As its title suggests, “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now” aims to capture American art of the moment. On view at the Telfair Museums Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah, the exhibition advances living artists at all career stages and hailing from locations within and without major metropolitan centers. Diverse works of art, all completed within the past decade, encompass diverse mediums, conceptual approaches, and worldviews.
The survey was initially organized by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. In 2013, Chad Alligood, a Crystal Bridges curator, and then museum president Don Bacigalupi, racked up 100,000-miles traveling the country to visit nearly a thousand studios in a year. Working with regional advisors, the team selected 102 artists for the original exhibition, which ran from September 2014 to January 2015. The Telfair Museums iteration, one of three subsequent runs, includes 40 artists and 76 objects of the original count. Alligood selected each venue’s checklist, striving to preserve the project’s curatorial vision in subsequent versions.
Many of the artworks are composed of unexpected or labor-intensive materials, exemplars of various critical strategies, or alight with local color; the effect is far from arbitrary hodgepodge. The endeavor is most commendable for spotlighting underrepresented artists. “Crystal Bridges,” said Telfair Museums associate curator of modern and contemporary art Rachel Reese, “literally in the middle of the country, in remote Bentonville, produced a truly national exhibition modeled in response to other biennial models, like the Whitney Biennial, which always seem to push through artists from the same cities and reinforce the same networks.” The exhibition proves American artists from all backgrounds make meaningful work outside of major art market hubs like New York City and Los Angeles. They express and process global concerns in specific contexts, engage a rich national history of art, and communicate using unprecedented materials.
Self-taught artist Monica Aissa Martinez of Phoenix (b. 1962) visualizes the body physically, spiritually, and emotionally in dazzling, meticulous studies of internal anatomy (Fig. 1). Looking to science and esoteric teachings, her mixed-media drawings analyze the figure with astute accuracy and tight gestures that, at a glance, read as surging energy. Martinez exhaustively researches human physiology in order to execute her drawings. Mark making’s physicality hones her sophisticated grasp of the body’s interconnected functions.
Elsewhere, the collection of 63 Objects Taken Out of My Son’s Mouth by Pittsburgh’s Lenka Clayton (b. 1977) illustrates the artist’s powerful maternal vision (Fig. 2). Her focused compassion charges with value objects both quotidian and foreign she confiscated from her son between ages 8 to 15 months. Completed during her structured and fully funded Artist Residency in Motherhood (September 2012 – May 2014), Clayton’s miscellany is a loving archaeology of time and place.
Images of contemporary humanity abound in the survey exhibition. Ironically, in Wisconsinite Jason Vaughn’s (b. 1979) photographs of hunting stands, the absence of figures evokes legacy, remnants, and the distinctions between human and nonhuman spaces. Vaughn’s images of sites and structures across his home state’s wilderness recall landscape and architectural photography from that of Joel Sternfeld in the late 20th century to Walker Evans’s record of the Depression-era South. He taps into the American tradition of landscape representation, specifically, the lineage of fine art documentary photographers since the 1970s who codified large-format color photography. Each image of his photographic typology Hide (2011-2014) records a shack as individual as its builder. Some are improvised and appear derelict; one sports a deck, a proper exterior door, vinyl siding, pitched roof and gable, and a sash-hung window.
Endeavor, WI, is a photograph of a plywood construction just left of center standing approximately 25 feet on supports haphazardly bolstered by beams, boards, and planks over a thinly snow-covered clearing (Fig. 3). Hastily camouflaged in spray paint, a second level, with openings on each face like a turret, perches atop the main structure. A tree of similar height mirrors the hunting stand and drives the human and nonhuman juxtaposition. Anthropomorphic — with legs, stacked chambers, and wood and black paint imitating skin and clothing — the stand dominates the composition, and the tree’s winter-barren branches fade from attention, implying human dominance over nature.
Pittsburgh artist Vanessa L. German (b. 1976) envisions how people interact with the world in her “power figures,” magical assemblages of dolls wreathed in myriad found objects. The sculptor and performer calls her transformative labors of love “gadgets for yo’ soul” that detechnologize interactions between people and physical things. She painstakingly shapes innumerable parts into self-critical artworks that evaluate society through their constituent materials’ excess. In Artist Considers the 21st Century Implications of Psychosis as Public Health Crisis or, Critical/Comedic Analysis into the Pathophysiology of Psychosis, a black figure balances on a skateboard holding an American flag in one hand and an infant by the hair in the other. Found objects cover both; a coiled telephone cord snakes around toys, beer bottle caps, buttons, and a thousand other baubles, each a medium shade of blue. Arranged in a ridiculous tableau, porcelain figurines of aristocrats lounge on a miniature bed frame balanced atop the figure’s head, and rusty nails hammered across her torso recall images of arrow-pierced St. Sebastian and bullet-riddled contemporary bodies. Plastic guns and handcuffs, toy cars, keys, and locks — each tinged that omnipresent, police uniform blue — evoke crime, violence, justice, and injustice. As its lengthy title suggests, this accumulation of detritus depicts a public psychosis, or disassociation from reality and behavior. Put simply, the work shows a sick society disconnected from the real world.
Akin to ancient magic and ritual, German constructs tangible artifacts to indict and deflect danger. Seattle-based Susie J. Lee (b. 1972), in contrast, develops a digital mode of critique through video portraits that explore time, introspection, and interaction (Fig. 4). Lee’s real-time portraits of oil field workers in her home state of North Dakota humanize the big business of oil extraction. A Yale graduate with a BS in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, Lee uses technology to facilitate an intimate portraiture. Her art puts a blinking, breathing face to that region’s once-thriving boom towns, now crumbling under oil layoffs, population decreases, and a downturn in related industries.
With its sprawling scope, egalitarian representation, handling of current issues, and by engaging American artistic traditions, “State of the Art” is a living atlas of contemporary American art. Its initial development, traveling iterations, and interactive online presence have forged a deep national network of artists and audiences. Beyond these achievements, it proves that — with few domains as ubiquitous, accessible, and transformative — art is thriving from Manhattan to Bentonville.
“State of the Art: Discovering Art of the Now” is on view at the Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center for the Arts through September 4. Related programs include an upcoming talk by Jonathan Schipper, creator of the installation Slow Room (2011) on May 17. Another version of “State of the Art” is on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Art runs through May 22, and the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis will host a version in January-March 2017.
Jared Butler is an Atlanta-based art critic.