After several rocky years, the Minnesota State Fair Art Show has staged a terrific comeback, recouping its rightful title as the state's best pro-am talent show.

With 355 sculptures, paintings, photos, prints, drawings and fine crafts -- picked from 2,084 entries -- it offers a lively mix of well designed landscapes, portraits and abstractions, spiced humorous asides, keen observations, a few conceptual riffs, a bit of social commentary and even some spiritual musings.

Smartly judged and sensitively displayed, the show has genuine Minnesota flavor without the cornball clich├ęs that blighted last year's exhibit.

Animals are in surprisingly short supply, with goats and poultry getting way more attention than cattle -- which seem, shockingly, to have escaped artistic attention for the first time in many years. Emily Koehler of White Bear Lake captures the perky skepticism of one goat in a crisp woodcut, while Ramsey artist Patricia Undis offers an up-close portrait of another inquisitive, blue-nosed beast.

An expanse of rough black floor introduces high design into Brooklyn Park photographer Matt Schmidt's unsentimental photo of severed chicken heads with yellow beaks, milky eyes and bloodied neck feathers. There's equal drama in the sun-like orb of an enormous "Heirloom Tomato" hanging nearby, photographed by Steve Ozone of Minneapolis.

Without being didactic, a good State Fair show should hint at who we Minnesotans are today. Joe Flannery of Mankato rises to that challenge with a nearly life-size portrait of a cocky, denim-clad youth of ambiguous sexuality, a soft-bodied blond toting a green toy gun, his legs tangled in computer cords. Flames rise around him from a bonfire of rifles, pistols and other weapons. The title, "FPS," refers to first-person shooters, the video-game role that is as close to combat as most American kids get despite the nation's multiple wars. By contrast, photographer Kyle Krohn of Minnetonka acknowledges the nation's real conflicts in "The Goodbye Kiss," which documents a farewell embrace between a camo-clad soldier and the woman who loves him.

Other notable portraits include "Concatenation #11," Eric Altenberg's incisive photo of a jaunty old man sporting a fedora and sport coat; "Ojibwe," Sylvia Horowitz's black-and-white photo of three generations of Indian women in festive jingle-dresses, and Frank Wetzel's tender watercolor of a middle-aged "Ballerina," whose youthful ensemble belies the tear in her no-longer young eye.

A sense of place

Good fair art is also deep-rooted, conveying a sense of the place we call Minnesota. In his big oil sketch "Serious Cumulus," Tom Maakestad of Marine on St. Croix catches the quick-changing light of a summer afternoon as clouds suddenly shadow a field of freshly baled hay. In "Tearing Down Purina Elevators," Minneapolis painter Rod Massey poignantly tips his hat to history by depicting a yellow bulldozer clawing at the eroded base of a grain storage tower like a barbarian assaulting the proud walls of ancient Rome. Donald Esse of Coon Rapids catches the urban bustle of a soggy summer afternoon in his "Rain on Hennepin Avenue." Duluth watercolorist John Salminen produces a typically brilliant watercolor of a fisherman in a morning-misted swamp, while photographer Emiliano Monroy of South St. Paul takes "A Different Look" at graffiti sprayed under the picturesque Stone Arch Bridge. In his palladium print, "Mississippi Flood #1," Shoreview photographer Clyde Rogers finds poetry in bare trees and bridge arches mirrored in high water.

Time travel

We Minnesotans travel, too, in both space and time. "The Cheese Shop," a batik watercolor on rice paper by Rebecca Cardinal of White Bear Lake, is a marvel of design and observation. Sharp-eyed photographer Jennifer Solveig Wistrand of Minnetonka spied a Star of David atop a drainpipe not far from a minaret in a multi-religious city where rooftop television antennas suggest Christian crosses. In another metaphor for our troubled times, Terry Hart of Delano painted a busy crowd of blue-eyed, gold-haloed "Angels" ministering to a flock of scrawny, starving "Demons."

And we have a keen sense of humor, as evident in Mary R. Zubrzycki's astonishing life-sized sculpture of a woman and her dog retrieving the mail. Every bit, down to the grass and gravel, is obsessively fashioned from thousands of the artist's own return-address labels. Kristine Heykants' coy photo of a nude couple in a sauna is a hoot, as is Mike Elko's "Cowboy Love" comic strip.

But we take love seriously, too, as George G. Moore proves in his handsome, Gauguin-esque carving of a haughty woman ignoring the "Adam's Apple" offered by her timorous lover.

A centennial nod to history

To mark the centennial of the fine arts division, the show includes a special section of work by previous fair participants including such Minnesota luminaries as painters George Morrison, Jerry Rudquist, Paul Kramer and Francis Meisch; sculptors Paul Granlund, Judy Onofrio and Peter Lupori; photographers Alec Soth, Vance Gellert and Stuart Klipper; and printmakers Wanda Gag and Eugene Larkin.

Highlights include Barbara Hultmann's vividly observed "Fuchsia Dahlia" watercolor and Fred Cogelow's delightful, life-sized woodcarving of a sprightly old birdwatcher squinting into the distance. Study the slump of her shoulders, the drape of her jacket, her bemused expression, and salute in awe.