If the Minnesota State Fair awarded a grand prize at its annual Fine Arts exhibition, a very big ribbon would be pinned beside "The Annunciation."

St. Paul artist John Cunningham's 5-foot-tall painting, hanging near the show's entrance, has everything a Minnesota picture should have to claim top honors in 2016. For traditionalists it has beautiful people, a bit of nature, deft paint handling, a nod to art history, a tip-of-the-hat to the military, a Christian glow and a flicker of pop culture. For avant-gardists it offers high-concept, mixed media, sexual ambiguity, cross-dressing and glitter.

As always, professional and avocational artists competed for spots in the Fine Arts show. The 319 pieces were picked from 2,370 entries in eight categories: paintings, sculpture, watercolors, prints, drawings, ceramics/glass, textiles and photography. They were chosen by a "jury of peers" consisting of Minnesota artists active in each field, and the art was smartly installed by Fine Arts superintendent Jim Clark and his expert crew.

Not since 1997 when the late Jerry Rudquist won the fair's coveted People's Choice award for his big portrait of a plump pink porker named "Petunia" has a painting captured the zeitgeist as perfectly as Cunningham's (which did get a second-place award). Where Rudquist's lush brushwork and sumptuous colors channeled Rubens in a playful celebration of the fair's agrarian bounty, Cunningham's polished canvas fuses the cross-currents of a more conflicted moment in American culture.

As its title suggests, Cunningham's picture is a modern-dress illustration of the biblical scene in which an angel, Gabriel, delivers big news to a virgin named Mary. Between them a cornstalk-tall stem of Madonna lilies reinforces her identity and alludes to traditional images of Adam and Eve flanking the biblical "tree of knowledge" whose tempting apple led to their expulsion from Paradise. So far, so conventional.

However, Cunningham's modern "Mary" wears a quasi-military uniform, and Gabriel's androgenous torso dissolves into an opalescent tutu skirt. Her pearl earring affirms her purity, while the pomegranate she holds bursts with fecundity. His beautiful face echoes Elvis, and the glitter in his long auburn hair suggests Las Vegas as much as the starry heavens above.

It is greatly to Cunningham's credit that he presents this gender-fluid, culturally loaded scene with apparent sincerity and not a trace of the campy wink its description might imply. Whether "Gabriel" is coming out or tipping off "Mary" about an unconventional pregnancy doesn't much matter. They're a stunning couple in respectful conversation regardless of their personal circumstances or sexual politics.

For a further fillip of modernity, the painting was executed on drapery canvas preprinted with Madonna lilies that Cunningham embellished with painted dew. Genius.

Recurrent themes

As a reflection of Minnesota character, the fair art suggests we're a contemplative, keenly observant lot who appreciate nature, embrace diversity, indulge nostalgia, have a surrealistic streak and bow to the arc of time.

Barnyard critters are pretty much off our radar these days. The chickens pictured are mostly yard ornaments, and the show's most memorable cow is long-lashed "Miss World," Patty Voje's portrait of a proud Guernsey's head.

We keep pets, mostly cats and dogs. Kids will rightly love "Beulah Dreaming," Beth Thompson's endearing earthenware sculpture of a lop-eared pooch curled in a sleepy heap, and "Girl With Cat," Marjorie Elaine Pitz's expressive ceramic sculpture of a pigtailed girl clutching a cat whose startled expression mirrors the child's. There's also a lovely minimalist "Bird" that Patricia Nanoff carved from a ball of limestone, its shape defined by just three grooves and some delicate gashes.

Animals also get fun cameo roles in the show's small cache of Midwest surrealism. Note especially the lemur head and tail popping incongruously from a cloche hat designed by Jean Hawton of Redwood Falls, and the spread-eagled cat flying through the air above oblivious "Kate" in Bob Weidman's hilarious photo.

Nature and nurture

Erin Elizabeth Nistler of St. Paul deserves a shoutout for the candid humor of "Ode to My Defense Mechanisms," a self-portrait in which she depicts herself as a spiky, green-skinned cactus crowned with red blossoms and big blue ear studs. Allen David Christian of White Bear Lake cleverly sculpts a sexy "Nude in the Key of G" from recycled piano parts.

On the nature front, Reid Thorpe of Chaska uses calligraphic gestures, splashes of color and illusions of deep space to evoke a "Floating Tamarack Bog," and David Bowman of Minneapolis captures, in a black-and-white photo, a stunning cliff of "Extruded Lava Flow" rising from Lake Superior's misty waters.

Minnesota's rural landscape is changing as small farms and towns disappear, prompting such nostalgic laments as Gregory Mellang's photo of shabby schoolbooks in "Simpler Times in Rural America" and Daniel Beers' grainy, mirage-like photo of a totally collapsed "Saddleback Barn."

But life continues on its inexorable way. Curiously, it's the elderly who are most often represented here, sometimes obliquely as in Terry Gydesen's photo of an empty room on a winter day after "My Parents Move to Assisted Living." Or Steve Ozone's faceless portrait of "James Conaway, Artist," a man concealed behind the paint-flecked hands by which he earns his living. In an especially poignant image, St. Paul photographer Ashley Rick evokes the pathos and unbending spirit of stooped, bathrobe-clad "Old Man Henry" playing his shabby grand piano in a battered room.

Others find encouragement in youth. Larry Risser of Minneapolis offers a marvelous photo of six teenage girls chatting, texting and swinging in "Suspended Animation," in four hammocks stretched above each other in a leafy glade.

Babies win hearts in "His Curls," Tara Sweeney's keenly observed watercolor of a sleeping child. And in Shane Patrick Warren's adorable and surprisingly complex teddy bear sculpted from "Deconstructed, Washed, Reconstructed, Stuffed Animals" that are tied together in a multi-hued bundle of love.

mary.abbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431

Twitter: @maryabbe