Nick Lalla has one regret about helping curate the 2000 teen art show Hot Art Injection while a member of the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC): not including the Lego dinosaurs. That year, WACTAC considered more than 300 works submitted by area teen artists, from “hardcore Eva Hesse–looking things with latex” to works that feature Barbie parts, American flags, and pieces of meat. But one that didn’t make the cut, despite Lalla’s fierce lobbying, was a series of “insanely intricate Lego dinosaurs” made by a 13-year-old. Some argued it was particularly gifted craft, but not art, while others saw it as wry conceptualism. “We ended up being too arty for our own good,” he laments.
Now 22 and a recent graduate of the New School in New York, Lalla is an intern in the Walker’s education and community programs department, where he can watch as a new group of WACTAC curators organizes their own Hot Art Injection, the fourth such show. Held in the Soap Factory, the exhibition highlights a range of art, from paintings, sculptures, and photo-illustrations to spoken word and music. During several marathon curating sessions in April and May, WACTAC members sorted through slides, audio and video clips, and digital images of artwork submitted by teen artists in the metro area. Through open voting and boisterous debate, the group arrived at the final selections for the show.
But what they choose and what’s delivered to the Soap Factory for installation can be wildly different, says Lalla. Slides don’t always accurately represent the art’s scale or materials. In one instance, he says, “We thought we were accepting a portrait of somebody’s indie-rock boyfriend, but when we got it, it was a painting of Thom Yorke from Radiohead cut out of Rolling Stone with some background texture added in.” The same is true of one of this year’s more controversial works, a piece that, if the slides are a proper indication, depicts two girls fashioned from cardboard and stitched-on fabric, with faces drawn with pencil. “Man, it was creepy,” says Emmanuel Mauleon, a four-year WACTAC member and recent graduate of St. Paul Open School. “I was fighting for it; it was like David and Goliath. I said, ‘Obviously, we’ve been talking about this for 20 minutes, so there’s something about this that people will connect with.’“
Sparking interest—or controversy—is part of WACTAC’s goal to present a diverse representation of how young artists in the area see the world. Sometimes this aim means overcoming personal tastes to look at technical skill or ways that a work might relate to others in the exhibition or the Soap Factory galleries. In the age of digital reproduction, several works stood out, including hand-thrown pottery and traditional photography, simply because of the technical proficiency of their makers. Kate McDonald, a WACTAC member who attends St. Paul Academy, was impressed by a photo that at first glance looked like it was digitally manipulated. “It was a double-exposure of this girl, and her face was a flower,” she says. “I was blown away that it wasn’t Photoshopped. I probably wouldn’t have been as impressed if it had been done in two seconds on a computer.”
As of this writing, the work of installing art is yet to be done, but Mauleon, who’s seen the Soap Factory’s gritty environs transformed for this show before, insists that it’ll be, like the space itself, specific to this area. “It’ll have a Midwestern funk to it,” he promises. Witt Siasoco, Walker teen programs manager, says the exhibition serves teen artists by providing a “professional and unpatronizing” way to present new art. In terms of what visitors will experience, he says the work is “as contemporary as can be. Teenage artists are reacting to what’s happening on the news, what’s happening in pop culture. From a rapper describing life on the north side to customized Nikes, this art takes the pulse of the culture. In that sense, these artists aren’t so different from the ones featured in the Walker galleries.”