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BENTONVILLE, Arkansas — A follow up to the 2014-15 survey show State of the Art, State of the Art 2020 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and its new non-collecting sister site, the Momentary, is intended to be “a cross-section of artists working today.”
Organized by Momentary and Crystal Bridges curator Lauren Haynes, with Crystal Bridges associate curators Alejo Benedetti and Allison Glenn, it includes 61 artists whose works span painting, sculpture, photography, performance, video, digital media, textiles, and ceramics. It is similar in scale, intent, and ambition to, say, the Whitney Biennial. That’s where things get interesting. For all its equity and diversity, the last Whitney Biennial still focused squarely on East and West Coast artists, especially those from New York and Los Angeles (John Yau provided a helpful by-the-numbers analysis).
State of the Art 2020, like its predecessor, is entirely different. This exhibition of American art (wonderfully defined, since a goodly number of the artists are immigrants) in Northwest Arkansas encompasses a broad reach of America, not a skewed, bi-coastal version of it. New York and Los Angeles are represented by only one artist each, Chicago by six. The others hail from locales often entirely ignored by East and West Coast art institutions and curators — for instance, New Orleans, Tucson, Albuquerque, Denver, Cleveland, Atlanta, Detroit, and Kansas City, as well as smaller places like Spartanburg, South Carolina, Benbrook, Texas, and Spotsylvania, Virginia.
The selections are based on recommendations, curatorial research, and studio visits throughout the 48 contiguous states. The exhibition’s pertinent, refreshingly jargon-free themes — among them, Passing Time, Fragmentation, Ways of Seeing, and Stories of Place — emerged from the artworks.
At the Momentary is the resplendent “Exodus” (2019) by Denver-based artist Suchitra Mattai. The monumental tapestry, stretching across much of a long wall and onto the floor, is composed of brightly colored vintage saris woven around a rope net. It is, for me, a highlight of the show. I was entranced by this dense fabric force filled with coursing blues, shimmering golds, vibrant reds, soft yellows, and many other colors in interlacing patterns; it’s a dimensional, physical “painting” sans paint, with abundant ruffles, ridges, and folds.
Mattai, whose background is Indian-Guyanese, was born in Guyana and has lived in various cities and countries, including New York, Nova Scotia, and India, prior to settling in Denver. Some of the saris came from family members; she collected others in India and the United Arab Emirates, where there is a large Indian population. Mattai’s work revels in visual and material splendor while it celebrates family connections across generations, immigrant communities, the expansive Indian diaspora, and, especially, women within that diaspora.
Many of the exhibition’s works address pressing sociopolitical issues, but in ways that are visually and formally alluring and, frankly, often pleasing. Adjacent to Mattai’s piece is Haitian-American Didier William’s (Philadelphia) impressive ink, acrylic, wood carving, and collage on panel, “Ou ap tonbe, men m ap kenbe ou” (2018). The title is in Haitian Kreyòl, or Creole. A cluster of uncategorizable figures seems to perform on a small stage in front of a curtain made of multicolored vertical stripes. The figures’ bodies display thousands of small eyes gouged into the panel. As you look at these ambiguous figures — which may be humans, animals, hallucinations, or magical totems, their genders and number unclear — they look at you, stridently so. They are active, inquiring subjects who refusing to be passive objects of a gaze and elude any attempt to sum them up.
Paul Stephen Benjamin’s (Atlanta) video installation “Summer Breeze” (2019) is both fiercely powerful and enthralling. Twenty-seven monitors of different sizes, in a loosely triangular constellation, display videos of a young Black girl who swings, carefree, on a tree swing. On the floor, three monitors show short clips of Billie Holiday and Jill Scott singing excerpts from Holiday’s haunting song “Strange Fruit,” about lynching and racism in the American South. The juxtaposition between the swinging child and the vocalists singing “Black bodies swinging in the summer breeze” is shattering. In this time of resurgent racism, Holiday’s iconic 1939 song is freshly relevant.
The lone LA artist, Salvadoran-American Eddie R. Aparicio connects Central American immigrant communities in Los Angeles with what he calls “pre-Hispanic Central American cultures” in his artworks. Two works suspended from the ceiling incorporate materials, patterns, and insignia from those communities: rubber, leather, tree-rubbings, found cloth, scraps of language, latex paint, twine, and wood. Material traces of vital communities besieged by biased immigration laws and attitudes and virulent gentrification in LA and the US more broadly are reconstituted in tactile works that are supremely sensitive, evocative, and visually dynamic.
Painting is strong throughout the show. A standout is Nashville artist Karen Seapker’s atmospheric oil on canvas “Tent Mama” (2019) at the Momentary. A mother and child figure, composed of both angular geometric shapes and curving bodily ones, in a cool palette that conjures a science-fiction narrative, is an eccentric, yet deeply touching, vision of an attentive mother simultaneously towering over and protecting her young child.
At Crystal Bridges, Larry Walker’s mixed media painting from 2017, amply collaged with snippets of text and three-dimensional components, is another highlight and its title is wonderful: “Tweet, Tweet…Look Who’s Here…or Aliens, Wall Spirits and Other Manifestations.”
Walker is a legendary Atlanta-based artist and professor — and also the father of artist Kara Walker. His painting is layered and crammed with words and images: Donald Trump, who truly looks like some presiding malevolent spirit; Chief Sitting Bull; American flags; LL Cool J; the words “I have a,” in a nod to Martin Luther King, Jr.; a silhouette-like soldier carrying a wounded or dead comrade; and much, much more. The painting is at once visually cacophonous and ultra-precise, compressing much of the country’s vital energy and many calamitous conflicts, including racism, war, political tyrants, and Native American genocide, into a single work.
On the opposite wall are circular photographic prints by Letitia Huckaby, from Benbrook, Texas, framed in vintage embroidery hoops. The quiet yet potent images — a sugarcane field, a bare-bones rural building, a country road, the Mississippi Delta earth — are steeped in African American culture and history. These works, from Huckaby’s 2017 series 40 Acres…Gumbo Ya Ya, enfold present and past as they address promises made to Southern African American farmers post-Civil War and slavery, which were brutally dashed during the Jim Crow era.
While not everything is stellar in this exhibition, there are enough distinctive, inventive works filled with ideas that it feels fresh and full of discovery.
Atlanta-based Korean artist Jiha Moon’s swirling, intensely colorful paintings mix Asian and Euro-American images and styles. (She is also known for her ceramic works.) Amy Casey’s (Cleveland) acrylic-on-clayboard panel painting “Highground” (2019) features askew urban buildings with lopped-off tree trunks interspersed in between. This strange conflation of nature and culture seems to float atop a huge body of water (The ocean? Lake Erie? Floods resulting from global warming?), but is also about to topple. Casey’s precarious cityscape feels spot-on in our anxious, tumultuous time.
Several artists inserted their works into the permanent collections at Crystal Bridges. For her self-portrait inkjet print in an elaborate gold frame, “Colonizer” (2017), San Antonio-based Chicana artist Mari Hernandez used makeup, a wig, prosthetics, and a costume to transform herself into a fictional colonizer, in extreme contrast with nearby paintings of those of European descent who were actual colonizers.
Other artists responded to the museum’s impressive architecture. In Cory Imig’s (Kansas City) elemental architectural intervention “Linear Spaces” (2020), two intersecting planes made of hanging blue satin ribbons, ratchet straps, and hardware are installed near large windows, channeling the sweeping blue sky into the space. You can slip through Imig’s satin curtainwalls to perceive the work and its surroundings from multiple perspectives.
Outside the museum, Miami-based George Sanchez-Calderón’s sculpture “AMERICANA” (2014/2020), with that word in large, polished stainless steel letters, succinctly questions what we mean by Americana, Americanness, and, indeed, American art.
This thoughtfully curated exhibition is evidence that much compelling and adventurous art is being produced all around the country, and that it can generate an avid audience. The takeaway in Bentonville was obvious: Art matters here.
Correction 3/9/2020 1:03pm EDT: A previous version of this article identified Karen Seapker as a Denver artist, however, Seapker hails from Nashville.