Modern American Art exhibition opens at Frist

Nathalie Miebach (b. 1972). O Fortuna, Sandy Spins, 2013. Reed, wood, rope, bamboo, and weather data, 24 x 18 x 18 in. Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark. (photo: courtesy of the artist)

Nathalie Miebach (b. 1972). O Fortuna, Sandy Spins, 2013. Reed, wood, rope, bamboo, and weather data, 24 x 18 x 18 in. Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark. (photo: courtesy of the artist)

State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now is a momentous survey of art from across the United States. It will be on view at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts from May 26 through September 10, 2017. The project, organized by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, provides a vivid snapshot of contemporary work from diverse studios and creative communities today. It is the culmination of an ambitious year-long process in which Crystal Bridges’ curatorial team logged more than 100,000 miles, crisscrossing the country to visit nearly a thousand artists in rural communities, small towns, and urban centers.

From the original exhibition presented in 2014 at Crystal Bridges, the Frist Center will present works by forty-five of the artists, grouped thematically to demonstrate connections between artists and ideas across the country. The exhibition curators considered factors of quality and originality in selecting artworks, and included artists with an impressive diversity of worldviews, styles, and mediums. They sought out compelling works from under-recognized artists and locales that are also accessible to broad audiences.

“The exhibition is particularly rich in art that responds to place, conveys personal and familial experience, and communicates the artists’ concerns with issues of the environment, the economy, gender, race, and identity,” says Frist Center Chief Curator Mark Scala.

Racial tension, economic inequity, and the urban-rural political split are common themes found in the exhibition. Shaker (2013), a sculpture by Bob Trotman of Casar, North Carolina, suggests a corrupt system from which one cannot escape. Houston artist Vincent Valdez’s painting The Strangest Fruit (2013) reminds viewers that cycles of racial violence recur even today. Ialu (2011), a stunning kinetic sculpture by Knoxville sculptor John Douglas Powers, examines humanity’s sometimes fraught relationship with nature.

Family and community have long been thought of as central to American identity, even as they have undergone dramatic changes in the twenty-first century. Pittsburgh artist Vanessa German addresses childhood vulnerability by creating what she calls “power dolls”—mixed-media sculptures that echo West African ritualistic figures meant for magical protection and spiritual guidance.

Video art is particularly well represented in State of the Art. Among the most spiritually transporting is Kora (2012), which documents a journey to Mount Kailash in Tibet by Jawshing Arthur Liou, a Taiwan-born artist now based in Bloomington, Indiana, who sought solace after the death of his daughter.

“No single exhibition can provide a true sense of a nation’s art—the aesthetic variety is too vast for any cohesive context to emerge,” says Scala. “Yet State of the Art begins the process of mining the abundant creativity that exists across the United States. As a national selfie, it is impressionistic and incomplete, but endlessly open to and brimming with possibility.”

State of the Art opened to remarkable national attention, including a feature on CBS Sunday Morning, placing the exhibition at the forefront of an ongoing discussion about art in America. Accolades include a 2015 Excellence in Exhibition Award from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM).