By now, everyone knows the story of how the exhibition “State of the Art: Discovering American Art” came to be. To bring dancing sombreros, an installation made of romance novels, dressed bird carvings and a room in which the furniture is slowly sucked into a hole and 223 other works of art by contemporary American artists to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, two men traveled 100,000 miles and visited nearly 1,000 artists over the course of a year. The result is being compared to the Whitney Biennial and the achievement of the men — museum President Don Bacigalupi and curator Chad Alligood — to Alan Lomax’s thousands of recordings of American roots music. It is one of the biggest art exhibitions of the year, and we’re not talking just in Arkansas: Advance stories on Bacigalupi and Alligood’s travels and the idea for the show were covered in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the L.A. Times and arts magazines. While reviews from mavens abroad have been slightly critical of the non-shock of the new there (WSJ: “The result is a meticulously installed, technically impressive exhibition that looks like the world’s largest university faculty show”), anyone who can get to Bentonville to see it should.
“State of the Art,” which opened Sept. 13 and will run to Jan. 19, features work by 102 artists, four of which are from Arkansas: printmaker Delita Martin, painter Guy Bell, conceptual artist John Salvest and ceramicist Linda Lopez. Martin and Bell are from Little Rock, Salvest (whose entry is the aforementioned work in which a zillion romance novels have been arranged to spell out the title of the piece, “Forever”) is from Jonesboro and Lopez teaches in Fayetteville. Bacigalupi and Alligood sought artists who aren’t yet known nationally and who they thought represented, of course, the state of American art. The work does not run to the really out there — nothing scatological, for example — but that doesn’t mean there’s not food for thought in the show, if the show checklist and reviews are anything to go by. (See Vanessa L. German’s “protection figures,” folk art assemblages that make use of white dolls painted black as a commentary on African-American imagery.)
The exhibition is hung throughout the museum, both in the main galleries and the temporary gallery space, and spills out into the grounds. There are 54 male and 48 female artists in the show. The regions they come from are also nearly evenly represented: 26 artists were chosen from Western states, 27 from the mid-Atlantic, 25 from the South and 24 from the East Coast.
A postscript on the Wall Street Journal review: The writer took Salvest to task for being “obvious” by spelling out the word “forever.” It seemed essential to me, unless there otherwise would have been some sort of delicious ambiguity that I’m too — oh, Arkansan — to get. Is it so wrong to be wry?
In addition to its current exhibition of the calligraphic engravings by Arkansas artist laureate Evan Lindquist, the Arkansas Arts Center has two fine exhibits coming this fall: steel and turned wood sculpture by Stoney Lamar and a retrospective of drawings by figurative artist William Beckman. Lamar’s show, “A Sense of Balance” (Oct. 24-Jan. 18), includes multi-axis-turned work from 1987 to present, creating surfaces and shapes of transcendent beauty. “William Beckman: Drawings, 1967-2013” (Oct. 24-Feb. 1) includes full-scale figures (and in some cases, cattle) drawn in charcoal and silverpoint, luscious works of realism.
The annual “Collector’s Show and Sale” of work from New York galleries runs Nov. 14-Feb. 4.