New exhibits at Peoria Riverfront Museum celebrate central Illinois innovators
A trio of new exhibits are now open at the Peoria Riverfront Museum (PRM), which kicked off its second decade of operation last Friday. Each of the three shows shines a lens on influential figures from central Illinois.
Key among those is “Themes and Variations,” a trio of works by visual artist Nicolas Africano, who lives in Normal but rarely shows work in central Illinois.
Building an Africano collection
Despite working at Illinois State University for a decade, PRM Chief Curator Bill Conger didn’t meet the artist until 2019. Since then, they’ve had many conversations; Conger observed Africano in his studio — and “Themes and Variations” began to take shape.
The show is just three pieces, two busts and a painting, newly created for “Themes and Variations.” All are now part of the museum’s permanent collection — bringing the total number to four — at the beginning stages of a plan to eventually hold a reference collection from throughout Africano’s six-decade career.
“This is kicking off my dream of creating this comprehensive look at Nicolas Africano,” Conger said.
For decades, Africano has focused almost exclusively on the female figure, inspired by his wife and muse, Rebecca. But he’s a chameleon when it comes to medium. At various points in his career, he’s been more interested in paper or canvas; the two busts in “Theme and Variations” are sculpted in glass.
“The trajectory of a 60-year career, no matter who we’re talking about, is rather circuitous,” Conger said.
Africano’s early fame came from the 1978 exhibition “New Image Painting” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. According to New York Times critic Roberta Smith in 1987, “New Image Painting” noted two notable visual art developments: new ways to use the image, and “the resurgence of painting, long considered dead or dying.”
“The group that was exhibited there became a kind of reuse of the figure in painting,” Conger said, a stark contrast to the downtown art scene’s obsession with abstract expressionism of the 1960s, and emergence of neo-expressionism that swallowed the sort of aesthetics to which Africano was drawn.
Conger said Africano’s later career has stepped those figures “off of the canvas, into the real world” with 3-dimensional sculptures. But that comment to figure and form remain.
“I think he’s really found his current,” he said. “It’s where he needs to be.”
Africano’s appeal with curators and museums worldwide are perhaps a testament to universality. While many Illinois artists create a distinct sense of place — making their work distinctly of and from Illinois — Conger says Africano’s work could be made anywhere.
“He could be in Los Angeles, New York — Normal, Illinois — and the world that he operates in is fairly unchanged,” Conger said. “He sees himself as existing in a moment in time, not a moment in actual, physical space. I think he’s more attentive to his relationship with art that comes before him — he thinks about that a lot.”
That Africano has achieved such success from his home in Normal, however, is unusual.
“It’s next to impossible to create a career like Nicolas Africano’s without being in the hub of the art world,” Conger said. “Almost, nearly impossible — because Nicolas Africano did it.”
A new spot for the Duryea Motor Trap
Also now open, the museum converted a former storage room into a new gallery for their restored Duryea Motor Wagon, a precursor to the modern automobile invented by two brothers from central Illinois. Charles and Frank Duryea initially built bicycles and experimented with several contraptions, developing the nation’s first gasoline-powered vehicle in 1893. The brothers moved east and hubbed America’s first automobile company in Springfield, Mass. As it turned out, they were better inventors than businessmen; the company went belly-up in 1917.
“There’s all sorts of sparks of invention around us in our daily lives,” said PRM Curator of Science and Planetarium Director Renae Kerrigan. She hopes visitors are inspired by the Duryea brothers’ appetite for innovation.
“You never know what you might be reading about or learning about that might lead you to create something new,” she said.
Duryea historian Mike Rucker located and purchased the museum’s pristinely restored motor wagon, going to lengths to prove its authenticity as made in Peoria. The technology developed by the Duryea brothers was important to more well-known automobile developers.
“Henry Ford, in fact, who came quite a bit later, said that the Duryea was a masterpiece and did more to inspire the automobile industry than any other,” Rucker said.
Driving was a novelty for the uber-wealthy in the late 19th century. It would have therefore been unlikely that ordinary citizens would have encountered a Duryea.
“People weren’t driving automobiles at the time,” said Kerrigan. “They thought they were these wild contraptions. Some people very much resisted them and felt that they were unsafe and dirty. But some people, like any innovation, were those early adopters.”
Charles Duryea predicted the quick rise of automobiles as a primary mode of transportation.
“Charles came back to Peoria to make bicycles and automobiles,” Kerrigan said. “He gave a lecture at Bradley University — it was Bradley Polytechnic Institute — and he’s quoted as saying, ‘Someday, the streets of Peoria will run thick with automobiles, whether you believe it or not.’”
An early 20th century street scene projected on one gallery wall shows that transition: a chaotic point at which horses, trollies, automobiles and pedestrians all shared city streets, with no signs, signals or rules of the road to guide them.
Celebrating Annie Malone
An extensive exhibit on central Illinois native Annie Malone, America's first Black woman to achieve millionaire status, completes the trio of new exhibits. Malone is also the subject of a new book out in May. She was recently recognized by the city of Peoria, which designated a portion of State Street near Adams Street as Honorary Annie Malone Place.
New exhibitions on Nicolas Africano, the Duryea Motor Wagon and Annie Malone are now on view at the Peoria Riverfront Museum, 222 SW Washington St., Peoria. Tickets are $15 general admission. The museum is closed Mondays. Details at peoriariverfrontmuseum.org.