the air: Michael Tingley’s massive work, “Giant Killer Ship” is hanging above the American Dream show at Arts Illiana. Staff photo by Austen Leake
It seems difficult to describe the “American Dream” — that bundle of hopes for prosperity and the freedom for all to pursue it, equally.

Everybody sees the realization of that aspiration differently.

My vision of the “American Dream” is pretty simple: Our family stands up during the seventh-inning stretch at a Cincinnati Reds game and sings “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” together. And the Reds win, of course.

Likewise, each person has a unique vision of the epitome of democracy. For me, it’s the memory of hundreds of Hauteans standing in line to vote early at Meadows Center in October 2008.

Artists get even edgier with such concepts. Thus, the Arts Illiana Gallery in downtown Terre Haute this week is awash in ideas that would make the Founding Fathers laugh, go bug-eyed or weep, with dual exhibits — “The American Dream” by North American artists and “The Kiosk of Democracy Meets the American Dream” by global artists, a rarity for local galleries.

Their takes on that dream and its facilitator, democracy, are intriguing, fun, provocative and worth the trip to the gallery, just north of Wabash Avenue on Sixth Street during tonight’s First Friday activities. Arts Illiana’s exhibits will be open from 6 to 9 p.m.

Artist Michael Roberts’ expressions of the “American Dream” included a painting of Muhammad Ali, with the boxing legend’s fist upheld and mouth taped and locked shut. Beside Ali’s profile is one of his famously bold declarations, made early in his career to a nation that didn’t yet know him as a household name — “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me.”

“I think it really cuts to the core of what makes Americans Americans,” Roberts said while touring the exhibit Thursday afternoon with Arts Illiana gallery director Michael Tingley. He used a “spoken riot” style to depict Ali, as well as paintings of singer Gwen Stefani and actor Steve McQueen also on display.

Roberts, who is also an attorney, painted the pieces in his Chicago studio for “The American Dream” exhibit, which includes artists from eight states and Canada. (Roberts is moving to Terre Haute later this month, though.) Like Roberts, several participating artists veered outside tradition.

Jan Kappes drew Lady Liberty swinging a golf club at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, with the president’s animated visage serving as the ball. Kappes titled the painting “Bye, Bye Donny.” Hanging just above, a painting by Bonnie Wilson showed a man pushing a boulder — bearing inscriptions of civil rights issues like “racism,” “segregation,” “Jim Crow laws” and “mass incarceration” — up a hill made of the American flag.

Others chose quirky subjects, like a photograph of an abandoned, small-town Chamber of Commerce building. 

Some leaned on the sentimental. Tingley, an artist himself, created a scene with his dad mowing the lawn, paired with the artist’s boyhood memories — a pinup girl, “Gunsmoke” character Matt Dillon and a how-to-shave diagram. Artist Darrell Staggs captured a happy little girl in “Joy of the Tire Swing.” In contrast to his Lady Liberty on the links, Kappes also painted a nostalgic image of two motorists — one at driving a psychedelic Volkswagen van and the other a Chevy truck — stopping to talk along on a long country road.

Meanwhile, “The Kiosk of Democracy Meets the American Dream” exhibit includes the visions of artists from Japan, Iran, Germany, Greece, France and Bulgaria, a collection gathered by guest curator Sascha Windolph of Hanover, Germany. A “kiosk” in Europe resembled neighborhood groceries in Terre Haute during the early 20th century — part food store, news stand and hangout.

A little democracy of sorts.

Among the most striking piece in the “Kiosk” exhibit is a portrait photography of an oil worker in Iran wearing Nike ear warmers under his hardhat.

The opportunity to include international artists in the exhibits involved extra expense and is unusual, Tingley said, but worth the effort. Art provokes thought, he explained, which is a core tenant of democracy and the American ideals.

“The art world is relatively democratic, and it’s all an expression of the human condition. And being able to express the human condition is very democratic,” Tingley said. “You look at this room, and there are no boundaries. We’re all just humans, and this is art. I love that connection.” 

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