Saturday, 17 January 2015

Crystal Bridges, again: State of the Art

Crystal Bridges reflections
We drove down to Bentonville, Arkansas on Dec. 26 specifically to catch the State of the Art exhibition of contemporary art at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, our first visit since we first saw the new building and I wrote about it and its art in 2012. The museum still has an inauspicious entrance and people were confused about which way they should go in the elevator, but once we entered the building the staff were invariably friendly and helpful. Some of the architecture is stunning and some is not. Arrows on the floor pointed us through the entire permanent collection to the exhibition and we rushed through to see the show.

This is an exhibition of works by 107 artists chosen by the museum director and curator after visits to about 1000 studios across the country. I think the concept was to present artists of high quality who might now be well-known in the major arts centers. In a way it reminded me of the top floor of the last Whitney Biennial, where I discovered a number of mature and fascinating artists of whom I knew nothing. But any gathering of such artists will reflect the taste and biases of the curators and in the Crystal Bridges case it seemed that the curators were most impressed with craft, often obsessive craft, and colorful broad gestural painting, often of large human figures or flowers. So there were many inventive, well-made, interesting objects, but somehow the overall impression was less thrilling or challenging than one might expect.

I loved a few of the works:Angela Ellsworth's Mormon bonnets (titled Close to You) made from about 25,000 corsage pins, Gabriel Dawe's Plexus C8, an elaborate but simple installation of colored thread in the stairwell (this link is to that work; if you Google the artist and images you'll get lots more); Mark Wagner's skyscraper collage made from cut-up dollar bills (Were they real?), and Alison Ruttan's ceramic sculptures of bombed buildings in war-torn countries of the Middle East. John Salvest's Forever, that word made from hundreds of second-hand romance novels, all the same dimensions, Joel S. Allen's Hooked on Svelte, suspended brush-like objects made from various everyday materials such as plastic pill containers caught out attention. Use of large quantities of mundane or recycled materials fascinates me, particularly since so many artists are using them. I was familiar with very few of the artists; one is Mary Ann Currier, born in 1927, who paints exquisitely detailed fruits and vegetables. I first saw her work in New York in the late 70s and was amazed to see it again in this exhibition.

The exhibition made some connections with the work in the permanent collection and Tom and I decided we would go back to the museum the next day to take another look at the collection. We loved it. We both really wanted to see the Francis Guy painting, Winter Scene in Brooklyn in 1820 and were fascinated that the label identified some of the characters in the painting, which was made from the artist's window, and we talked about how much Brooklyn has changed since then. Checking on the internet, I found that there is another version of the painting in the Brooklyn Museum (where it never caught my attention) and Brooklyn had an exhibition of the two versions in 2006. Next to the Guy is Richard Woodville's War News from Mexico of 1848, another painting we have found fascinating for its historical connections and discovered had been deaccessioned by the National Academy of Design.

As we moved from painting to painting, we kept stopping to point out details, read the label, look more closely, much more than we usually do in major museums in big cities. It occurred to me that the paintings in the collection, while not always by the most famous artists, are engaging in various ways that would appeal to people who aren't art experts, but also to those who are. There are several portraits of working people: a clock repair man, several professors (including one by Eakins), and a glass engraver. The details in these tell about everyday life in times past as well as elucidating the character of the sitters and providing the artist the opportunity for bravura brushwork or detailed mastery.  I re-visited the Worthington Whittredge painting mentioned in my first review of the museum, enjoyed the Thomas Moran Green River, Wyoming painting, and we both admired the Norman Rockwell Rosy the Riveter again, Whatever I think about its architecture and Walmart politics, the museum provided us a rewarding and delightful experience of art.

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