It is an inescapable fact that most artists in this country toil in relative anonymity, never getting the respect or attention they deserve. A few years ago, curators from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, decided to take a step toward righting that perennial wrong by traveling the country in search of under-appreciated artists, particularly those working in rural areas. The team visited close to a thousand artists over the course of two years, and eventually put together the show that opened at Mia over the weekend, State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now, which features 134 works of art from 52 U.S. artists, including three from Minnesota.
Yes, this is another contemporary art show at Mia. But unlike the sort of show that often gives contemporary art a bad name, the criteria for including artists in this show was: Virtuosity, Engagement, and Appeal. Public appeal, that is, meaning accessibility with a capital “A,” as well as work with a capital-“m” Message, and art that addresses ideas that people actually care and think about, such as environmentalism, racism, and how difficult it is to draw a realistic-looking potato.
If you are the sort of person who feels something between alienation and rage every time you go the the Walker Art Center, this may be the show that restores your faith in the value and purpose of contemporary art—at least some of it. In most cases, deducing what the artist is trying to “say” is not very difficult. The show opens with a few amusing sculptures by San Francisco artist Laurel Roth entitled “Biodiversity Suits for Urban Pigeons”—in which stuffed pigeons are dressed as birds that have gone extinct: specifically, the dodo bird, passenger pigeon, and Guadalupe Caracara. Likewise, California artist Adonna Khare’s exquisitely surreal pencil mural “Rhinos” reminds us, among other things, of the impending extinction of the northern white rhinoceros, whose global population has dwindled to three.
Other pieces offer a reminder of what a clever person can do after a trip to, say, AxMan. Joel S. Allen’s sculpture, “Hooked on Svelte: Pharmsicle” uses twine, some beads, and dozens of empty pill bottles to create a lovely something-or-other that hangs from the ceiling and looks fetchingly decorative. Alternatively, Boston sculpture artist Nathalie Miebach uses chunks of wood, sticks, rope, and paper to create chaotically colorful, three-dimensional architectures full of whimsical, ironic energy.
To some, this much beauty and directness may seem a wee bit pedestrian. But, having experienced my share of WTF moments in the world of contemporary art, I have to say it is refreshing to see work by artists who are obviously engaged with the world the rest of us live in, not some theoretical netherworld of nonsensical abstraction, where “recontextualizing” a Nerf ball is somehow considered important and clever, and “found objects” find their way into the corner of a museum, only to be lost again, buried beneath an avalanche of absurd, self-justifying clap-trap.
Even the videos (of which there are quite a few) make sense in a way that many video installations rarely do. In a video piece by Pittsburgh artist Lenka Clayton entitled “The Distance I Can Be From My Son,” a little boy runs away from the camera, down a grassy hill, getting smaller and smaller in the frame, until he disappears at the edge of some woods—at which point mom abandons the camera and starts running after him. No explanation necessary.
Local artist Cameron Gainer also has a video in the show—a one-second clip from the opening sequence of the soap opera, The Days of Our Lives—that repeats over and over. Some explanation is necessary (he is Walker director Olga Viso’s husband, after all): it’s allegedly the shortest video loop in history of the longest-running soap opera in history (ha, ha, ha). No, this would not be out of place at the Walker, but at least the concept at the heart of it has some kind of ironic logic.
Many of the most striking pieces don’t have a message, per se, but are pulsing with the kind of capital-“v” Virtuosity that offers a reminder of how many unknown but amazing artists there are in the world, most of whom you will never know about. San Diego’s David Adey does gorgeous and mesmerizing diptychs with laser-cut paper and fluorescent pink acrylic. And you can get within six inches of Tim Liddy’s painting of an old Ouija-board game box and not be able to tell if the masking tape on the box is real or painted (it’s paint).
Other works are just fun. In a mixed-media work called “Understudy for Animal Farm,” New Mexico artist Ligia Bouton includes a series of cloth pig-head masks that patrons are encouraged to wear. Being a germophobe, I cringe at that very idea; but this is America—you do whatever you want.
All in all, State of the Art serves its purpose well, introducing many deserving artists to a wider public. I also suspect it will do a great deal of good by exposing John Q. Public to a great deal of art that doesn’t make him feel stupid—art that is beautiful, interesting, funny, and profound, often at the same time. Artists ol’ John can relate to, in other words, and don’t send him back in the world wanting to strangle someone or demand his money back.
Through May 29: State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now, Mia, artsmia.org