The crowds aren’t there, but the art is.
Despite the global pandemic that canceled the Minnesota State Fair, its Fine Arts show is still happening as a timed, ticketed event that runs at the fairgrounds from Thursday through Labor Day.
Artists in this year’s show responded to two current events — the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody and the grief, anger and uncertainty of coronavirus — along with such familiar themes as farm animals, portraits of people, winter landscapes, representation of Native communities and extreme crafts.
The show, which is also viewable online at mnstatefair.org, received only 1,718 entries, down from 2,727 the previous year but comparable to the numbers that were typical before the record-setting highs of the past five years, according to Fine Arts Superintendent Jim Clark.
“I think it’s down for two reasons,” said Clark. “One, [people are like] ‘There is so much going on, I can’t quite wrap my head around this.’ And two, it fell off the radar of more casual participants.”
This year is different in many other ways because of the pandemic. Visitors to the Fine Arts Center must wear face masks. Bottles of hand sanitizer are everywhere.
Plus, a classic fair standby is clearly missing — the food. While there’s a drive-through food parade this weekend and next, tickets to it were snapped up in just 2 ½ hours after going on sale last month. Clark said he realized too late that it would’ve been ideal to coordinate the food parade and the art show — “like, if you could check a box and say, ‘I want to do food and art,’ ” he said. “That wasn’t possible when we were putting this together.”
But should the pandemic continue into next summer, the exhibition’s organizers will know what to expect.
“Let’s all hope and pray that this isn’t continuing to next year, but we are certainly learning a lot of things,” he said.
Pandemic or not, as usual there is a lot going on at the State Fair art show.
It’s even more of a treat to get out and see art during these strange times, when most visual experiences are happening on screens.
The annual juried show is organized into eight types of art categories, from photography to painting, ceramics/glass and textiles/fibers. Thematically, the 346 artworks are all over the place, but here are a few worth checking out.
Cree Native American artist Chholing Taha’s “She Makes Rain” is an acrylic painting on heavy watercolor paper of four mythological-looking, blue-tinted women dancing, their bodies forming from rain clouds. Butterflies, birds, plants and representations of flowers bubble up in this luscious landscape.
Artist Leslie Barlow is known for her paintings of mixed-race families. Her 2018 fair entry was acquired by the Minnesota Museum of American Art. This year she is showing “Grandmother and Child,” a large-scale, realistic portrait of a grandma in a one-piece bathing suit holding a toddler.
“Incarceration Inc.” is a graphite-on-paper portrait of a Black man holding a phone receiver, making a call from prison. Hopkins-based artist Sasha M. Rayl presents her work in an ornate oval frame, the kind you’d imagine a grandmother using for a treasured family picture. By combining these two materials, Rayl juxtaposes the cold reality of the prison industrial complex with the warmth of a family member’s love.
“Grace’s Annual Corn Meal,” by Stillwater-based Judy Sell, is a painstakingly complex mosaic of an underwhelmingly simple moment: a woman eating corn. (Sadly, corn wasn’t available at the food parade.) Sell shows her mastery through small details, mixing broken pieces of plates and dishes, some with images of ships, or just textures that will make viewers want to touch the work.
Minneapolis photographer R.J. Kern captures a startled steer in his dramatically lit image “Holy Cow (Quarantined Greater Than 14 Days).” The brown-and-white steer’s eyes are wide open, like it’s just seen a ghost or, quite literally, is going quarantine-nuts. Known for his photos of prizewinning livestock at the fair, Kern captures the pandemic panic without being cheesy.
St. Paul-based Mandi Smethells’ mixed-media work “Personal Project” is a larger-than-life collection of six fabricated six-legged bugs on display, taxidermy-style, inside a golden house. One bug is totally white (albino?), another has a green poof on its back, and yet another sports a rainbow above its yellow wings. This is just weird and fun.
There’s a mystical story going on in “Undiscovered Giants of the Mississippi Headwaters,” by Spring Lake Park painter Tom Westberg. Part abstraction, part figurative, the colorful, entrancing work includes several figures that look as if they’ve sprung up from a luscious planet where bugs rule and skies are pink.
Dennis Kalow’s “Forbidden Fruit” is a wood and enamel sculpture of some creature from the deep sea, or maybe the black lagoon. Curvy, branchlike spikes grow from a circular tube, which has pink bubblegum-like balls inside.
Chad Manders offers a more humorous take on the pandemic with “Quarantine Saint,” a tall horizontal drawing of a bearded, Jesus-like “saintly” man with a gold halo around his head. In one hand he holds a multi-surface cleaner, in the other a laptop, with mask draped over it. It’s hard to know whether to say something to someone who isn’t wearing a mask in a public, indoor space. What would “Quarantine Saint” do?
Kyle Fokken’s “Class Act (Piggy Bank Series)” is a sculpture of a rifle mounted atop a yellow-and-black striped shooting target of the United States (minus Alaska and Hawaii). This artwork is at the entrance/exit of the show, ensuring that viewers will have bigger social/political issues to think about as they go on their way, back outside to the empty fairgrounds.