Last year, in a Saturday Night Live season marked by cynical political commentary, an opening monologue by host Tom Hanks provided some measured relief. After announcing that he had just been declared “America’s Dad” by People magazine, Hanks donned a cable knit sweater reminiscent of Mister Rogers, and gave his audience—America—a paternalistic pep talk.
“You are going to be fine …You’re just growing up! And you’re in an awkward phase. For example, you may have noticed your complexion is changing. You’re getting a little darker. And you’re freaking out about it! But that’s natural for a nation of immigrants like yourself. Also … you’re a lot gayer than you used to be. And that is cool. That is trill.”
Hanks’s monologue was perfectly timed; the episode aired in October 2016, at the peak of our election hysteria. It may have been intended as a lighthearted reminder to America to calm down, but it had the surprising effect of eliciting a feeling many of us had not experienced since the election began: pride in our country. We have always been a nation of misfits, and at a time when a volatile presidential candidate was using those differences to divide us, Hanks’s monologue reminded us how wonderfully, hilariously diverse America is. The current show at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now” (through September 3), is an ambitious and heartfelt survey of how, paradoxically, our cultural identity is shaped largely by our difference.
The first work of art in “State of the Art” sets the stage for this new America. Susie J. Lee’s (b. 1972, practicing in Seattle) video portraits of three American men show a subtle cultural shift. Three monitors are hung beside one another, each playing a video of a different subject. The first shows a man: middle-aged, white, slicked-back hair and scruffy beard. He is seated at a table, hands folded, slowly blinking into the camera. His expression is one of polite boredom. The subject in the second video is different: he is, again, a white man, whose age is questionable. He leans back in his chair, crosses his arms and looks directly into the camera, with a slight, self-assured smile, as if challenging the camera and us, his viewers. The third video is where a shift occurs. This third subject is a young white man, who throughout the video is unable to maintain eye contact with the camera. He fidgets, shifts in his seat, and averts his eyes. The most visible difference between this subject and the two who precede him—his age—perhaps points to a change in younger generations.
Like everything else, it is difficult not to think of the 2016 election and Trump presidency when considering this work and others in the show. Lee’s subjects work in North Dakota’s oil and fracking industries. These white, working class men, who occupy traditionally American positions in the great American West, signify everything that America once stood for. But the third subject’s squeamishness, so self-conscious and un-masculine when compared to his burly counterparts, suggests a new vision of masculinity and America at large.
“State of the Art” was organized by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, and is the result of a “coast to coast curatorial road trip,” wherein then-director Don Bacigalupi and curator Chad Alligood paid visits to nearly 1,000 artists’ studios. Their aim was to showcase contemporary American art by relatively unknown artists working outside major metropolitan areas. The concept sounds daunting: how do you create one cohesive vision of what American art is now when the very question of American identity and who counts as American is so contested?
Instead of digging in its heels and maintaining that American art is this one thing, the show embraces the multiplicity of our identities. Angela Ellsworth’s (b. 1964, lives in Phoenix) Seer Bonnet XXIII references her Mormon upbringing; Teri Greeves (b. 1970, lives in Santa Fe) combines imagery from Kiowa and Shoshone traditions; Vanessa German’s (b. 1976, lives in Pittsburg) “power figures” recall Nkondi statues from the Kongo in what is now the DRC. Besides the artists’ personal identities, the show employs a dizzying array of mediums, including photography, video, collage, sculpture, and installation.
With so many materials and perspectives, it would have been easy for the show to unravel into simply a collection of different American art. The pleasant surprise of the show is the pervading sense of humor it contains and the way in which it unifies the exhibition. The painting Untitled (Yellowstone, Swan Lake) by Cobi Moules (born 1980, lives in Brooklyn) disrupts the longstanding tradition of American landscape painting. Moules, who is transgendered, inserts multiple frolicking self-portraits of himself into a sweeping Western scene at Yellowstone National Park, literally and figuratively queering the American landscape.
One of the most mesmerizing works in the exhibition is an installation piece by Jonathan Schipper (b. 1973, lives in Brooklyn) titled Slow Room. The installation consists of an entire living room set, complete with a dated couch and chair set, oriental rug, and glass case for family tchotchkes. Wires are affixed to each of the items and connected to a hidden motor at the center of the room that almost imperceptibly pulls everything in. When approaching the installation, it appears to be nothing more than a recreated living room. It requires extended viewing to notice the subtle movement of objects: a chair inching slightly toward the center of the room, the legs of the armoire scraping against the floor, a lamp falling over. The accompanying wall-text provides a photograph of the room at the start of the exhibition, in pristine order. By the end of the show, all the objects are jammed together is disarray.
Like other works in the show, Slow Room doesn’t exactly represent a specific region of the country but acts as a larger metaphor for “place” in America. A series of photographs by Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman uses geolocation to pair tweet texts with photographs of where they were tweeted. Despite the fact that the photographs’ only connection to the tweets is that they document the place where the author pressed “send,” each work tempts the viewer to find meaning between the image and the message. Some feel poignant, like the photograph of a motel at dusk, no sign of life except for two empty cars. The accompanying tweet reads: “Tell me I’m not making a mistake. Tell me you’re worth the wait. #fb.” Other works betray the randomness of the tweets and the disconnect between the physical place and the words. These works and others in the show use the Internet as a digital stand-in for “place,” demonstrating how the digital world can render physical borders meaningless.
“State of the Art” exemplifies the fluctuating nature of the country, where the very idea of location, race, and gender are contested. We are ultimately a work in progress, difficult to define, but all the more beautiful for it.
“State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now” is on view at the Mint Museum in Charlotte through September 3.
Susan Mackey is a North Carolinian living in Atlanta. She is Assistant to the Director of the High Museum of Art, and was a participant in the BURNAWAY Art Writers Mentorship Program. She is relocating to Chicago to begin pursue her master’s degree in modern and contemporary art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.