After more than 30 years, the McKnight Foundation’s Visual Artist Fellowship program is throwing in the towel on the exhibition part of its program. The show that opens Friday at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) will be the last public display of new art by winners of the $25,000 visual art grants.

The decision to cancel the exhibitions is especially regrettable given the robust talent and high skill demonstrated by this year’s grant winners, Catherine Meier, Joe Sinness, Amy Toscani and Dyani White Hawk. Traditional drawing, employed by three of the artists, is the foundation of a show enlivened by the antic humor and daffy social commentary in Toscani’s sculpture. The display is a classic example of what grant-based exhibits can be at their best: fresh, unexpected and idea-driven.

Changes to come

Since their start in 1982, the Mc­Knight shows have been a mixed lot — sometimes terrific and sometimes not — but they’ve always been a rare and reliable way for the public to get an idea of what Minnesota’s most promising talents are up to. Because the art has been underwritten by the foundation, the artists are free to try things that are more venturesome in scale, concept or material than what’s typically found in commercial galleries.

Prime examples of such “noncommercial” work in this show are Meier’s 12-foot-long landscape drawings and Toscani’s exuberantly amusing, Pop-style sendups of revered sculptural traditions. Few commercial galleries could afford to show art with so little sales potential, but it’s great for the public — and other artists — to be able to see it. And surely the imprimatur of a McKnight show must be a boost to the artists’ résumés, especially now when hundreds of state artists are clamoring for exhibition opportunities and venues are limited in number and often financially struggling.

Fortunately, the grants will continue, though the program will change. In the future, Mc­Knight will give $25,000 each to eight artists in all visual media, including photography. Previously, four grants went to photographers under a separate McKnight program. Instead of exhibitions, the foundation will sponsor public conversations between artists and national critics, and produce for each artist 25 copies of a book about their work.

“For midcareer artists, doing a group show has not been the best or most effective way to move their careers forward,” since those artists usually have many such shows on their résumés already, said Kerry Morgan, who administers the program for MCAD. Photography will be wrapped into the broader visual art category because “a lot of artists use photography as one of many tools without necessarily identifying themselves as photographers,” she said.

Diverse talents

The point about photography as a “tool” rather than a craft is nicely underscored by Sinness’ colored pencil drawings.

He draws, in meticulous detail, fruit, tropical flowers, fabric, figurines, photographs and magazine clips that he deploys in coyly sexual arrangements with teasing titles. Four life-size bananas explode from the crotch of a guy in a hand-drawn snapshot; big grapefruit crouch under a suspiciously pubic-looking tower of flowers. Other drawings offer surrealistic pairings of unlike images — a plastic flamingo perched on a bit of French bread near a snapshot of disrobing fighters. The mix of hyper-feminine flora and thuggishly masculine imagery doubtless reflects contemporary pop culture, but the drawings’ virtue is in Sinness’ consummate skill in creating trompe l’oeil illusions.

Armed with a pencil and huge rolls of paper, Meier has set out to draw the Great Plains, an infinity of space undulating to invisible horizons. Her bravado in undertaking such an impossible task is admirable, and the resulting scrolls — which cascade down the walls like waterfalls of sky and grass — are memorable even though the essence of so vast a place cannot be caught on paper.

White Hawk explores both her Sicangu Lakota heritage and various art media. Her repetitive use of moccasin toes as a key image in paintings, prints, bead-and-quill work is smart, bringing clarity and continuity to diverse images. Subtle allusions to ledger drawings, old blanket designs and tepee forms root her modern materials in traditional culture.

With the brio and inventiveness of her constructions, sculptor Toscani steals the limelight. A 15-foot steel column half-faced with 11 entwined cutouts of Wonder Woman opens her section. Besides its kitschy charm, the column’s undulating shape is a sly, feminist quotation of Constantin Brancusi’s famous “Endless Column” commemorating the sacrifices of Romanian soldiers in World War I. In “Friendly Fridley,” she uses black-and-white aquarium rocks to cover the volcano-shaped base of a sculpture crowned with album photos of pop music stars from the 1950s and ’60s (Petula Clark, Burl Ives). Next she lampoons the briefly influential Art Brut movement of 1950s France with a hilariously misshapen ceramic foot sprouting a bulbous leg fabricated from plastic trash bins and storage boxes. And so on.

In the best tradition of McKnight exhibits, these artists have little in common beyond their skill, moxie and grant money, and that’s quite enough for a good show.