As a Northwest Arkansas native, I can’t help but to share the love I have for the Natural State. Crystal Bridges Museum, Alice Walton’s controversial new mecca of American art, is located in the retail dynasty’s hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas. During my last visit home, I made the short drive to the museum to see their latest exhibition, State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now. This particular show had created quite the buzz for Crystal Bridges around the country, certainly the most notable since they opened doors for the first time in 2011. The show sought to display the landscape of American contemporary art. This included works from over one hundred artists, from all four corners of the country. The jurors made a point to discover those artists whose work had “not yet been fully recognized on a national level” (http://crystalbridges.org/). It seemed that nearly everyone I spoke to in Nashville had heard of the show, and had already formulated their opinions based on the venue.
As I coasted down the scenic drive leading to the museum entrance, I was eager to make my own evaluation. Once I had inhaled the natural beauty of the Crystal Bridges campus, a delightful patch of Ozark forest a world apart from Manhattan, I entered the State of the Art exhibition area with high expectations. Immediately I realized that this collection of works was in a separate sphere altogether from the collection of 18th century portraits and busts in the hall adjacent it. I entered the show through a hallway cloaked in a crocheted installation piece by artist Jeila Gueramian. The womb of thread evoked a sense of childish wonder, and marked the entrance into the space much like the rabbit-hole into Alice’s Wonderland. Soon I heard the dull screech of John Douglas Powers’ Ialu that was all-too-familiar. I had seen a piece by the same artist that was displayed during a recent show in Vanderbilt University’s Space 204 gallery, the alma mater of the now Knoxville-based artist. It was easy to become entranced by the mechanized structure subtly swaying to and fro in front of projected video. The hypnosis I was afflicted with while looking at that piece lasted throughout the show. Whether it was the wall-sized quilt of artist Gina Phillips or the patiently rendered carbon pencil drawings of Adonna Khare, beautiful digitally recorded video or old-master style painting, the work begged the viewer to stay and marvel at the devotion to quality these artists displayed in their work. It wasn’t about shock-value for these artists; it was about the intense dedication of time that many of these artists had poured into it. Along with Powers, the Nashville connections continued as the Tinney Contemporary’s very own Pam Longobardi displayed her meditative three-dimensional works of reclaimed ocean refuse and mesmerizing paintings. Longobardi was also selected to give an artist lecture during the exhibition. Continuing through the show, I began to make note of the value of craftsmanship the curators had shown in their selections. Some pieces bordered on neuroticism, but the effect on the viewer was one of powerful appreciation. After hours in the space, I found myself wishing for more time to stand among these works.
As I pulled away from the museum, I struggled to concentrate my thoughts on any one particular piece. The show had ripped open the curtains of the contemporary art scene for this young art student. I think that the state of art, not the art market, was on full display at Crystal Bridges. It was interesting to me that such an expansive view of the art landscape would find itself nestled in my small corner of the state. However, it may rather be even more fitting that this work from artists who live and work out of the spotlight was displayed in a place nearly as inconspicuous as they are. Perhaps we should take note of the wonderful things going on in not-so-obvious places.