Mia visitors gripped by Barlow, Szyhalski shows

As a former museum guard, I can tell you most art works get a cursory couple of seconds notice. Rarely do people spend 5-10 minutes at each piece, reading and studying, discussing…but that’s what I observed many visitors did during a visit to the shows by two local artists at Mia, the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  

Leslie Barlow and Piotr Szyhalski , who both work out of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District, show some very timely work of what our society is going through both politically and culturally. Both shows have a variety of similarities, some coincidental, others collective conscience. 

Both artists chose one size of canvas — Barlow’s 16 life-size paintings at  60” x 48” and Szyhalski’s 225 posters at 20” x 29”. Choosing one size can allow an artist to focus on a set space to create into and allow the variations to happen only within a constrained space. 

Both have intense subject matter. Szyhalski’s stark black-and-white work is a direct political poke in the eye with a sharp stick. He takes on the response to COVID-19 by the government as well as society’s racist and dystopian views pervasive in current popular culture.

Barlow’s work is more subtle, dealing with racial identity, a more richly patterned and colorful setting. People of many different races and ages are looking at you, inviting you in. This challenges the status quo of subjects commonly encountered at art museums. Quoting Mia: “Comprised of both paintings and video interviews, the work shares stories of 16 Minnesotans who use the terms mixed race, multiracial, and/or transnational/transracial adoptee to identify themselves and their lived experiences.”

What stands out in both exhibitions are the incredible skills both artists possess. The range of drawing, collage and painting skills are apparent with Barlow’s highly realistic portrait skin tones (very hard to achieve) with many surreal and whimsical backgrounds. Many of the figures appear to be floating in a world of rich colors and sometimes real imagery of books or plants. Others with Matisse-like essenced line work inhabit ghost-like spaces. This is not common in portrait paintings. 

Sierra and her family, on the Mississippi shore, (above four works by Leslie Barlow)


Many painters are excellent at either realism or abstraction, rarely at both. Barlow blends these ideas in masterful ways. Her use of hot and cool colors in her backgrounds sets the stage for the intensity of the subject’s portrait. For example in the family portrait “Sierra and her family, on the Mississippi shore” the family exudes love and tenderness. The collage of fabrics as backgrounds as well as her gestural painted lines with textures shows her sophistication and confidence in her abilities to work both in two-dimensional and three -dimensional blending. 

Szyhalski’s drawing offers such a range of design, it is breathtaking. Each poster has a different hand drawn font. Most graphic artists typically have one style. Szyhalski showcase realism, patterning, propaganda art, graphic design, pop art, anatomical drawings, landscapes, many types of animals — buffalos, snakes, birds; lots of faces, hands, skulls — the list goes on. It is an incredible display of skills and deep psychological touch points, channeling our society’s fears, anger, contradictions, and symbols. The use of common symbols of everyday objects is masterful.

Two full shows of local artists is very rare, if not a first for a major arts institution in the Twin Cities. Mia has had the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) gallery for many decades now, a major nod to local art. Kudos for hosting these two powerful collections. 

You can see Piotr Szychalski/Labor Camp – COVID-19: Labor Camp Report work through  September 19, 2021. Book launch and talk Sunday, Aug. 15: 1-2 p.m. conversation in Pillsbury Auditorium, 2-3 p.m. book signing in Fountain Court.

“Leslie Barlow: Within, Between, and Beyond” work can be seen through October 31, 2021. Virtual Artist Talk Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, 5:30-6:30 p.m. https://new.artsmia.org/event/virtual-artist-talk-leslie-barlow/ (tickets available after Sept. 1)

Article by Josh Blanc