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State of the Art at Crystal Bridges: Pure Pop for Now People

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Exhibition curators Don Bacigalupi (l) Chad Alligood (r) introduce the show during a press event yesterday.

The new big show called “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now” at Crystal Bridges in Arkansas is a survey of contemporary art made by American artists who aren’t on the national radar even if they’re popular back home. The 102 regional artists (from 44 states) represented in the show aren’t slated to be the next national art stars, and that allowed the curators to relax into the task of creating a snapshot of work being made across the country without the pressure of winks to the international market or stroking the collective ego of the bi-coastal chattering class. One gets the feeling that for some of these artists, being included this show will be a career peak. Which is absolutely fine. It’s refreshing to see such an expansive show entirely lacking in name dropping or bets on future auction prices.

It’s clear even from the press material that the show’s remit is simply to represent each region in the nation and be a people pleaser. As the curators walked the press corps through the 19,000 square-feet devoted to the exhibition yesterday morning, my sense was that that no one needs to have taken a single art history class to “like” every piece in it—everything is instantly gettable. Even the nod to Donald Judd made out of box fans and straw hats by Detroit’s Hamilton Poe doesn’t need the Judd reference to charm what I imagine will be the thousands of school children and Branson-bound travelers who will tour the show. (The fact that this museum, dropped in the middle of Walmart country, is a godsend to smart kids who would never otherwise be exposed to art is another story.)

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Hamilton Poe. The fans are on so the hats are dancing.

This is real art by real working artists. The populist bent was a considered choice. The exhibition’s curators, museum president Don Bacigalupi and staff curator Chad Alligood, traveled the country for nearly two years and visited about 1000 artist studios, and mostly avoided any truly challenging art; nothing here is willfully ambivalent or too subtle or dark. Almost every piece is turned up to eleven in terms of being engaging. Good examples this are the Mom booth, by Andy DuCett of Minneapolis, which will be staffed by real volunteer moms throughout the show’s run, or the knitted cave-like hallway that opens the show, by Brooklyn-based Jeila Gueramian.

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Andy DuCett

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Jeila Gueramian

Even the political work has to be either charming or have a technical prowess that will impress the casual viewer. And there’s a preponderance of art that’s about clever or unexpected use of found items or common materials: a painting of an ox made with smoke, a wall piece made up of thousands of used romance novels, or a huge “painting” made from collaging thousands of discarded lottery tickets into a diamond pattern. Get it? Yes. Yes you do.

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John Salvest. Those are all paperback romance novels.

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The duo Ghost of a Dream made this with used lottery tickets.

There’s not as much folk art in the State of the Art as I would have liked to see—most of the artists have MFAs from good schools—which is a shame, because folk art is some of the most likable art being made and is of course incredibly regional. The curators threw in a few self-taught artists, and they’re good, but the whole museum’s encyclopedic American collection seems almost allergic to self-taught art; maybe it feels too “coals to Newcastle” to the museum’s founder, Alice Walton, an heiress to the Walmart fortune. The museum’s home of Bentonville, high in the Ozarks (the region is undeniably beautiful), is also home to the Walmart Corporation, and it’s a semi-charming town, but the region feels a little spooky. Its stubborn ruralness has a whiff of meth hillbilly. As I walked and drove around town and dealt with my hotel’s front-desk people and gas-station cashiers and the like, I could sometimes hear the sinister banjo playing in my head. But Crystal Bridges could, with its money and location, be the best folk art museum in the world if it wanted to be, which it doesn’t.

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Laurel Roth Hope, a self-taught artist from San Francisco, dresses up her wood carvings of common pigeons in handmade costumes of the plumage of extinct bird species.

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Vanessa L. German of Pittsburgh is a folk artist who makes “protection” figures for endangered children in her neighborhood.

Some quick facts about the show:

1) Despite the comparisons to the Whitney Biennial, this survey may or may not ever be repeated. They haven’t decided on that yet.
2) Crystal Bridges may or may not purchase any of the work from State of the Art for its own collection. They haven’t decided on that either, or won’t talk about it.
3) The show may or may not travel, as a whole or in parts.
4) All of the work in the show was made in the last three years.
5) The museum’s sizable endowment did not pay for this show. The money was raised independently by the show’s organizers.

The six Texas artists looked fine throughout, completely on par with the rest of the work. Chris Sauter’s science theme threatened to be too heady for the show, but still played the State of the Art game by being big and optically fun. Curator Alligood mentioned that a few American towns proved surprisingly fertile for interesting artists: Witchita, Omaha, Pittsburgh, and San Antonio were on his hot list.

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Chris Sauter of San Antonio

Two of the most memorable pieces in the show for me were videos (and kudos to the curators for including a fair amount of video throughout). Susie J. Lee from Seattle made a Viola-esque triptych; it’s a digital portrait of three field workers in the fracking country of North Dakota. The extreme hi-def focus on their faces hooks the very human desire to study people’s expressions, and their exact line of work doesn’t matter much. They could be any often-overlooked laborers, like Walmart forklift operators or Tyson Chicken slaughterhouse workers, and the piece would still succeed, because these three subjects’ relationship with the camera is confrontational and a little unsettling. But it’s a good example of the kind of otherwise non-alienting political art the show favors.

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Susie J. Lee

The other video that stood out for me was by Dave Greber of New Orleans. It’s projected as a big oval on the floor, like a rug or table top, and the bird’s-eye images of various objects in motion stack and layer and unfurl on top of one another in a relentless and exhilarating rhythm: fabric, plates, food, a dog, a cat, paint, everything plus the kitchen sink. It’s high-energy and hypnotic.

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Dave Greber’s video on the floor.

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Jonathan Schipper’s “Slow Room”

And if I were to pick a “Most Likely to Suceed” in this yearbook, it would be an artist who already has broken out: Brooklyn-based Jonathan Schipper presents his piece “Slow Room.” His formula of annihilating big things (in slow motion) hits a lot of marks for what’s considered interesting and cool these days: the piece is a full-size installation of an old-fashioned living room, complete with all of your imagined old aunt’s brocade furniture and geegaws and upright piano and lamps and rugs, etc, though every single item is connected to a string that disappears into a hole in the wall. There’s a motor back there you can’t see but that over the course of four months will tighten the strings so that by the end of the exhibition every object will be pulled up and crushed against the wall, piled and broken. There’s a live camera feed of the progress available to home viewers. I have a feeling State of the Art will not be Schipper’s career peak. But it will be a highlight.

also by Christina Rees
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29 Responses

  1. Liliana Bloch

    I enjoyed your article and I also think that Schipper’s work looks very interesting
    I do think that while art provides endless possibilities , there will always be that genius exhibition with pieces of formally educated and self taught artists together. However, I do enjoy seeing each form in its own environment as a way of leaning their universal nuances. The formal institutional separation helps me to understand and appreciate masterpieces in their own right. It might as well be just a preference, since we all learn in different ways.

  2. Julie webb

    Hey thanks for this review! I enjoyed it. We have visited the museum previously a couple of times and we attended the opening this past week. We very much enjoyed the exhibit, but we still are wondering about a Museum of American Art with a lack of Folk Art in this exhibit as well as their collection…….. I think you nailed it well.

      1. Beth Harpaz

        Hey Julie I’m an AP reporter writing about this exhibit. would love to chat with you about it – bharpaz(at)ap.org

  3. Outstanding review, but I question what “folk art” can mean today with the vast access of media. And “self taught” is but a badge after having extensively used the media possibilities for self branding.A most enjoyable read.

  4. You can’t review the show without discussing the whole story. This was an unprecedented journey by two curators who have a compassion for supporting artists at a grassroots level. They sought out the under recognized and spent listened to almost 1000 artists about their work. Think about the documentation! They captured this moment in art unlike any other institution. Look beyond exhibition results! Can we stop talking about the Walton’s money!?!?! I am one of the selected artists who recently relocated to my hometown Austin, Texas. Every artist needs a finical supporter and my Medici’s happen to be Alice Walton. My audience also includes families and children, not just art for art sake. The museum’s goal was to show that great art and talent can exist in the least expected places and put the fun back into art, and thank goodness. I spent this weekend in Bentonville and it is beautiful.

  5. Thanks for the review! Living in Arkansas, self-taught, and one of the artists in the exhibition I contend that folk art in my area is may look less “folksy” than it was in the past.

    The rules of perspective are taught in secondary school classrooms across the country. Coffee tins have been replaced by Starbucks cups. Corn cobs by microwave steamer bags. With the internet, social media, and ubiquitous advertisements, one would have to make a conscious effort to not be exposed to cultural influences from all over the globe.

    Conversely, many established artists in the United States have long used folk influences to inform their own work. Found objects and rude forms are displayed in many of the major US art hubs. Just food for thought.

    As an Arkansan who briefly lived in Texas, I would like to address the “meth hillbilly” comment. As I understand it, Arkansas gets most of its methamphetamine from Mexico…via Texas. And what you thought was a banjo playing in your head was because someone, in haste, neglected to fully turn off the radio when Jeff Strahan’s “Take me to Texas” began to play. Go Hogs.

  6. Alan Smithee

    I find the suggestion of the show as discoverer of the under-appreciated a little shaky.

    Dozens of the artists in the show are shown and collected on the international art fair circuit, and one artist not only was in the 2014 Whitney, but it’s the same work. One artist is opening a solo museum show in September. It’s not a charity show.

    And Schipper emerged years ago.

    But I like the show’s gumption. You’re going to learn things on a first try by hitting a few sour notes.

    Enjoyed the article.

  7. Jason Nemec

    Ms. Rees – I enjoyed your article as I live and work very close to Crystal Bridges. I am not sure why you felt the need to add the comment “but the region feels a little spooky. Its stubborn ruralness has a whiff of meth hillbilly. As I walked and drove around town and dealt with my hotel’s front-desk people and gas-station cashiers and the like, I could sometimes hear the sinister banjo playing in my head. But Crystal Bridges could, with its money and location, be the best folk art museum in the world if it wanted to be, which it doesn’t.”. I can only assume you did not get the preferential treatment you felt you deserved being from the “big city”. I have been to NY and Dallas numerous times and while I enjoy my time when there, they are a reminder of how much more I enjoy the Ozarks and my stereotypical “hillbilly” friends. Maybe if you slowed down and had an actual conversation with some of the people you interacted with you might have enriched their life, and yours……Guess we will never know…..

    1. Ted Talley

      Yes Jason.
      “As I walked and drove around town and dealt with my hotel’s front-desk people and gas-station cashiers and the like…”

      Everyone knows the Hampton Inn front desk clerks in Waxahachie and Corsicana and the Shell station/Czech food convenience store employees in West, north of Waco, are infinitely more in tune with the cosmos than their counterparts in Arkansas.

  8. Chris Sauter

    Northwest Arkansas is lovely. I had a wonderful time when I was there installing my work. I never felt I was in some backwood. I too wonder why Ms Rees felt the need to characterize Bentonville as she did.

    1. Luke

      I agree with Chris and Naomi. Did the author actually smell “meth”? If not then the comments show the author’s own ignorance and tendency to stereotype the unfamiliar.

      Naomi correctly points out the need for distrust of observations made by such a “profoundly patronizing and dismissive” article.

      1. Thanks for the confirmation. Most of the critique in this comment section has focused on Ms. Rees’ dismissal of the region and its people. But this tone also extends to the artists and the museum itself. She says that the artists are not slated for greater recognition and that this show will likely be their peak. One might say the same about the majority of the good artists in our Texas Biennial, but I doubt that she would include that observation in a review. One might say it about ALL of us. Most artists that I know would have been ecstatic to be chosen for this show. There is a painful dearth of opportunities for artists whose work has developed outside the groove du jour. It is possible that this show represents the beginning of a much needed alternate track for artist opportunities and recognition.

        1. Luke

          Yes, the tone extends to the artists as well. Why, as you point out, the author felt the need to say that these artists are not slated for greater recognition when that observation could be made for most shows, is a mystery. I presume the motivation of the author is that it can be fun in the short term to put people down.

          I would rather read a critique, beyond description, of the work, the curating, the display, based on the content, not an ad hominem attack on the unknown trajectory of the artists’ careers.

  9. Randall

    As an artist who grew up in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas before moving to Texas, I wince every time the “meth hillbilly” clichés are used when discussing the region of my childhood. Such attitudes and slogans are considered racist when directed toward people of color, yet seem de rigueur as a form of academic put down.

    Yes, it is a state filled with a rural (and complicated) population and history, but also a landscape of great natural beauty, and one with the cultural capital that generated Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Johnny Cash, Maya Angelou, Helen Gurley Brown, Scott Joplin, Iris Dement, Billy Bob Thornton, architect Fay Jones, President Bill Clinton, and Rev. Al Green, among others.

    As much as I want to be engaged in the rest of the article on this exhibition, it’s really difficult to get past the stereotypes to consider it.

    1. Luke

      Could not agree more with Randall. If you want to critique something, do it with real observations and facts, not with stereotypes, straw-men and slander.

  10. Larry Goodnight

    I would like to know the artist’s name that did the video of the guy cutting a hole in the floor and dropping a ladder through to the next level. Eventually the room rolls and everything starts falling back into the hole. I would like to see this again as I can’t describe it to anybody and sound sane! Please help!

  11. Ted Talley

    Oh, come on. I thought surely a piece coming from gun-toting Texas would have been beyond the hillbilly references by now as the museum has been opened for three years. I mean, really? Even the New York writers are past the gee whiz hokum by now. The museum has blown away all attendance estimates (and those folks walking through the doors are not ALL heading to Branson nor are they ALL locals). How in the world did you discern a whiff of hillbilly in this area that looks more like Plano or Conroe in the hills? Yes Walmart is here. Undeniably. And their world headquarters, operating the largest data system second only to that of the Pentagon I believe, is filled with some rather sophisticated people. Not to mention the local population teeming with MBA transplantees working for major consumer products companies who arrived here over the last twenty years to handle the giant Walmart account (yep Proctor & Gamble, Coca Cola/Minute Maid,Newell Rubbermaid, et al, are rank with hillbillies). Yep. We’re hillbillies with multiple non-stops daily to most U.S. hubs including two of the three NYC airports. Does Austin even have that? Did that swipe strike a nerve? Yes. And I’m not even a native but a ‘come here’ from New Orleans by way of several years in Houston. But the swipe also reveals a bit of ignorance on the part of the writer. The banjo picking, fiddling and dulcimer hammering? Yes, it’s part of the culture here as much as guitar picking, line dancing and kolaches in Texas. We actually need more of Arkansas indigenous than less in my opinion. It’s slipping away as this two-county market has grown to a population of 500,000. The two big malls here with White House Black Market, Williams-Sonoma, Clarks Shoes, etc., and the usual suspects like Dillards and Target (yes Target in WMT country!)has us looking and acting more like Round Rock and Hutto than the Ozarks. And more is the pity.

    1. Ted Talley

      And I didn’t even start about the arts and humanities that were already in existence in this corner of the state before we welcomed Crystal Bridges.
      1. The University of Arkansas. Red razorbacks aside, it is a major university with appropriate credentials.

      2. The nationally-recognized Bentonville High choral program consisting of about 12 choirs and hundreds of students participating. Their elite chamber choir has been featured on NPR and has performed in Carnegie Hall. These kids perform locally in our high school performance hall that can fly Broadway touring and opera scenery. (And the other three major school districts here also have excellent arts programs and facilities).

      3. Likewise, the regional Ozarks Philharmonic Youth Orchestra students have performed in a festival at Carnegie. Our banjo-picking kids really do know the answer to that old joke: “practice, practice, practice”.

      4. There are two (yes two) small market professional orchestras here. One based in Fayetteville, the other in Bentonville.

      So yeah, we do have some banjos I suppose, though the last time I saw one played was at a bluegrass show up in Missouri. But the banjos in NW Arkansas are far outnumbered by violins, violas, cellos and double basses. By the way, my oldest son, a product of the two student music groups mentioned above, graduated “summa” from the highly-ranked UNT College of Music in Denton. I’m sure you’ve heard of it, Ms. Rees. Serious musicians go there to study before they go to Juilliard or vice versa. (A recent BHS grads got a full-ride Juilliard scholarship in string bass and composing.) I mention my son not just as a proud father but to say he is typical of hundreds of students and others with a world-view of culture from atop these Ozark bluffs.

      And a reminder to anyone reading this, that whole banjo-picking, in-bred white Southern lower class thing? That came from Georgia, not way over here on the edge of the South at the territorial frontier. Thank you very much, James Dickey. You did a great service to your fellow Southerners.

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