Tucked away in a quiet corner of the fairgrounds, the Fine Arts show is generally a refined display of earnest artistry.

And then every so often someone lets rip with something quite unexpected. A "Roadkill Quilt," for instance.

With this "baby blanket," Pamela Valfer solved the vexing problem of what to do with old mink pelts. She recycled a bunch, probably from those nasty shrugs that women of a certain class wore decades ago, into a 5-foot square stretched like a painting.

Paws flailing, tails dangling, bead-eyes gleaming, the critters' jaws are clamped forever into their companions' flanks. A melange of gray, blond and brunette fur, the minks are a sad but perversely hilarious remnant of a bygone era.

In an inspired pairing, the installation crew hung nearby Matthew Tyler Brutger's palladium photo of a poignant collection of taxidermied thrush and robins.

You'll have to wade deep into the display to find these gems, but they're worth the walk as confirmation that Minnesotans are not only above average, they also have a droll sense of humor.

High on talent and technique, the impressive 2012 display boasts 345 paintings, photos, prints, drawings, sculpture, textiles and examples of ceramic and glass art. They were winnowed from 2,011 entries in a statewide competition juried by eight professional artists.

As always they include landscapes and lake vistas, portraits and still lifes, flora, fauna and fish, whimsy and pathos, even some abstractions and conceptual pieces. Fine Arts superintendent Jim Clark and his crew deserve a shout-out for their sensitive installation in the fair's sunny art hall through Sept. 3.

The chief

The show's undisputed star is "Red Cloud," Duluth sculptor Douglas Bieniek's white marble portrait of the Oglala Lakota chief (1822-1909). A stunning rendition of the warrior-statesman, the sculpture is a bigger-than-life-size bust complete with full headdress and ornamented tunic. Bieniek skillfully enhanced its impact by polishing Red Cloud's stern features while leaving his hair and costume matte. A technical tour de force, "Red Cloud" is worthy of the Old Masters and, one hopes, of the leader who inspired it.

Among sculptures, Thomas Alan Page of Cohasset captures in bronze the crazy energy of a hotdog skier careening down the slopes, grinning maniacally as poles fly and skis lift off. And Minnesota's wood wizard, Frederic Haines Cogelow of Willmar, produced another masterpiece in "Finn Hall Banned," a bas-relief of two twinkly-eyed guys before a cabin.

The chicken and the egg

Birds are big, starting with Minneapolis painter Eric Cornett's "Brown Pelican," a beady-eyed bird with a fierce beak and a sleek, Romney-esque crest. Nearby hangs photographer Kristina Irvin's droll riff on gated communities, "Birdhouse Gate," which pictures an imposing chain-link gate blocking a boardwalk leading to a little martin house in a marsh. In Janet L. Bayliss' aptly named photo "Murder of Crows," a blur of dark wings flutters against an amber sunset, while in "Starling Vertigo," Ryan E. Kane makes a poetic abstraction from a flock rising into a dusky blue sky.

At first glance, "Foot #1" by Stephen Hiroshi Ozone appears to be a fashion photo of a pale human hand in strange mesh gloves, but upon examination proves to be a huge, surreal image of a thoroughly scrubbed bird's foot (chicken, maybe?) splayed against a black ground, its curled nails buffed to Parisian sheen. It's bizarre, creepy and an absolute knockout. Nearby hangs "Egg," painter Douglas James Talalla's marvelous 3-foot-square tribute to the fried version sizzling in a pan, its edges bubbling with orchid foam and the plump yolk gently jelling in myriad shades of yellow.

Sharp snaps

Photos to watch for include:

• Victoria Walz's "Ewe View," a State Fair barn vista framed by the just-shorn legs and belly of a sheep.

• "Sunrise -- Dead Horse Point State Park, UT," John Rodman's panorama of a vast, astonishingly beautiful gulch.

• "Sabo Bridge" by Lauren Klabunde, who used multiple exposures to evoke the elegant blur of bikes in motion.

• "Window Washer" by Alyssa Boldischar, which shows a worker dangling from high up on the Guthrie Theater's exterior, cleaning a water-streaked window that looks out onto the Stone Arch Bridge.

• "Sophistication" by Larry Risser, who closed in on a jaded hand with chipped nails languidly flicking a Marlboro ash out a limousine window.

• Photography's cornball humor award goes to Laura Lynn Mager for "Minnesota Gothic," her charming snap of a young couple costumed as Paul Bunyan and Babe posed before the Weisman Art Museum.

The Master of Obsessive Detail prize goes to Kevin C. Johnson's "Jack of Spates," an incisive portrait of a cigar-smoking bon vivant drawn to the last chest hair. Andy DuCett's collage/drawing "Thumbs Up (We Must Be Living Right)" is a fascinating scale-shifting fantasy of modern life.

In "Promises," watercolorist Carol J. Larson expertly transforms the rusting discs of a harrow into a modern abstraction. Painter Brad Nuorala has also kept faith with abstraction in his lyrical "Up Against a Wall." The exquisite beadwork in Marsha Wiest-Hines' flapper-cap and choker suits its subject: "Daisy Buchanan: Innocence in Decay," while Donovan Palmquist's perfectly proportioned "Covered Jar" is eloquence in clay.

More than 7,000 sunflower seeds pop like shark's teeth through the white canvas of Avigail Manneberg's "On the Cusp," a surrealistic "painting" that cleverly melds the slashed canvases of Italian conceptualist Lucio Fontana with the 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds that Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei dumped on the floors of London's Tate Modern.

And surely Kate, the future queen of England, would appreciate "She Was a Crab," a gray silk fascinator -- that is, a perky little hat -- trailing silk seaweed in its snappy claws, stitched up by Jean Hawton of Redwood Falls.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431