Walking through the “State of the Art” exhibit feels like going on a cross-country road trip where every pit stop involves a chat with a uniquely interesting stranger.
The engaging show, which opened this weekend at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and runs through May, features 135 works by 51 contemporary artists from across the country, many of them largely unrecognized outside their own communities.
Funded by Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton, the show broke attendance records at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art she founded in Bentonville, Ark., when it opened there in August 2014. The works were chosen by a curatorial team that logged more than 100,000 miles visiting 1,000 studios in cities, small towns and rural areas in search of artists making pieces that speak to our times.
Paintings and drawings, sculptures, photographs, videos and performance art — including three works by Minnesotans — together constitute a sort of scrapbook of the issues on Americans’ minds, with clever, expressive and often surprising use of materials. All were made within the past five years and thus “capture the current moment” of American life and culture, said institute curator Dennis Michael Jon, acting as tour guide.
Vanessa German’s “White Naphtha Soap, or Contemporary Lessons in Shapeshifting” is named for the vintage soapbox on which two dolls bearing weapons stand like miniature sentries. Symbolizing the protection of children, the dolls are made of shells, an old flip-style mobile phone, baby shoes, porcelain figurines and other found objects, some brought to her by neighbors and friends.
Pam Longobardi’s “Ghosts of Consumption (for Piet M.)” is made entirely of small pieces of refuse culled from the ocean — so threatening to marine ecology, yet so entrancing when pieced together like a Mondrian grid.
“All the work in the show is really accessible,” Jon said. “There’s a real blurring of the lines between fine art, folk art and home crafts.”
Several pieces use beauty to communicate loss or tragedy, such as a giant quilt made of nonwinning lottery tickets by Adam Eckstrom and Lauren Was, or Kirk Crippens’ starkly devastating series of photographs depicting foreclosed homes and businesses in Stockton, Calif.
Perhaps the most magnetically warm work in the show is “Sisters,” by Delita Martin, who uses family members and friends as models for her mixed-media portraiture.
The show has its trippy touches, as well, particularly Jonathan Monaghan’s mesmerizing animated video “Rainbow Narcosis,” starring a jaunty headless lamb and set to computer-generated music reminiscent of old-school video games.
Local mixed-media artist Andy DuCett will recycle his interactive “Mom Booth” to the left of the exhibit entrance, where volunteers (real moms!) dispense advice. In Minneapolis video artist Chris Larson’s “Heavy Rotation,” screened at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, Larson drills holes through two levels of his studio and treats viewers willing to wait 15 minutes to a twist of a surprise ending.
Then there’s Cameron Gainer’s “Eternal Hour,” a grainy one-second looped video lifted from 16-millimeter film of the hourglass shown in the opening credits from the soap opera “Days of Our Lives.”
Gainer has gotten feedback that people find it compelling or maddening, Jon said. “So far it’s running about 50/50.”
Ligia Bouton’s “Understudy for Animal Farm” uses pig heads made of colorful printed fabric (visitors are encouraged to put them on) to drive home the point that we’re all complicit in factory farming and blindly following government dictums.
But while nearly every work takes on a social or moral issue, the show generally steers clear of advocating or decrying politically partisan views.
In fact, there’s not a grossly manipulated Trump or Cruz, Sanders or Clinton image to be found. Such a respite is reason enough to pay a visit, but a better one is the chance to see such a diverse range of nation-spanning artistic expression in one place.