"Crucifixion" by Mia Tavonatti

What if a 13-foot mosaic “Jesus” won the world’s largest art competition and no one noticed?

While this may be a slight exaggeration, Grand Rapid’s marathon “ArtPrize” event and its winners have clearly been snubbed by much of the established art world and the press that serves them. Do they deserve it?

This may be a protective contrivance by big coastal galleries who like to pick and choose who deserves the glory of the public gaze. More likely it’s a reaction to the singularly proletarian art experiment taking place in Grand Rapids since 2009. Funded by entrepreneur Rick DeVos, local businesses help host the “radically open” event and display works they like. ArtPrize allows virtually anyone to enter, and its $500,000 in prizes are decided by public opinion and balloting alone. Some artists and critics openly admit they don’t like the art-by-consensus concept and believe it leads to “bad art” ultimately reducing quality.

“Crucifixion,” the 2011 grand prize winner, brought artist Mia Tavonatti $250,000, a staggering amount for an art competition. The press was more subdued and regional, with not a word about this year’s winners in the New York Times or many big art publications such as Art News. Art Daily mentioned Tavonatti’s prize, but ran it with an unrelated, untitled photo of a sculptural installation somewhere, by someone else.

The top prize was hotly contested by 1,582 artists from 39 countries and 43 U.S. states in virtually every conceivable art form. Of all those Tavonatti’s towering “Crucifixion” pleased a majority of even secular viewers, judging by comments they left. It also brought mixed reviews and reactions by artists, especially in the Christian art community, where portraits of Jesus carry more weight.

Tavonatti’s Jesus in “Crucifixion” is a peaceful, beautiful man rather than a historically accurate image of a torn person dying in agonies. That seems to have posed no problems for the voters of ArtPrize, though, and Grand Rapids is known as a particularly Christian-friendly city.

On seeing “Crucifixion,” I had two immediate thoughts: “a young George Michael” and “exquisitely crafted mosaics and effects.” Another artist saw “Tim McGraw with a wig.”

Now any winning piece will bring some complaints, and the mixture of serious religious content mixed with prettified, pastel handling inspired quite a few. But this piece worked for Tavonatti and a majority of voters at ArtPrize. Why? Is the crucifixion ultimately beautiful at its core? Or are Christian artists forced to play safe and traditional to get the “votes”?

Perhaps we think the real Jesus is too much to take. It would be interesting to have a harsh, psychologically terrifying painting on the lines of Rouault and see if thumbs go up or down at a contemporary American show.

The physicality and workmanship of “Crucifixion” is impressive. Tavonatti hauled the thing herself from Santa Ana, Calif., in a rented Penske truck. Representing 2,500 hours of work it was suspended for the duration of the show, where the hand-cut glass pieces refract, glitter and change color when struck with varying lights and times of day.

Originally began as an altarpiece for an Orange County church, the commission was put on hold. Handy for the artist who has a 450 pound, 13′ x9′ foot mosaic laying around the studio in case a competition comes up.

Tavonatti works with a painterly, traditional and idealized realism in both her mosaic pieces and paintings. Her draperies and folds are especially convincing, even when made of rough shards of glass. Even more attractive and rather ethereal is the background to “Crucifixion,” roiling clouds in almost anthropomorphic, crowd-like shapes.

Oddly this isn’t the first time Tavonatti scored big at ArtPrize. In 2010 she received 2nd place with a $100,000 prize. Considering that the event has only occurred three times, the odds speak loudly for the popularity of her style and workmanship. The 2010 piece, “Svelata” is part of a series of self-portraits in mosaic and paintings, which she still shows.

"Svelata," by Tavonatti, 2010

Tavonatti has worked “Svelata” into an entire foundation, seeking to remove barriers between artist and non-artist, making art less daunting and working with schools and communities.

Svelata means “unveiled” or “revealed,” and her paintings are appropriately mysterious. An unclothed woman floats in water, at times with a man. She is always shrouded or wrapped in a semi-transparent veil, which is masterfully painted. The nudity is modest, sometimes only revealing arms and shoulders and could be either lightly erotic or even allegorical for life or the spiritual.

Recently Tavonatti has done more liturgical and spiritual art, working now on Stations of the Cross. She claims a “strong relationship with God and Jesus,” but not necessarily a traditional or limiting one.

Tavonatti was an established artist long before the beneficent gifts flowing from Grand Rapids. She studied art at California State University, the Sorbonne, Parsons School of Design and elsewhere. Her work is found in private collections and public spaces such as Marriott Resorts, and she’s exhibited extensively in the U.S. and Europe.

Tavonatti has also worked as an illustrator with several art instructional books and children’s books to her credit. In fact her membership in the Illustrators Society led to a job she never imagined she would have.

Perhaps the most unlikely place to find a painter of beautiful subjects might be inside an Air Force T38 jet trainer. But in 2006 Tavonatti was invited by the Pentagon, no less, to document Air Force missions riding shotgun as a civilian Air Force artist. Her aerial adventures include photographing training missions for the 550th Search and Rescue Special Ops at Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque, N.M..

In return for her joy rides in a jumpsuit, Tavonatti is obligated to create an illustration of each event. These are added to the permanent U.S. Air Force collection, showing up at exhibits in the Pentagon, Smithsonian and National Airspace Museum.

Tavonatti with USAF air crew

All together, the last few years have been a wild ride for Tavonatti, earning her higher income, fame and success in exchange for her work. Her annual wins in ArtPrize also raised controversy, ending with the rules being changed to block yet a third prize.

The populist atmosphere of ArtPrize is deliberately cultivated by founder DeVos, who requests that all opinions be equally valued and respected. DeVos dismissed criticism of the world’s largest social art-experiment, which he funds.

“My concern is not the art world and what they think of this,” he explained.

Comparing the average level of art appreciation in Grand Rapids to “a second-grade understanding” in 2009, he asserted it’s now “maybe in fifth grade” with an eye to continue the ascent undeterred.

For a few weeks in Grand Rapids everyone is talking and thinking about art and encountering it everywhere. Next fall another 500,000 visitors are expected to pour into town, spending money and casting their votes in this city-wide discussion of what constitutes art and why it is worth our time or not. While Occupy Wall Street gets much more attention, DeVos and Grand Rapids are actually sponsoring and promoting art for the 99 percent.

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