‘State of the Art’ reshapes conversation, again

‘State of the Art’ reshapes conversation, again

From September 2014 to January 2015, some 175,000 visitors viewed a monumental undertaking at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art — a museum record at the time. The museum gained national attention in its assembling of mostly unknown artists across the country for its exhibition”State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.” The curatorial team visited more than 1,000 artist studios in order to answer the question “What is happening in American art today?”

The resulting 200-plus works would go on to become Crystal Bridges’ first internally curated exhibition to travel to other locations. It also earned the museum a 2015 Excellence in Exhibition Award from the American Alliance of Museums and was listed as one of the 15 best art exhibitions of 2014 by Huffington Post.

Following the show, “understanding of art seemed to increase, and we wanted to take a look at why that happened,” Niki Stewart, CBM chief engagement officer at the time, told What’s Up! in 2016. That strong, positive response to the accessible contemporary exhibition — and its living artists — was a direct catalyst for the museum looking into development of an experimental space for contemporary art just a mile and a half down the road. Enter the Momentary.

Now, that new space is preparing to celebrate its grand debut with a performance art festival and the second iteration of that inciting exhibition: “State of the Art 2020.”

“Crystal Bridges is a different institution than we were in 2014 in terms of the contemporary program,” shares Lauren Haynes, curator of visual arts at the Momentary and curator of contemporary art at Crystal Bridges.

Six years after the first exhibition’s debut, a fresh team, a resume filled with greater volume and depth of internally curated work, and preparations for a brand new venue’s opening instilled the second curatorial journey with an up-to-date vision for the exhibition’s objective.

“We didn’t start out this trip and the journey saying, ‘This is what we’re looking for.’ It was more about ‘let’s have these conversations with artists, think about the works that we’re captivated by, work that feel like they’re well made,’” Haynes says of the process with the exhibition’s co-curators Allison Glenn and Alejo Benedetti. “The themes for the exhibition are world-building, mapping, temporality and sense of place. [The process] was looking at and talking about how is this very particular group of artists responding to and making work right now?”

Once the 61 works were selected, next came the placement. “State of the Art 2020” will be the inaugural exhibition for the Momentary, but it will be presented across the sister spaces at Crystal Bridges and the Momentary. That conversation between the two sites was part of the consideration for how audiences will respond to and interact with the work, Haynes shares.

“What does it mean to them to see this work both at Crystal Bridges and the Momentary,” Haynes muses. “But it’s also the question of, ‘Wow, how did they do that?’ ‘What were they thinking?’ ‘What were they using?’

“I think for some artists, that’s very much a part of what they’re wanting to get at — they’re asking people to question the process or question the materials. With all art, and with all the artists and the works that we chose for ‘State of the Art 2020,’ we want people to have questions. Not everyone’s going to like everything, ever, anywhere. But for me, it’s successful when people come away with questions or conversations or are really still thinking about something after they’ve left the space.”

Here We Go Again

In May 2019, Daniel Fuller, an independent curator formerly with the Atlanta Contemporary in Georgia, visited Crystal Bridges with a group of curators from around the country to discuss the state of art in their respective regions. The curators chatted about trends from their regions, what was going on with artists, what audiences wanted to see and areas that were potentially overlooked. The notes from that conversation went on to inform “State of the Art 2020.”

“Literally every town, every city, has an amazing artist. And as curators, sometimes we fly over them on our way to New York or Chicago or L.A.,” Fuller shares. “The thing that I really admire about ‘State of the Art’ is that New York and L.A. and Chicago can be in there, but also Arkansas and Atlanta and Memphis and Nashville and Tulsa and all of these cities that so frequently are passed over — they get their chance.

“Crystal Bridges is doing the leg work,” he adds proudly of the institution. “They’re putting in the miles. They’re jumping in the car and driving to places that would otherwise be missed. And to me, it’s like an incredible phone book of things that are happening in these cities that might otherwise not have been seen.”

This second incarnation of “State of the Art” also begins a new tradition for the museum as the exhibition will be revisited with a new curated pool every five (or so) years for the foreseeable future.

“We’re just very excited to have people see this work that this group of artists made,” Haynes enthuses. “Because, you work on an exhibition, you work on a project, you work on the opening of a building, but until people are actually experiencing it, until the public is in it and interacting with it, it’s not quite real yet. So we’re all very much looking forward to that moment and excited to hear what people think.”

Get To Know The Artists

As with the first “State of the Art” exhibition, during the search for artists, the curators made studio visits all across the country. At least one of the three — or some combination of Benedetti, Glenn and Haynes — visited far more studios than those of the 61 artists they ended up including. Only one Arkansas artist was selected: Anthony Sonnenberg of Fayetteville. Another semi-local artist — Elisa Harkins of Tulsa — is the only Oklahoma artist presented in the exhibition.

“They’re both really good examples of the ways in which artists work in a variety of media,” Haynes explains. “Elisa is a performance artist and what we’re showing is a video that’s documentation of a work she has made before. So, just thinking about different modes of how we experience art.

“And then Anthony, we’re showing some of his ceramics works. So again, this idea of different materiality and even [within] something that has existed as long as ceramics, the ways in which artists are rethinking and pulling out different experiences with that medium.”

Q. Tell us about your piece selected for “State of the Art?”

Harkins: My practice centers around language study — specifically Cherokee and Muscogee Creek language. And a lot of my work is centered around music. We do a lot of singing in my [language] class (for Muscogee Creek) and I also write my own pop songs. I was interested in the Muscogee Creek hymns that were sung on the Trail of Tears, so a lot of my work is about uncovering histories that have been erased, especially involving Tulsa, and the Muscogee Creek histories.

My piece is a 20-minute performance titled “Wampum / ᎠᏕᎳ ᏗᎦᎫᏗ” where I sing in a combination of Cherokee, English and Muscogee Creek to electronic dance music. This [piece] is a collaboration with dancers Hanako Hoshimi-Caines and Zoë Poluch. Historically, we think of wampum as coming from the Iroquois Confederation — the idea was an international treaty between the Iroquois Confederation and the Dutch. Cherokees also had wampum and would use it in peacekeeping. I think of [my] piece as a metaphorical wampum between Zoë and Hanako, who are not Native, and myself.

Sonnenberg: I’m a very multimedia artist, but [the discussions for the exhibition] kind of came back around to the ceramics, and they have always been one of the main legs of my practice. So I decided to let them do the talking for me. We decided to do a large number of the ceramic individual sculptures on a kind of crazy podium.

So much of my work revolves around the found object — the better and more diverse array of objects that I can get access to, the bigger and better and more intricate my own work can be. None of the individual parts of it are original; I can’t claim that. But I would like to think that I’m somewhat original in the combination of those parts in that I’m using a slip dip technique.

It’s this combination of these slip dipped items, which are silk flowers and trim, and then the found figurines which are built into kind of a clay armature. All that gets fired together and all the non-ceramic material burns away, so we’re left with just porcelain. How it got developed was I’ve always been really interested in Baroque and Rococo art, especially Sèvres porcelain and Dresden porcelain, which is all that super-detailed, handmade flower kind of stuff. I find them beautiful, powerful. In the day, they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make these things. And they would have been very powerful symbols of your wealth and power within these French and German aristocracies, and yet they’re so florid and feminine, which would have been a lesser idea back then. So I’m really interested in that dichotomy of those forms.

Q. Is your work created with a desired result in mind?

Harkins: The work is in the vein of Indigenous futurism. I’m this futuristic pop star who is presenting the language, and it’s presenting this idea of, “Of course there’s a song on the radio in Cherokee.” It’s presented in this way that says, “Of course this Indigenous woman has non-Native backup dancers.” I’m thinking about the possibilities for the future in a way that is not [framing] everything that is Indigenous as being placed in the past. The work is thinking about the culture moving into the future.

Sonnenberg: Figures come into somebody’s life and they have value, and then I pick them up when they’re thrown away and it’s like I almost re-cast them into this new role. Stories of why they’re valuable to the person who owns them versus why they’re valuable to the greater world, I find really fascinating.

But also, being a queer person, and a really fat person, thinking about surface and value. … In a personal sense, and I think what holds all the work together is, I am that figurine, in a way.

So the ceramics are very florid; there’s a lot stuff going on. They also seem very gloopy and they crack and they kind of crumble. So I think, ultimately, what I want the viewer to have with them is to come in from afar, see them glimmer, see them shine, be attracted in by their appearance. And then when you see them [up close], you see that there is more going on to them. There’s cracks and fissures that let you know that there’s more to it than what you see on the surface. [To] get them to have that greater awareness of judging surfaces and judging what is under those surfaces, [is one of the main goals].






‘State of the Art 2020’

WHEN — Feb. 22-March 24

WHERE — Crystal Bridges Museum, and the Momentary in Bentonville

COST — Free; free timed entry reservations only required during the Momentary’s opening weekend Feb. 21-23

INFO — 418-5700, crystalbridges.org; 367-7500, the momentary.org

Categories: Galleries