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What is art?

When artist Loren Munk got dumped by a German gallery during a wave of anti-American sentiment during the Iraq War, the severing of ties couldn't have come at a worse time.

Munk had grown overly reliant on his European art sales of Cubist-inspired work. Although he lived in New York, he'd lost touch with the city's art dealers during the years he spent raising his kids and ferrying them to soccer games.

"I was totally isolated and had lost my contacts. I approached 70 or 80 galleries in New York and had zero response," he recalls during a telephone interview. "I started writing art criticism as a way to engage in the discourse. I had to start my career all over again."

With his university days long behind him, Munk began to reacquaint himself with art history and delved into more esoteric topics, like the philosophy of aesthetics.

That research, coupled with Munk's decades of experience living amidst New York City's art scene, triggered a wave of completely new paintings that diagram the reciprocal relations of artists and art movements using vivid colors and lettering.

Munk's paintings will be displayed through Dec. 16 at the Schneider Museum of Art, corner of Siskiyou Boulevard and Indiana Street at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. An opening-night reception will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 5, at the museum.

The museum also will feature paintings by New Yorker Nat Meade and the late Clifford Wilton of Ashland. Highlights from the museum's permanent collection — including work by Alexander Calder, David Siqueiros and Dale Chihuly — will complement the fall exhibits.

The painting "Art Matric: DaDa to Bay Area Figuration" is typical of Munk's work. Inside a constellation of six-pointed stars, he has lettered in the titles of art movements, from minimalism to neo-dada to Bay Area figuration. The names of artists representing those movements are written on diamonds and parallelograms.

Viewers are reminded of Willem de Kooning's slashing abstract expressionist paintings of women, Jackson Pollack's drip paintings and Helen Frankenthaler's fluid fields of color.

Many of Munk's paintings are witty, or downright critical of what he says is the insulated, exclusive elite that determines which artists are successful and which are deemed to be important in art history.

His study for a finished painting, "Institutional Blinding," is a case in point. Lettering reflects the view that art in general is for the barbaric masses who are uninitiated, unindoctrinated, unconstrained and uneducated. 

Meanwhile, the rarefied art world, including museums and galleries, is minutely focused on a tiny amount of art deemed worthy of institutional attention and historic valorization, according to lettering on the painting.

While the painting might seem like the creation of a disgruntled, marginalized starving artist, Munk has been featured in articles in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and a variety of other publications.

He's gained attention for his paintings, plus his practice of riding his bicycle to galleries and museums, chronicling the city's art scene in videos he posts to YouTube. Munk often includes a clip of street musicians he's seen along the way, then takes viewers on a narrated tour of exhibits, offering insights and personal anecdotes. Munk posts the videos using his art critic pen name James Kalm. 

Whether they come from tiny towns or giant cities, viewers from around the world feel like they're on a personalized tour of the vibrant New York City art scene with a local.

"It wasn't people from New York who noticed my videos," Munk says. "They're a very tight little elitist group. They don't like someone who isn't from the right school and the right family coming to their cocktail party and disturbing what is going on. I started getting responses from all over the world. I wanted to give people a little porthole into the contemporary art scene."

In addition to his paintings that chronicle the interrelationships of art movements and artists, he has gained attention for his large-scale paintings of street grids stuffed to overflowing with the names and addresses of galleries. The inspiration for the paintings can be traced to Munk's early days in the city, when he worked for an art supply store and drove a delivery truck, dropping off supplies to artists both prominent and unknown.

Although the Schneider Museum chose Munk's smaller pieces for ease in shipping, it's worth a trip to the artist's website at lorenmunk.com to see his sprawling map-like canvases.

"Village of the Damned" chronicles the rise and fall of the East Village neighborhood as a thriving art district in the 1980s. Munk has crammed more than 70 names of galleries and other hot spots — many now defunct — into the painting. He's been hailed as both the cartographer and historian of the New York art world.

The eight-foot-long "History of Art Timeline," also online, uses a profusion of lettering to chart the slow growth of art styles from the 1200s to the the current bewildering cacophony of movements, including activist art, identity art and techno-pop. It's easy to miss Munk's small, tongue-in-cheek label "The End of Art," which he places at 1963 on the timeline — the year Andy Warhol infamously began exhibiting his sculptural copies of boxes of Brillo kitchen scrubbers.

"My videos, writing and painting are all part of the same project," Munk says. "I'm trying to come to a better understanding of what art is, why art is important and what does it mean to be an artist? Why are some artists considered to be more important than other artists? What are the forces that allow us to see or not see art?"

During the fall exhibits, docent-led tours are at 12:30 p.m. every Tuesday. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Call 541-552-6245 or see sma.sou.edu for information.

A study for a finished painting, 'Institutional Blinding,' by New York City artist Loren Munk, at the Schneider Museum of Art in Ashland.