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The brilliant gleam of the Des Moines Art Center's ivory exterior has found its match inside, within a glittering and thought-provoking new exhibit at the Anna K. Meredith Gallery.

"Alchemy: Transformations in Gold" brings together 15 contemporary artists inspired by the most precious of metals and will depart later this spring, leaving behind a unique, permanent work that will last for future generations.

Curator Laura Burkhalter is encouraging visitors who might be wary of encountering new work to sample the exhibit at face value, enjoying it as a visual feast.

"I know that contemporary art can seem intimidating," Burkhalter said. "This is a very welcoming show. You'll find work that challenges you, but you'll also find things that are just beautiful and a pleasure to look at."

For those up for the challenge, there are plenty of layered subtexts attached to many of the pieces, enough to encourage repeat visits through the May 5 closing date. Look closer at the dramatic and opulent photographic triptych by Moroccan-born Lalla Essaydi and you'll notice the backdrop, bed and jewelry were all created with bullet casings.

Burkhalter has been working on mounting the project for years, collating pieces from within the Art Center's own collection and taking note whenever she spotted like-minded artists in galleries and museums around the country. Some pieces have been influenced by sheer gilded spectacle, others by the pain caused by modern gold rush fever.

Alongside the delicate, Charles Lindsay's imposing and curious "Field Station" installation will stop you in your tracks, the central tower a combination of Space Age hardware and 18th century woodwork. James Lee Byars also transforms and transports the antique into the future with "The Golden Divan," an ostentatious and indulgent creation.

Thrilled by the early reaction to the show — already attracting visitors interested in crafts, politics or history — Burkhalter has noted the attention given to the small, intricate work by Don and Era Farnsworth and their "Art Notes," modified dollar bills superimposed with images of artists such as Frida Kahlo and Rembrandt and adorned with 22-karat gold leaf.

Burkhalter admits she would be amiss if the exhibit didn't touch on the dark undertones of gold's role in modern and ancient cultures, a catalyst for avarice, madness and lust. As a counterpoint, one work won't be leaving anytime soon, infused with the sentiment of healing and renewal.

Coincidentally leading from the Art Center reception toward the "Alchemy" show, Rachel Sussman has created her first indoor example of "Sidewalk Kintsukuroi," a variation on the centuries-old Japanese tradition of repairing broken pottery with a golden fix. Purposely highlighting the fault lines, the pottery becomes more precious and alluring in its repaired and imperfect state. Burkhalter and her colleagues found a naturally formed crack in the marble tiles outside the exhibit hall and invited Sussman to rejuvenate the walkway.

Working with resin and real gold and bronze powders and using a chakpur, a special tool normally seen in the creation of Tibetan sand mandalas, Sussman has carefully filled the seam, mending the imperfection and replacing it with a gold trail that will slowly decay over decades. Like the exhibit itself, some visitors will be fascinated, others will walk over it and a few may be motivated to dig deeper.

If you go

Location: Des Moines Art Center, 4700 Grand Ave., Des Moines

Hours: Open from Tuesday through Saturday in the Anna K. Meredith Gallery. Admission is free.

Contact: Call 515-277-4405 or visit DesMoinesArtCenter.org

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