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Greetings From the Ozarks – And The Current State of American Art

by Jerome Weeks 15 Sep 2014 8:19 PM

Crystal Bridges – the stunning art museum in Arkansas funded by a Wal-Mart heir – takes a stab at summing up the current American art scene with more than 200 artworks from 44 states. Whatever else it is, State of the Art is ambitious.


Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas has been establishing itself as a major art institution. It was founded three years ago by Alice Walton, the billionaire heir to the Wal-Mart fortune. Now Crystal Bridges has opened a nationwide survey of more than 100 contemporary American artists. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports a sizable contingent comes from Texas.

  • Christina Rees’ review of State of the Art, ‘Pure Pop for Now People,’ at Glasstire
  • Watch Crystal Bridges artist Gabriel Dawe installing a work in Dallas. 

Gabriel Dawe’s temporary art studio is a former storefront in Valley View Mall. The store still has a security grate — which Dawe opens with various clanks and rattles — even though the mall is mostly empty these days. A few shops are still here, some are now art galleries. Dawe works by himself in the echo-y mall, an experience he describes as “kinda weird. Um, it’s OK. It kinda grows on you.”

Dawe maps out his art installations in the studio here because they involve colored thread meticulously stretched out in large, spider-webbed arcs — they need to be planned out carefully in advance. A single installation can use 30 or 40 miles of thread, and the colors shimmer and shift like a prism. One of Dawe’s works, Plexus No. 27, has been chosen for State of the Art, the ambitious new exhibition at Crystal Bridges. The museum wants to showcase what it calls “under-recognized” American artists from outside the media centers of New York and LA. Actually, Dawe’s doing fairly well for a Texas artist — he’s often had shows at Conduit Gallery, for instance.

So — does he feel under-recognized?

“It depends on the day,” he says with a laugh. But his work is currently in museums, isn’t it? “Yeah, it’s starting to get into museums, but … it could be in bigger museums,” he adds with another laugh.

Physically, the State of the Art exhibition is big. One hundred works would be a major show for most museums. State of the Art has 227. Exhibitions like this are often planned using slides and digital images sent to museum administrators. But the Crystal Bridges curators took the remarkable step of traveling to 44 states, visiting nearly 1000 artists in their own studios – from house boats to kitchens to shopping malls. Chad Alligood, co-curator of State of the Art, says the studio visits helped him and museum president Don Bacigalupi winnow the numbers down to the 102 artists they chose.

Art, Alligood believes. is about the encounter, and about context. “The studios were surprising and strange and interesting and they came in as many stripes as the artists themselves. So being there, being physically present with the artist and the art work and the context in which it was made, informs the exhibition.”

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Kim Cadmus Owens 

Kim Cadmus Owens recalls when her gallery owner Holly Johnson brought Alligood and Bacigalupi to Owens’ studio. It’s a former machine shop in West Dallas. “I think it’s exciting just to show your work,” she says. “So to have Holly Johnson bring them over to our studio I share with my partner and just find that they’re such interesting and incredible people. I mean, I’m really overwhelmed.”

At Crystal Bridges, Owens steps into the next gallery and is overwhelmed again – “Wow,” she says. “There it is.”

It’s the first time she’s seen her two paintings hanging in the show — Smoke and Mirrors: Coming and Going. They’re a diptych, a bright, pop-art treatment of the changing aspects of Fort Worth Avenue in Oak Cliff, recalling early Ed Ruscha but breaking out into fluorescent  stripes. They’re in a room with other pop-art-influenced works, including a life-size Chevy low-rider by Las Vegas artist Justin Favela. The lowrider is leaping into the air, headed straight for Owens’ paintings. But Favela has transformed the car into another icon of Latino culture.

“Look at the piñata!” Owens exclaims. “It’s a giant piñata. He’s heading out into the distance there.”

This wry Americana is one of the things that marks State of the Art — and marks it as a product of Crystal Bridges with its permanent collection of traditional, realistic American art, including modern representatives like Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter. Not all of the works feature such friendly populism, of course. Perhaps the exhibition’s most emotionally striking piece is San Antonio artist Vincent Valdez’ magnificent trio of lynched Latinos (below). Valdez embraces the history of beautiful, neo-classic painting — the life-size portraits recall Renaissance martyrs — while making a nakedly political confrontation.

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 Jonathan Schipper, “Slow Room,” installation, 2011-14

Other artworks have their own entertainingly disturbing qualities, notably Slow Room by Brooklyn artist Jonathan Schipper, which involves a living room, complete with lamps, chairs and knicknacks. Over the course of the show, all the linked items will be pulled by a motor into the wall, slowly crashing and breaking.

It’s worth noting, though, that while Schipper’s offering us the slow, sardonic death of kitsch, at least he begins with a cozy, middle-class room, one he’s clearly borrowed from my aunt. Nothing baffling here.

Even when State of the Art includes politically engaged, interactive art, we get the spiffy Water Bar by Works Progress (Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson) which provides a counter and stools and offers tastings from different reservoirs – with the cautionary, ecologically irrefutable motto, “Water Is All We Have.”

In other words, State of the Art doesn’t push the truly assaultive, the sexually explicit, the boundary-breaking weird. Despite the show’s occasional, wonderfully unsettling work like Vanessa German’s “21st century juju” — her elaborate “tar baby” doll totems — the exhibition will inevitably be seen as a cheerier counter to the Whitney Biennial. That’s the major  survey the Whitney Museum has presented every two years in New York since 1973. For better but mostly for worse, the biennial is often taken as an assessment of art trends, although lately everyone seems to have wised up and have come to view the show as one curator’s eccentric take on What’s It All About or just a deeply compromised industry sampling.


Vincent Valdez, The Strangest Fruit, oil on canvas, 2013. The triptych is the San Antonio artist’s response to the fact that in Texas as many Mexican-Americans as African-Americans were lynched. Photo: Jerome Weeks

Crystal Bridges hasn’t decided whether State of the Art will be a regular affair like the Whitney, but Alligood is unafraid of the comparison: “I think people wring their hands when they walk through, say, the Whitney Biennial – and that’s supposed to be the representation of the field of American art today? I can say without question that we’re alive and well and we’re doing great. And the strength of American art right now lies in the strength of local and regional communities to motivate around artists and what they do.”

So the purpose is unabashedly hopeful, to elevate such works from the regional to the national conversation. It’s revealing that the catalog is light on analysis or academic mutterings; it’s big on process (1247 hours of audio recorded, worst misadventure on the road). It also must be the first major museum catalog that comes as a children’s construction toy. Each artist gets a card, and the cards can be slotted together in different ways. So there: Form your own theoretical structure.

All of this is not simply the difference between a New York museum and a Midwestern one, between aggressive sophistication and accessible appeal. The Whitney often ponders, What is art? Or at least, what’s the next big thing in the art market?

Crystal Bridges is more concerned with, What is America? And can it perhaps be found in a near- empty shopping mall in Dallas?