State of the Art: James McAnally
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.
Considering the exhibition’s stated goal of presenting a survey of American art to document the diversity of practice, the exhibition was largely successful. It is wide-ranging, eclectic, overwhelming. It is notable for not only its much-discussed geographic range, but also its gender, age and ethnic diversity – each likely more evenly representational than any comparable survey. In today’s charged environment, that itself is a valuable statement and not one to discount when most exhibitions don’t even meet that basic marker.
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 and Lenka 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.
Until this week, I had intentionally stayed away from the exhibition, wanting this social text to become what it would without our editorial perspective constantly tending it. Sure, there were signs that aspects of the show were problematic, such as the uneasy feeling of seeing your own city represented by artists out of step with what you see all around you. (No offense to St. Louis artists Tim Liddy and Jamie Adams, both proficient painters, but their practiced style isn’t emblematic of the energy I see in the city or what I see happening in art today). This was deepened with some baffling inclusions: yarn-bombed hallways, ceramic animals teetering on pedestals, and a profusion of paintings considered contemporary only because they were fresh from someone’s studio.
I can’t shake the sense that State of the Art skirted the zeitgeist, missing both a blue-chip confidence and the messy energy of young, hungry artists aiming to make a statement. Whatever your opinions of it, gestural, sketched Zombie Formalism was nowhere to be found, nor was the kind of shambling material experimentation filling every MFA program in America. Definitively missing was an explicit activist agenda or a studied intellectualism. Not that we need a new star-making machine or to check all of our contemporary art boxes, but none of the work felt career-defining and, ultimately, the show didn’t meet the promise it had seemed to stand for: presenting unseen, underrepresented artists who deepen, complicate and create our understanding of American art today.
In speaking with artists throughout the show’s run, a recurring theme has been that they feel like the show isn’t for them. It is notable for its ability to reach new audiences, as evidenced by record-breaking attendance, but it comes at an expense. From the wall texts to the collective curatorial decisions, it seems clear that State of the Art is an exhibition for a non-art audience – not a true representation of art made today, but a difficult to define subsection of kid-glove contemporary. It is appropriate, educational, wide-ranging, when what I hope for in any exhibition is work that feels like a risk for both the artist and institution, that parallels the risks of working in the studio day after day, of living and working on the margins, of trying to speak to whatever now you know.
The museum seems so sensitive to its context that it is unable to transcend its admirable ambitions for drawing an uninitiated art audience to the exhibition, electing by default to present a palatable contemporary conversation without the mess of a post-net, post-Occupy, art fair obsessed, protesting, debt-laden decade. The format remains full of possibility – as a way forward, State of the Art still seems to be a platform capable of being powerful enough to draw the attention of the art world away from its coastal gaze, but it must first assess its context as a world-class art museum, not just as an Arkansas art museum. If the exhibition can’t speak to or for artists while also speaking to its public and isn’t able to wrangle the emblematic issues of our time into such a far-reaching survey, the distance between all of our art worlds may be too far to bridge after all.
This text is part of a larger series, State of the Art: A Social Response. To put it in context, please read the other responses here.