BENTONVILLE, Arkansas — The recently minted Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, has mounted a prodigious exhibition of contemporary art titled State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now. The massive exhibition occupies a total of 19,000 square feet and features some 227 works produced by 102 underrepresented or largely unknown artists culled from across the United States, working in a broad range of media including oil on canvas, photography, video, installation, sculpture, and ceramics. The pragmatically selected practitioners range in age from 24 to 87; 54 of them are men and 48 are women; 26 come from the West and Southwest, 27 from the Midwest, 25 from Texas and the South, and 24 from the East Coast.
In its unspoken, though implicit, mission to provide an alternative to such hulking art world institutions as the Whitney Biennial, State of the Art is being widely touted by the museum and the press at large as a “groundbreaking” effort to gauge the shape of American art as viewed from the margins of the art world. Though impressive in scale and ambition, this effort is not entirely novel, nor without admirable and potent precedents. One need only think, for instance, of the first-rate headway made in this direction by Independent Curators International’s excellent People’s Biennial, which was pioneered by Jens Hoffmann, director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco, and artist Harrell Fletcher. When I spoke with Fletcher and Hoffmann back in 2012 they talked a good deal about old school avant-garde ideas of amateurism and regionalism, as well as the respects in which the People’s Biennial seeks to represent non-sanctioned artists across the US with a focus on those working in cities that are off the art world’s radar. All this in order to signal, as Hoffmann put it, “a form of resistance to the monoculture of consumption in the art world.” One might also recall the National Academy’s ace contemporary art Annual, the longest running (and ever-evolving) group show in America, which aspires to provide something of a barometric indication of intergenerational trends across the country. Such efforts have been, in fact, ongoing for some time in many different contexts and corners of the country.
It would appear, then, that if State of the Art is breaking new ground, it is doing so more aptly, and perhaps more importantly, within the context of the nascent museum itself, whose impressive collection of American art is heavy on the historical and fledgling on the contemporary. With this exhibition Crystal Bridges is evidently making an earnest attempt to gain its footing in contemporary art, as is keenly palpable in the blandly condescending (not to mention decidedly dated and banal) statement released by the museum’s president, Don Bacigalupi, in connection with the show: “Contemporary art has too often been dismissed as ‘something a child could do,’ or — worse — irrelevant. The exhibition is a call to action, both within the field and beyond, to pay more attention to the artists around us, and what they have to say.” Right. Unfortunately, State of the Art doesn’t have all too much to say itself as a whole, and neither does it seem to be actively listening to what the artists it has elected to include have to say, at least not in any perceptibly meaningful way.
The exhibition presents the work of many talented artists, and it is terribly exciting to encounter pieces that one might otherwise never have the opportunity to see. For this we can certainly thank the scouting efforts of Bacigalupi and curator Chad Alligood. At the press preview, the two spoke about the deeply rewarding experience of personally culling artists from across the country, complete with anecdotal glimpses into their daily lives that also in some measure fed back into their artistic practices. “Going to the source and meeting artists in the spaces where they make work provides powerful insights and ultimately informs how the work is received,“ said Alligood. “Overlooked places like Wichita, San Antonio, Pittsburgh, and Las Vegas have rich and textured artscapes. I am changed because of each encounter with the artists and their work. Art lies in the feeling of being changed; through this exhibition, we hope to bring that to our audiences.”
Yet, walking through the exhibition space, one does not get the sense that these transformative experiences were translated into the show itself, which, in spite of the talent it presents, often comes off as half-baked and clumsy. If visits to artists’ studios and hometowns somehow “ultimately inform how works are received,” why was that knowledge not perceptively fed back into the exhibition in which the works are now displayed — in some cases for the first time — to the broader public? Perhaps the implication is that the works speak for themselves, but if the impetus for the exhibition is to gauge a temperament or take a pulse, it would seem that some sort of discernable curatorial bent is required — and certainly something more than a pragmatically balanced approach to the selection process in terms of gender and geography. Take a pulse, or do not; either can be done effectively in such a survey exhibition — just choose which one and do it well. In any case do something.
The effect of all this is the presentation of an awkwardly grab-bagged gallimaufry of artworks, rather than that of a carefully curated exhibition. Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of stunning pieces by very talented artists on view in this show. Quite a number of pieces strikingly and effectively engage broader issues: Bob Trotman’s creepy, rotating, white-collar handshake sculpture touches on class; Teri Greeves’s traditional Kiowa beadwork–bedecked high-heeled sneakers, on race; Terence Hammonds’s interactive civil rights–invoking dance platforms and Vanessa L. German’s found-object fetishized dolls tackle identity politics; Peter Glenn Oakley’s brilliant marble monuments to disposable mass-market products, such as Styrofoam take-out containers, take up consumer culture; the interactive water tasting bar installed by Works Progress, Susie J. Lee’s hauntingly mesmerizing portraiture of North Dakota fracking workers, and Matthew Moore’s meditative time-lapse images of the growth cycles of vegetables and fruits in the produce sections of local grocery stores all hit on sustainability.
Although these and other artworks in the show possess the potential to trigger interesting discourses in cross-reference to one another, the exhibition instead presents them in such a tidily topical manner that they are not adequately activated. What’s more, their effects are often lost among the sheer density of work on view. The sole discernable effort to add a curatorial purview here is an attempt to link certain artworks in the show to pieces from the museum’s permanent collection. This is a very admirable idea and one that could be quite edifying, if properly executed; however, these pairings have been selected on the basis of visual similarities (even affinities in color combinations), rather than, say, productively contextual, ideological, or social parallels across time.
“Art for all,” as the museum has it, does not mean that an institution should not take some sort of position in relation to what it presents. Neither does it mean that the curatorial approach should be guided by a mundane endeavor to present a grab bag of works. The “something for everyone” strategy is not only misguided and impractical; it also risks the integrity of an exhibition. Then again, it is the museum’s first shot at this ambitious beast of an enterprise, and only its second stab at an exhibition of contemporary art. Biennials, triennials, and other such sweepingly ambitious surveys that (perhaps imprudently) aim to take a perceived pulse are not infrequently ill conceived, if also often well intentioned and highly anticipated. There is, of course, a lot at stake in these endeavors, since taking stock is never simply an innocuous act of measurement; it is always an act of interpretation driven at least in part by an inevitable economy of inclusion/exclusion. This latter aspect is in large measure one of the reasons such spectacles tend to ignite and even welcome debate and flat-out outrage; it’s also one of the qualities that make them so appealing. If exhibitions of such a scale do not, as in the case of State of the Art, ultimately agitate and unnerve, striking a deep-set vein or two or at least ruffling a few feathers, then what’s the point?
State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now continues at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (600 Museum Way, Bentonville, Arkansas) through January 19.