State of the Art: A Social Response
Over the next couple of months, we will be publishing a ‘social response’ to a complex exhibition. This is an attempt to unearth a state: the state of hundreds of studio visits, flights and buses represented back to us as a survey of contemporary American art in an ambitious, controversial and undeniably complicated new institution. We will move unevenly outward, first asserting the perspective of the curator and museum to frame the show on its own terms, then moving to first-person perspectives from artists represented in the exhibition, and, finally, presenting a public call for critical assessments of the show by artists, critics, and any others who would like to respond. This evolving text will be updated every week until the show closes on January 19th, 2015. We will add our commentary and other invited perspectives over the course of the process, but also encourage you to respond either in the comments below or submit your own text to james(at)temporaryartreview.com.
State of the Art has been thoroughly dissected in one sense – as an anomaly in the art world given its context and perspective and as a much-touted narrative of curatorial research, travel and discovery – yet equally ignored as an exhibition with a unique public, complex goals and still evolving scope. It is perhaps instructive that when I first searched for the “State of the Art” exhibition and artists, the Whitney Biennial came up as one of the top results. It is difficult not to read the exhibition as a counter-WhiBi, even in its unintended mirroring of Michelle Grabner’s Midwest diagnostics and her emphasis on craft practices studied through studio visits in the most recent incarnation. At every step, State of the Art seems to both embrace and deny this twinning, defining itself as much in its apathy towards the art world as we understand it as any kind of competition or coordination with it.
Ignoring its process and the often overly-schlocky framing in much of the press to date, State of the Art is the most (potentially) potent survey of recent art outside of the established art bubble in our generation. We wait breathlessly for the announcement of the Whitney’s list and are typically disappointed. Many wait for the coastal art worlds to validate the work of artists in a different kind of center and are typically disappointed. State of the Art set itself up to be some kind of alternative. Exactly what kind and of what value is still to be determined. The curators clearly did not base their framework on understood and previously validated work, summoning easy acclaim and furthering already-advanced careers. Whatever the value of State of the Art has as an exhibition, it is, at least, important – as a resounding success, a complete failure, or something less certain. Accordingly, we are interested in attempting to assess the exhibition in a form appropriate to it – decentered, labor-intensive, and odd perhaps; but also far-reaching, varied and open-ended, with at least a possibility of failure, fragmentation and, hopefully, insight.
>>James McAnally, Executive Editor of Temporary Art Review
The exhibition State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now responds to two observations:
- In general, contemporary art carries the reputation of being hermetic and inexplicable
- Much of the art made in America goes unseen outside of its locality—to its detriment and our own
The structure of the curatorial process—by now, well-documented—sought to address these two conditions, which we see as intrinsically linked. From July of 2013 until March of 2014, I traveled the country alongside my co-curator, Don Bacigalupi. We canvassed cities large and small, from so-called “centers” of the art world to towns the GPS couldn’t find. In advance of our visits, we contacted people in each area to mine local knowledge: curators, artists, arts administrators, academics, local arts supporters, and a host of others. Sometimes, we knew these people; much more often, they were total strangers. We asked them who deserved more recognition for their work. We told them we were looking for works of art that were engaging, virtuosic, and appealing. Graciously, collegially, they responded in kind: thousands of names from hundreds of recommenders all over the country poured into our inboxes. We prioritized these lists, visited nearly 1,000 artists’ studios, and documented each one.
Engagement, virtuosity, appeal: these became our criteria for inclusion in the exhibition. As any good criteria for evaluating art must be, these standards were pliant and open to subjective interpretation. Engagement, depending on the artist, could indicate a willingness to address issues of everyday life or the contemporary political discourse. Or, in another artist’s hands, engagement could signify a direct address of the viewer, begging further action beyond passive viewing. Works of virtuosity evidence a manifest mastery of the material at hand—whether paint or plastic or social interaction. And appeal as a criterion speaks to the seductive power of the work: does it plainly call to the viewer? Is it beautiful, wondrous, richly rewarding, surprising, endearing, challenging, or just plain fun?
We chose these criteria to address the first observation above. The exhibition that grew out of these parameters reflects them: it’s by turns joyous, noisy, unwieldy, poignant, and pressing. Most of all, the art on display in State of the Art demonstrates a generosity of spirit and a willingness to communicate, two hallmarks of the studio visits we completed over the nine months of our research. Connecting our audience with these experiences remains the ongoing aspiration of the exhibition.
>>Chad Alligood, Curator at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Co-Curator of State of the Art
When Works Progress got an email from Crystal Bridges requesting a studio visit, we replied to tell them there must be some confusion about what we make and why we make it.
The collaborative public art and design projects we create typically respond to local places, issues, and people. We work in close relationship and proximity with our community, evolving ideas and projects together over time. Although we consider ourselves professional artists, and appreciate art made by people who work in more traditional venues and contexts, we’ve never thought of our own work in terms of an art world of galleries, museums, and art fairs – in part because we’ve been fortunate to find and continue building grassroots networks of engagement and support, which constitute a different kind of art world altogether.
This all adds up to the sort of work that doesn’t translate well to survey exhibitions, especially those pushing broad macro narratives. So why did we decide to participate in State of the Art? A better question might be, Why did they decide to include us?
We agreed to the initial studio visit because we were genuinely curious if a broadly-sourced exhibition about the state of contemporary art and artists could accommodate artists like us: Artists who organize and create spaces for connection, conversation, experience, and meaning to emerge, rather than beginning in a fixed place with a finished piece; Artists who are challenging conventional art world narratives and infrastructures by creating new ways of working and new systems of support; Artists who are engaged advocates, though not necessarily of single points of view or simple solutions; Artists who insist on equitable collaborations, which includes helping to define the terms of our own participation in an institutional project.
When Chad and Don arrived at our studio we had a wide-ranging and candid conversation, much of it about our artistic process and where we hope to go with our work. They asked us smart questions, and seemed to genuinely understand the complexity of what we’ve been thinking about, making, and doing around collaborative art and water resources, an area of work we’ve been eager to pursue on a broader scale.
When they invited us to be part of the exhibition, it was not an easy decision. It feels good to be recognized for your creative work, but because our projects are collaborative and iterative, the attention on one exemplary project – created by two individual artists – seemed to miss the point completely. There was a lot to negotiate.
And then there was the issue of the broader context surrounding the exhibition and the museum itself: The incongruity of a show composed of work by a handful of artists from across the country – many of them addressing personal, local, or urgent social issues – being discovered and brought to Arkansas to challenge an elite art world based on either coast.
Though the curators never used that language or that explanation of the project themselves, it was easy to see how State of the Art would inevitably be promoted and understood in those terms. The fact that the vehicle for such a project is a billion dollar museum, admission sponsored by Walmart, is itself a poignant narrative about contemporary American life and the role of art in our culture. We knew we would get flack from our peers for participating. We also knew the opportunity was there to bring people into conversation who would not otherwise have the chance to connect. […]
This is an excerpt of Shanai’s response. Please read the rest of the text here.
>>Shanai Matteson, Co-Founder of Works Progress; Artist, Writer and Arts Organizer
The GPS said we were minutes away from the Crystal Bridges Museum, which was good news after driving 9 hours. We soon realized that we drove 3 hours out of the way because the GPS had problems locating the museum on the map. A few people at the museum told us this was a common occurrence.
After finally arriving I went straight to the museum to attend the artists’ Champagne toast. Before entering the museum grounds we passed the town of Bentonville, which seemed like an idyllic village with tennis courts, a skateboard park and nicely maintained homes.
After following many signs for the museum we entered its grounds, which felt like a forest preserve or small national park.
We came to a concrete wall, which was the entrance to the museum where employees were welcoming visitors. We went straight for the parking lot where I quickly changed into my casual cocktail attire. My family left me to go check into our hotel. They would meet me later.
I was greeted enthusiastically by docents in front and guided to an elevator behind the concrete wall.
As I came out of the elevator it was clear that it was a nice museum. It looked like a futuristic space colony. I wasn’t sure if it was because I was tired from driving but the architecture seemed to blend in with the surrounding nature and it confused me.
I got to the main hall and was given a magnetized pin with my name and the title of “State of the Art Artist”.
At the entrance of the great hall I saw Chad and Don, the curators that visited my home/studio and was greeted warmly by them. In the hall I met a few of the other State of the Art artists and saw a fellow Chicago artist that I knew was in the show.
The curators’ spoke, gave a toast and handed the microphone to Alice Walton. I was impressed by how plainly she was dressed and how commonly she spoke.
Afterwards we were set free to roam the museum and see the exhibition. On my way over a docent asked me my name and directed me to a touch screen kiosk that had all of the State of the Art artists listed by name on it. He touched my name and I was amazed to see an image of me, my work and a description of my process with my quotes.
Before going to look at the work I went outside by a pond and listened to a young female DJ play electronic music while singing. Her performance added to the dreaminess of the night.
While listening I realized that my piece was across the way beautifully placed at a window that overlooked the pond. People were playing it. […]
This is an excerpt of Alberto’s response. Please read the rest of the text here.
>>Alberto Aguilar, Artist
I never know where the works are headed or what they will say over the course of time, who does? That said, I think the Xtal Bridges show put my work into a new context and also gave me funding to expand upon my initial project, which is great. My piece employs box fans, children’s sombreros, and eggs. The hats spin atop the fans and are pinned by the eggs. When assembled, the piece’s form references a work by the artist Donald Judd which previously occupied my works current location in the show.
Acquired last year by the museum, Judd’s Untitled stack is a big stepping stone for anyone who has or hasn’t gone to art-school, and the subject matter is compelling considering the current, ubiquitous issue throughout the United States: of making contemporary art more accessible to everyone. Judd shocked the art-world by making ‘minimal’ works, devoid of expression. His influence on this matter has helped to foster an art-trend that gives no clear explanation as for an object’s interpretation; and while this frees artwork to take on a variety of interpretations, it also requires more time for consideration, furthering the gap between the avant-garde and Norman Rockwell.
Judd anticipated the potential shortcoming of his pieces in future galleries and museums by procuring perpetually controlled contexts, such as Dia Beacon and Marfa. He felt the experience the objects could elicit was dismantled by their provisional installments. One of the curators told me that their placement of Judd in the gallery was at a pivot point, where a viewer would be forced to physically address the work in order to get to the other side. On a critical note though, perhaps the present experience that a Judd can elicit outside of Dia B or Marfa is less of art and more of an artifact.
My piece was given a great spot by the curators. The action it performs brings about an immediate response; one that can be felt by all ages and backgrounds. Whether that response goes beyond an initial interest is something else to be discussed. I think it is harder for a viewer to get to that point but is still possible, though maybe its an issue for art-schoolers, albeit one of recognizing the polarizing qualities of contemporary art.
In terms of cohesiveness, much of the works were created outside of a strict dialog and the curators hinted, when I whined about avoiding a typical museum-paragraph beside the piece, that many artists in the show were attempting to keep their pieces from being pinned down to one perspective. A viewer can be inspired by many of the pieces without knowing their origin, or the history of the artist (though at the same time, many of the works in the show also acknowledge a more distant art-canon). If a critic were looking for a vantage point to make sense out of the show and its artists, perhaps this is it. What does that mean in the end for any potential criticism of the show? If the artists were outside of the dialog in the first place, and then they are being shown in a museum that is off the beaten path . . . .
The town of Bentonville and the region of Northern Arkansas are also an influence on the show, as the projected audience is purposefully small-town. In talking with people from Bentonville and the museum there was a definite sense of agitation-turned-comradery through the hill-billy stereotype the region has been pegged with. Xtal Brgz acquisition of several audacious and coveted pieces serves to counter this cliche. I partially wonder if a lack of in-depth criticism is a backlash of such actions.
Regardless, if an artist or gallery is doing what they want, then criticism and credit won’t matter. Despite the lack of criticism, the work will eventually be considered on a broader level through the curators’ persistence. I don’t think there are very many (if any) contemporary art shows made to deliver an experience to my mother, or grandmother for that matter, while also provoking my own sensibilities. For that reason, I think the show is groundbreaking and I look forward to seeing what these curators and artists unearth in the years to come.
>>Hamilton Poe, Artist
The art world loves zeitgeists, movements, surveys. Of course, we also hate them, but in 2014, we talked about them more than ever. We latched onto “post-internet” art and “Zombie Abstraction.” Social practice probably gained a few new names and has firmly entered mainstream art discourse, along with art and debt, art and gentrification, art and education. Political art and public action, post-Occupy and in the midst of Ferguson, has returned with force. In this landscape, an ambitious, contradictory, sprawling survey feels necessary to talk about art today because each of these movements is irreconcilable with the others in a coherent discussion. However, in wandering through State of the Art in its final week, the question I was left with was why this complicated, brimming energy, this time and its notable, much-discussed movements largely felt absent in a show purportedly meant to be a survey of American Art now. The now of the exhibition and the now that I am experiencing seemed to be dramatically different. […]
Throughout the exhibition, there are also surprising moments of virtuosity and gut-level emotion, especially on the lower level, where the work had more room to breathe. Standout works were dotted throughout, including Terence Hammonds’s You’ve Got to Get Up to Get Down, John Riepenhoff’s vibrant, rotating microgallery that successfully challenged the format of the exhibition, and Jeff Whetstone’s mesmerizing Drawing E. Obsoleta, as well as strong projects from a number of artists we’ve included in this text, including Hamilton Poe, Works Progress, Alberto Aguilar andLenka Clayton. Kedgar Volta’s surveillance-like footage of Cuban families and social spaces was preternaturally timely, especially paired with Marni Shindelman and Nate Larson’s profound, poignant and funny geolocation photographs. And yet, with as many moments as I connected with, I feel like I am throwing my voice in lauding the show’s success as a whole.
This is an excerpt of a full review. Please read the rest of the text here.
>>James McAnally, Executive Editor of Temporary Art Review
State of the Art (mart), the Wal-Art Effect
I should say that in writing this piece, my personal aesthetic for curating and/or hanging a show has always been the less is more approach. Another matter that is unique to this exhibit is that it is brought to us by the same family/company that has almost single handedly provided the world with a culture of consumerism that has never before been experienced as it is today. These ideas were carried with me the first time I visited Crystal Bridges, and the last time I visited (to experience the State of the Art exhibition). It’s also important to note that, while I am very aware that large corporate sponsorship is how these types of institutions maintain, Crystal Bridges is unique in that it is the spawn of a corporation that serves in many circles as a very contentious topic for debate. Hmm… how to distance one from these thoughts and experience the work exhibited on its on merit? It is a challenge for me, as context is an important component to understanding where we are and what lies before us. So, with that said, some thoughts on the show.
State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now, is the full title of the exhibit.
It is a lot. The undertaking of a survey of any kind is a lot. This exhibit is no different than other surveys, as they strive to give us an overview (in this case, of contemporary American Art), and that attempt can all too often result in an over loaded experience. It’s difficult, I’m sure, because one wants to be thorough and Wilde’s quote, “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess,” does come to mind. I’m just not sure that approach works here.
The curators state that it was one of their aims to give a higher profile stage to artists that may, for reasons of their locale and the art market there, have not had more prominent exposure. This is a thoughtful idea; unfortunately, for me it’s lost in the overloaded inclusion and installation of the works. It was for sure a big undertaking. The leaders of this endeavor let you know that in the publications that accompany the show. They set out on a pilgrimage to find out what American Art looks like today. They found a lot of stuff; enough that it would have given a more proper stage to the individual artists and their works if it had been shown in installments. The almost salon-like approach to installing is particularly difficult when the range of medium, content and volume of work is so massive.
It’s as if the folks behind the show are saying: “The country is big!” Yes. “We produce a lot of artists.” Yes, I know – I try to teach art and, for better or worse, I contribute to this fact. Yet, unfortunately, the show feels small on impact. This is in part due to curatorial decisions. Forgive the analogy, but it’s like walking down the aisle of a Wal-Mart… nothing is significant because it’s all too much – 120,000 (the approximate number of items available at a Wal-Mart) too much. Do us the service of not making the art experience about the same mega consumption of discounted goods that Wal-Mart so thoughtfully provides. It will be a better thing for the artists and their audience.
The show’s feeling of excess sets up a kind of parallel to the same excess we see in the global art market in which the mega-rich consume the high dollar art objects as dictated by that environment. It’s a kind of abundance and excess that is in question.
For as dense as the show is, I moved through it rather briskly. Similarly to how one might feel about getting in and out of a big box store. Again, I’ll place that problem on the curators, and urge them not to think of art as something to be consumed, but something that should be experienced with time and attention. The art deserves it, the artists they are hoping to give exposure to deserve it, and the audience deserves it as well.
I am sure that many will disagree and think that my inability to separate Wal-Mart from this exhibition is my problem. That may be, but as I said, context is an important element in understanding.
>>Michael Behle, Artist, Educator and Founder of Paul Artspace
As a portion of Tempoary Art Review’s long-form “social response” to the State of the Art exhibition, participating artist Lenka Clayton has compiled a comprehensive email exchange with the museum, spanning a full year from the initial studio visit, to logistics about the exhibition, and, finally, to her invitation to participate in this survey. The meandering, exhaustive exchange is a compelling document of the scope of a single artist’s inclusion within a massive survey that amplifies this discourse a hundred-fold. Mirroring her own work, which often measures, transcribes and transforms the mundane, Clayton’s communication with Crystal Bridges is presented almost unedited, with only names and private details removed when it was determined necessary.
– James McAnally
11 October 2013 at 16:13
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art request for studio visit Oct 17-18
I’m writing on behalf of Don Bacigalupi, President of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and assistant curator Chad Alligood to inquire about your availability for a visit to your studio or a gallery that represents you in the Pittsburgh area. Don and Chad will be in the Pittsburgh area between Thursday, October 17 and Friday, October 18. If you are amenable to a 20-30 minute visit at some point during that period they would like to touch base and view some of your work.
If you are interested and available for a visit, please reply with your preferences for appointment times as well as a studio/gallery address and a phone number for contact so that we can schedule our itinerary with your preferences in mind. I look forward to your reply!
Executive Assistant, Special Projects
11 October 2013 at 19:43
Thank you so much for your email. I would be delighted to meet Don Bacigalupi and Chad Alligood while they are in Pittsburgh. I have an exhibition at the moment at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, in which I am showing a good deal of my recent work. The gallery does not represent me but I wonder if they would be interested to meet me at the exhibition and we could view the works together. Might this be of interest? Either of the dates you mentioned would be fine, could around 10 -10.30am work? If other times work better please let me know.
Thanks again, I look forward to hearing from you.
All the best,
18 November 2013 at 12:57
Don and I would like to extend our sincere thanks to you for taking the time to meet with us during our recent visit. We were impressed by your work and the ideas and process that underpin it. We are interested in potentially including one or more of your works in our upcoming exhibition. We were particularly drawn to the video of how far you can be from your son, as well as the sculptural piece of objects from his mouth. To that end, we would like to share some practical information about our process moving forward.
The exhibition, which will feature a wide variety of American contemporary artists across all media, opens on September 13, 2014 and closes on January 5, 2015. We hope that this timeframe could work for you as your schedule develops for next year. You can read more about the exhibition here: http://artsbeat.blogs. nytimes.com/2013/11/11/crystal-bridges-museum-conducts-ambitious-survey-of-contemporary-american-art/
Please let us know if you are able to participate in the exhibition. Please also let us know if the proper channels for communication moving forward should include your gallery representation.
We look forward to hearing from you. Warm regards,
Assistant Curator, Special Projects
20 November 2013 at 16:17
Thank-you so much for your email and invitation to be part of State of the Art. I am honoured to be selected and would love my work to be a part of it. I really enjoyed meeting you and Don and am delighted to have the chance to continue our conversation. I am not currently represented by a gallery so we can discuss details in person.
The works you mentioned are available for exhibition within your time frame. Please let me know if you’d like to see anything else, or if you need any more information at this stage. I look forward to working together.
All the best to you and Don,
This is an excerpt of Lenka’s response. Please read the full text here.
>>Lenka Clayton, Artist
This is great, James!
I’m very excited to see this progress.
I would be interested in participating.
Blair – feel free to either add your response via a comment or email me for more info at james(at)temporaryartreview.com
Valuable discussion. i appreciate grand gestures in some ways, trying to tap an overarching zietgiest, and this, outside the usual centers of art. These big surveys are always easy to critique, as has the WB. I wonder if we could start doing a BIG SHOW made up of smaller shows from different regions, harnasing the regional expertise about what seems significant and new and revealing. With all the billion dollar endowment of Crystal Bridges, they could support bringing in a range of smaller, regionally curated show rather than having their curators travel the country.
I’m so glad this idea is working out! Hopefully I’ll be able to make a contribution before the exhibit comes down.