There are so many ways to approach, let alone grasp, large significant group art shows, that attempts to explain, justify and critique them can become cause celebres themselves. Which is a shame because it turns the attention away from the art itself. It’s not the conversation we could be having.

This has often been the case with such blockbuster American exhibits as the Carnegie International, the 2011 graffiti-inspired Art in the Streets at the MOCA in Los Angeles, and especially the Whitney Biennial, particularly this year with its controversial tri-curatorial direction. It is no less true with the ambitious State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now (SOTA) currently on view through Jan. 15, 2015, at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR.

“Ambitious,” because this overwhelming $4 million dollar exhibit spans 19,000 sq. ft. and includes 227 works by 102 artists. “Controversial,” because SOTA’s organizers, the museum’s President Don Bacigalupi and curator Chad Alligood, claim to have discovered significant artists “whose work has not yet been fully recognized on a national level,” and, assumedly deserve to be. No such claim that these are the best such “emerging” artists in America, but the implication is that these are the best 100 or so of the nearly 1,000 artists the curators visited crisscrossing America over a year. And, lastly, deserve to be recognized alongside similar artists getting attention on the west and east coasts.

It was a prodigious undertaking, and Bacigalupi’s blog and video at the museum’s website documents their attempt to find meaningful contemporary art “not rarified, out of touch with reality in our daily lives.” To exhibit it then, one further assumes, without apology or reservation in Middle America, in a community already on the map as a retirement area and as the headquarters of Wal-Mart, and in a stunning venue gifted by Alice Walton, daughter of WM founder Sam, and designed by reputed architect Moshe Safdie.

Labeled the “anti-Whitney Biennial,” SOTA is filled with such irony. Even its title boasts that the work is “state of the art,” which is debatable, and that it comes from all 50 states, which it does not. But there is nothing ironic about Nebraska’s two artists chosen from here, painter-printer Watie White, who is part of SOTA’s symposium Nov. 14-15, and installation artist Angela Drakeford, who conducted workshops at Crystal Bridges Oct. 24-25.

White, an accomplished artist in the Metro perhaps best known for two recent, ongoing public art projects called, “all that ever was, always is,” explores in painted narrative panels the rich history within condemned homes in North Omaha. Drakeford, who has benefitted from residencies and shows with the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and the Union for Contemporary Art, offers a body of work that deals with “perceived identity versus actual identity,” which she says, “addresses my past, present and future.”

Though White is the more established of the two in this region, thus living up to SOTA’s premise, Bacigalupi said recently, “Angela is a rising star on the horizon.” He made that remark over dinner when my wife, Janet Farber, and I travelled to Crystal Bridges to renew an old acquaintance—both he and Janet were pre-med undergraduates at Emory University in another bit of irony—and to see if this exhibit lived up to its hype and potential.

Bacigalupi, a charming and erudite spokesperson for SOTA and his museum that put Bentonville on the map again, this time culturally, waxed poetically not only about the art, but the exhibit’s journey. This included studio visits covering 100,000 miles to interview artists who were recommended by experts, critics and arts venues. Artists were ultimately chosen based on triadic criteria of virtuosity, engagement and appeal. Sounds simple enough, but the process was arduous and not without surprises.

The yearlong journey included considerable self-discovery, Bacigalupi said, including the realization that Omaha nurtured a diverse and talented community of engaged artists. Overall, it was the degree of engagement that held the biggest surprise or takeaway.

“I was quite amazed by the number of artists whose work engaged in social practice,” he said. “This was particularly true of the younger artists. This wasn’t the case with my generation.” Bacigalupi was quick to point out that SOTA artists whose work supported social issues did not do so at the expense of “technical excellence, visual splendor and intellectual heft.”

Many artists in this survey did engage in social practice quite successfully including Vanessa German with her doll-like “power figures” such as “White Naptha Soap” or “Contemporary Lessons in Shapeshifting,” accessorized with found art from an urban ethnic culture. These folk, outsider art totems serve to ward off evil spirits and doings in Pittsburgh inner city neighborhoods. Advocacy aside, these amazing figurines work with a juju of their own.

Likewise, White’s five-panel installation in SOTA advocates indirectly with Habitat for Humanity on behalf of inner city restoration. Each panel’s expressive narrative illustrates poignantly the deterioration of both family and neighborhood. His paintings resonate with a heart and soul relevant potentially to any part of the city.

Yet there were many more works that indulged in more personal and conceptual themes in every imaginative genre, medium and form, including two companion pieces from Dan Witz and Jamie Adams, a disorienting performance video of Chris Larson’s—a personal favorite, one of the most creative, complex works in SOTA–and Drakeford’s sculptural wall piece. Witz’s oil and digital triptych, “Vision of Disorder” and Adams’s “niagaradown” are more than contemporary riffs on classical styles and old masters, they experiment with current art practices and popular culture.

Larson’s “Heavy Rotation,” a topsy turvy dichotomy of simultaneous creativity/destruction, is performed in 1st person camera by him in perpetual motion as he descends two levels in his studio/workroom, drawing, sawing and filming until his creation spins into chaos, only to be repeated. A little worse for the wear himself, sweaty, spent, torn and covered in ink, the artist becomes his work, over and over. Drakeford too has “made her bed” with her own “Self Portrait II,” a framed wall, crepe-paper sculpture. Figuratively, a bed of black delicate flowers made of tar paper embedded on an insulation foam board, this work from the multiracial artist challenges notions of what is beautiful personally and socially.

These are but a few of the many impressive works in SOTA. Naturally not everything succeeds or holds up after its first impression or under careful scrutiny. After a two-day visit and repeated viewings, Peggy Nolan’s photo installation of ordinary daily life can’t transcend its initial “meh moment.” A second and third look/see at Ligia Bouto’s “Understudy for Animal Farm” installation now looked tortured and overdone. Jimmy Kuehnle’s carnival “Amphibious Inflatable Suit in Captivity,” anchored and afloat in the museum lagoon makes a fun first impression, but that too seems to deflate along with its tired, weathered surface that belies its primary color palette.

But a big shout out to SOTA for proving that video art is still relevant even if there is a relative dearth of it in the Metro art scene. This is particularly true of pieces from Jonathan Monaghan, Jawhshing Liori, Kedgar Volta and Dave Greber. The only misstep here is Daniel Nord’s satire of electronics and the entertainment industry’s impact on popular culture, ironically titled “State of the Art.” The video installation casts too wide a net and is ultimately undone by its trite Mickey Mouse sculpture and imagery and Clubhouse song blaring incessantly. Neither is it helped by the curatorial analogy onsite to video pioneer Nam June Paik.

But these are isolated opinions of only a few works in this remarkable exhibit. More daunting is seeing the forest for the trees. What then is SOTA’s contribution to the art world? Two recent reviews in Huffington Post serve to illustrate how at odds critical opinion can be, further complicating public perception. One labels the exhibit, “the biggest show in America,” and all that implies while lauding its curatorial effort. Conversely, the second review called SOTA a “curatorial misstep.”

It may not be the “biggest show in America,” but neither is it a “curatorial misstep.” If you accept the exhibit at its clearly defined mission, it works wonders. The key word in its statement is “discovery.” This can’t happen unless one is willing to “journey,” that is, to escape the boundaries, conceptually and physically, of what significant contemporary art is and where to find it.

That said, SOTA may have the most to offer to other emerging artists of all kinds across America who did not make the cut. As a Mecca of sorts, SOTA is an inspiration and a measuring stick, not necessarily a negative one. Its artists represent not only themselves but all other emerging artists who believe they deserve a broader audience and stage.

There are several area Metro artists who would not look out of place in SOTA. Jamie Burmeister, Catherine Ferguson, Vera Mercer, Tim Guthrie, Troy Muller and Jess Benjamin come immediately to mind because not only do they push the envelope, they push themselves. The same can be said for several area sculptors and street influenced artists from here to Lincoln.

SOTA is a beacon of sorts, and so then is Crystal Bridges. It represents not only itself but all other major arts venues whose mission it is to discover and show deserving local talent, if on a smaller scale. Maybe that’s what we have to look forward to in June 2015 with Joslyn Art Museum’s Art Seen: A Juried Exhibition of Artists from Omaha to Lincoln. Meanwhile, SOTA clearly demonstrates that these are the kind of large group shows that matter.

State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now continues until Jan. 15 at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, AR. Details can be found at

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