The “his” and “hers” restroom symbols stenciled on the attached two-car garage give it away.
So do the giant kitsch replicas of Royal Pine car air fresheners in the front yard.
I may be parked outside a 1970s home in northwest Omaha. But inside this highly unlikely setting awaits an art “museum,” an amazing collection of contemporary, pop and street art.
Here to greet me are the “curators”: two people holding two fluffy white dogs.
“We're the 'Herb and Dorothy' of Omaha,” Laura Vranes tells me, referring to the late Herb Vogel and wife Dorothy, retired New York City civil servants who threw their paychecks and passions into what is viewed as one of the most important contemporary art collections.
“I'm Herb,” says Laura, 41, a Catholic grade school librarian. “I am!”
She points to her husband, 43-year-old John McIntyre, a bank branch manager: “He's Dorothy.”
“Herb” and “Dorothy” open their double front doors, revealing an explosion of color and ideas, a veritable gallery, where 212 pieces of art hang or stand, sit or dangle.
Art covers every seeming inch of wall space. Art serves as furniture. Art sits on furniture. Art stands on shelves and in corners. It looms over the second-floor landing. It plays on a video loop.
It dispenses toilet-seat covers. It looks like a phone kiosk. It is a bedspread. It is the framed boxes that some mail-ordered art came in.
And this art is no easy-on-the-eyes pastel Monet hanging over the couch. The colors are bright, but the messages can be dark. This art is strange, whimsical, political, ironic, uncomfortable and, at least to me, not always obviously art.
Like those Peeps in the glass jar that turn out to be ceramics dusted in glitter. Or that lit cigarette that's really just cloth.
Those men's wingtips resting on the Heinz ketchup packing box are cardboard. And the cardboard box is painted plywood.
“We didn't intend to put art everywhere ...” John says.
“But then the art bug got ahold of us,” Laura explains.
And that's when a pair of regular folks discovered a shared taste for the bold, thought-provoking genre of contemporary art.
A year after they married in 2007, they decided to mark their wedding anniversary and birthdays, all in October, by investing in art. They wanted to replace their painting reproductions with the real thing.
Laura stumbled upon a street artist named “Mr. Brainwash” and splurged on the couple's first piece: a screen print called “Where's Waldo” that shows the bespectacled children's character inserted into a black-and-white photograph of grade-school children.
She delved into research about the Paris-born, Los Angeles-based artist, whose real name is Thierry Guetta. Which led to more research and more purchases from prominent contemporary artists with names like Bumblebee, Shepard Fairey and Banksy.
Bumblebee, of Los Angeles, uses the bee theme to raise awareness about how cell phone signals have interrupted the migration of bees.
Shepard Fairey, a graphic artist and illustrator, painted the iconic “HOPE” poster of then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008. His works hang in the Smithsonian and in contemporary art museums in New York, Los Angeles and London.
Banksy is the British street artist, activist and filmmaker whose 2010 documentary about Guetta, called “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” was nominated for an Academy Award.
Five years later ...
“This is our house,” Laura says with a big, proud smile as I take in the first floor: A cloth banner running the length of the vaulted ceiling advertises an Andy Warhol exhibit. An almost seven-foot-tall yarn pom-pom poodle stares over the upstairs landing.
A giant fork, knife and spoon are mounted on the dining room wall near the large, red, arm-in-arm Barrel O'Monkeys monkeys.
Over their couch is a gigantic acrylic portrait of a gangly, pimply, grinning teenage boy wearing glasses, braces and his grandma's pastel sweater.
Framed prints present interesting juxtapositions. Hello Kitty with Andre the Giant, by Shepard Fairey. A black Chinook helicopter foisting a chandelier through the sky, by Static. Spear-wielding, loincloth-wearing “natives,” ready to attack a bunch of empty shopping carts, by Banksy. A sepia-toned, old-fashioned portrait with people in 1800s-wear joined by storm troopers, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and his light saber, a Mr. Brainwash special.
President Obama stares out in drag: His pink face under a yellow Marilyn Monroe wig wears a smear of red lipstick that makes him look like Heath Ledger's creepy Joker in a take on Warhol's Marilyn series.
“We live with our art, yes,” Laura says, “and with our dogs, who live with the art.”
Cradling the Yorkie-maltese mixes, named Coco (as in Chanel) and Banksy (as in you-know-who), Laura and John lead me through their “museum.”
Above me hangs a chandelier made of Bic pens and paper clips. Mounted on the wall is a phone kiosk with a beehive where the phone would normally go.
Next to the basement TV, a Statue of Liberty drowning in oil is painted onto the hood of a '69 Camaro. Inside the painting of a 1950s family watching television is an actual TV screen. Here the artist has looped the last 10 seconds of some 200 movies, so the effect is a dizzying chase-scene-or-kiss-climax followed by the words “The End” and the rolling credits.
There is so much to see, so much to absorb and such an intermingling of like-enough genres — contemporary vs. pop vs. street — that my eyes hurt. My brain hurts.
I get what contemporary art is. Pop art involves importing and often twisting images and words from pop culture into a work of art.
Street art, I ask. What is that again?
“It's really hard to define,” Laura explains, telling me it's a cross between pop art and graffiti. Think high-end graffiti, the kind that makes you look twice, stop, think.
We're not talking about the kind of tagging that gang members do to mark their turf.
We're talking about quasi-permittable artwork done by artists who see the world literally as their canvas and set out to make a statement.
Some of this art is fleeting — it's pasted or sprayed onto a public wall or sign or electricity box, and then it's gone. And some of it is now gaining such mainstream traction that you can buy it online. Like the plastic, marked-up toilet-seatcover dispenser that Laura paid $36 for and bolted to her bathroom wall.
Whether this is art is a question for the ages.
Certainly it's not art that makes you comfortable.
A sculpture in the dining room is a quilting hoop with a pair of legs hanging out of it in midair. A print shows a can of spray paint spraying the word “Power.” Another shows riot police beating protesters sprawled on a Twister game. Here's one with a child and a teddy bear. And a gun.
They don't make these purchases lightly.
“Art makes people talk about challenging subjects that many people can shy away from,” Laura tells me.
As unsettling as the social messages of some artwork can be, Laura and John are able to relax here.
“I think of the artist,” John says about various pieces, “and the personal connection.”
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
The connection is very important. Laura emails artists. She and John befriend them and try to help.
They just hosted a Kansas City artist for the weekend who they have commissioned for several works in their home.
Family members either love it or raise an eyebrow.
Laura's mother once asked about a brown paper sack that was tacked onto the living room wall. It turned out to be simply a sack that was covering an area during a DIY project. Her mother said she couldn't tell what was art and what wasn't.
Hearing the story gives me a little courage to ask about the Duraflame logs by the fireplace (real). And the workout equipment in the basement (again, real). The all-green rollerskate? Sculpture.
One of my personal favorites is a version of Mona Lisa, painting over herself in red.
“That's one of my favorites, too,” John says.
Laura and John are not out to make everyone love what they love. But they do want to send the message that art is important and accessible and that everyone should try to own an original piece.
It's hard to disagree. The longer I'm here, the more my senses adapt. I'm seeing details — like the word “art” slapped over the “OP” on an actual stop sign. The effect is a new word: START.
Laura, who has seen some of the world's premier art museums, didn't know she could be a collector. Then she found street art and realized she loved it and could afford it. And John agreed.
They can't stop collecting. They can't stop thinking about art or artists.
“I cannot imagine our life without art,” Laura tells me. “It is such a part of us now.”
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