“State of the Art”: Old-Fashioned New Work Comes From Crystal Bridges to the Minneapolis Institute of Art

“State of the Art”: Old-Fashioned New Work Comes From Crystal Bridges to the Minneapolis Institute of Art

At the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the exhibit State of the Art includes pill-bottle pendulums, a collage of refuse, and a woodcut with a hidden sex act — but the show’s real object of curiosity isn’t anywhere to be seen. It’s the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the controversial institution that convened the show.

Crystal Bridges is a five-year-0ld museum in Bentonville, Arkansas — created at a total cost (including art acquisitions) of somewhere in the neighborhood of a half-billion dollars. Your clue as to where that money came from is the site selected: the city that’s best-known for housing the headquarters of Walmart.

At a press preview on Thursday morning, Dennis Jon — the curator supervising the exhibit’s installation in Minneapolis — was asked whether State of the Art would change perceptions of Crystal Bridges. Jon had only positive things to say about Crystal Bridges, but some tuned-in culture vultures will doubtless visit the exhibit out of pure curiosity about what Crystal Bridges can do when it invests $4 million in an exhibit.

It can do something quite distinctive, it turns out: it can send a pair of curators on a year-plus odyssey across the United States to scout outstanding mid-career artists who are flying largely below the radar of the international art scene.

To get a sense of the artists tapped by Crystal Bridges’ Don Bacigalupi and Chad Alligood, consider the three Minnesota artists featured in State of the Art: Chris Larson, Andy Ducett, and Cameron Gainer. All have done superb work, all have sterling local and growing national reputations, but none are household names on the order of Alec Soth.

One thing about Larson, Ducett, and Gainer that’s happily not the general rule of State of the Art: they’re all white guys. Artists of diverse backgrounds are represented in the work on display at Mia — a large portion, but not the entirety, of the work featured in the show’s original Crystal Bridges incarnation — with work by African-American artists being especially visible.

The three main criteria for inclusion in State of the Art, Jon explained, were engagement (with the artist’s communities), virtuosity (technical or otherwise), and appeal (“admittedly subjective”). The result is a show that’s highly accessible and never boring.

“You don’t need a special handshake” to grok State of the Art, Jon explained. That’s true: there aren’t a lot of turn-offs in this show, either in terms of subject matter or of aesthetic pretense. Even where thorny themes are tackled, the work is inviting.

Vanessa L. German’s “power dolls,” for example — talismans to defend vulnerable children against all-too-real dangers — are colorful riots of post-consumer symbology. Kirk Crippens’s photographs of foreclosed properties are beautiful compositions that were taken after the occupants had already left. To reference a tragic extinction, Laurel Roth Hope puts a pigeon statue in a cute little dodo sweater.

There’s not an artist here who you’re sorry to get to know, and there are a few you may wonder how you ever did without.

Angela Drakeford’s Jerome E. Drakeford is a densely-packed profusion of jet-black flowers packed into a 72″ x 72″ frame; on close examination, the flowers turn out to be made of tar paper. Then there are Ala Ebtekar’s Fantastic Voyage and Megaforce: movie posters turned backwards and illuminated in lightboxes to reveal hand-drawn Persian designs. This is work that catches the eye, rewards close inspection, and invites continued contemplation.

Though this is not folk art, there’s an undeniably folksy vibe to the show due to its accessibility, its eclecticism, its unapologetic embrace of craft, and the fact that it doesn’t make much of an argument. Though the installation is thoughtful, it’s not overthought: thematic threads, regional references, and media are broadly intermingled throughout the Target Galleries.

If anything, State of the Art represents an argument for the continued relevance of art as traditionally defined: objects, created in studio spaces, that incorporate varied ideas into visually compelling forms.

What else is “art,” if not that? In the exhibition catalog — a box of flashcards that includes suggestions that the cards be used to play games like charades — the curators describe, not too subtly, what they weren’t looking for.

Writes Alligood:

Although the sheer scope of the project breaks new ground, our research method of conducting in-person studio visits takes inspiration from a much earlier era of exhibition-making — and, of culture. In our current technology-mediated environment, instant availability, intuitive ease-of-use, and internet click-through rates rule the way we process and consume images and information. […] The mainstream art market eagerly mirrors the immediate gratification guaranteed by these forms of digital communication. Colorful abstract paintings and aesthetically-arranged piles of junk, some seemingly more beautiful and at home on a touchscreen than in the physical world, fill the galleries of SoHo and Chelsea, at once immediately recognizable as “arty” and totally forgettable as an experience. Mammoth, iconic sculptural installations take over abandoned warehouses and public squares, seemingly tailor-made for posting on social media but little else.

It’s apt, in light of this analysis, that the artists in State of the Art who most directly engage social media are Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman, whose Geolocation series involves photographs captioned by tweets posted at the same locations. They started with the tweets, then went IRL.

The paradox of State of the Art, then, is that this is brand-new work — every piece created since Crystal Bridges was founded — that sidesteps the zeitgeist of art and culture today. You can complain all day about Banksy and Richard Prince and Katharina Fritsch (who’s about to drop one of those “mammoth, iconic sculptural installations” just up the street at the Walker Art Center), but there’s a reason they’re sparking conversations that artists working in a more traditional mold struggle to remain relevant to.

Still, if this is the kind of work Crystal Bridges is going to be doing with contemporary art, it’s good work. State of the Art is richly rewarding, and the artists involved certainly deserve a wider audience. The show should resonate well in a state where one of our icons’ signature sign-off is, “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”

Jay Gabler