Savannah

State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now at the Jepson Center

The contemporary-art business is frequently portrayed as a cosmopolitan endeavor. The centers of the art world typically are cities where people buy expensive art, and easily consumable forms—like oil-on-canvas paintings—are usually favored by collectors and dealers. The exhibition State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now, presented by the Jepson Center at the Telfair Museums in Savannah, Georgia, explores artistic activity throughout the country; with a handful of exceptions, most of the represented artists work largely outside of major art centers. Organized by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the show attempts to find commonalities in the work of a broad group of artists.

Sheila Gallagher. Plastic Lila, 2013; melted plastic on armature; 81 × 64 1/2 in. Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo: Stewart Clements Photography.

Sheila Gallagher. Plastic Lila, 2013; melted plastic on armature; 81 × 64 1/2 in. Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo: Stewart Clements Photography.

While State of the Art presents a diverse group of artists, certain aspects of the exhibition reinforce stereotypes of regional art. A number of works in the show eschew traditional media, with several using typical craft materials, like yarn, children’s toys, and fake foliage. While such materials have certainly been seen in mainstream contemporary art over the past several decades, commercial art centers and art fairs tend to feature accustomed media, like oil or acrylic on canvas, that appear sparingly in this show.

This focus on unconventional media is one of the show’s central conceits, and it becomes one of its strengths. Shelia Gallagher’s Plastic Lila (2013) embodies this embrace. Appearing at first as a large, brightly colored abstract painting, the work is revealed by closer inspection to consist solely of melted plastic items, created in sections using a typical barbeque grill. Similar to Marcel Duchamp’s declaration that the tube of paint is a readymade—meaning that paintings are indeed “readymades aided,” in his words—Gallagher’s painting explores the concept of what makes a painting by using found objects in the place of paint.[1] The wonderfully surreal sculptures of Jeila Gueramian are composed with crocheted quilts and other textiles, materials tritely connected to craft though increasingly appearing in mainstream art. Works that show the persistent experimentation with materials include the large, geometric-painting-like End of the Spectrum (2011) by Ghost of a Dream, which consists of a vivid array of hundreds of used lottery tickets.

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Jonathan Schipper. Slow Room, 2011–14; installation: household furniture, cables, pulley, and electric motor; 192 × 192 in. Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo: Edward C. Robison III.

The show also emphasizes artistic labor; several works in the show are evidence of Herculean degrees of meticulous detail. Though there are works with predominantly conceptual natures, most of the works on display are firmly objects.[2] During a presidential-campaign season, such a selection aligns with the tropes of hard-working, blue-collar, middle America. This is not to say that object-based, labor-intensive work fails to succeed. On the contrary, Hiromi Mizugai Moneyhun’s works, such as Seminole (America) (2014) are astounding, intricate portrayals of culturally specific hairstyles made of hand-cut paper. Jonathan Schipper’s installation also involved substantial labor. His Slow Room (2011–14) is a meticulous recreation of a banally decorated, middle-class, American living room. Subverting his labor, however, he attached every object to strings that will slowly retract during the course of the exhibition, eventually destroying the installation.

Throughout the show, a focus on landscapes also reinforces a mythical connection between artists and the vast land that forms the country. The portrayal of landscape played a significant role in American art history; the painters Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt and the photographer Carleton Watkins were some artists who used landscape to support the ideology of Manifest Destiny. The enduring interest of artists in the relationship between society and landscape—as well as efforts to control such landscape—is well represented in the exhibition.

Jason Vaughn. Endeavor, WI, 2013; archival pigment print; 40 × 50 in. Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo: Jason Vaughn.

Jason Vaughn. Endeavor, WI, 2013; archival pigment print; 40 × 50 in. Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo: Jason Vaughn.

Among the works portraying landscapes are Jason Vaughn’s photographs, which feature different deer-hunting stands set in forested areas. The images are bucolic and reserved, but their subject matter addresses the supposed balance between society and nature, demonstrating humanity’s attempts to control or become part of the surrounding landscape. Jeff Whetstone’s video Drawing E Obsoleta (2011) shows the artist trying to draw a landscape using only a black snake on a white background; the snake’s writhing makes the task nearly impossible. Other artists use the theme of landscape to explore identity: Cobi Moules’s Untitled (Yellowstone, Swan Lake) (2014) utilizes the eponymous national park as a stage to explore his transgendered identity in the face of a Christian upbringing. And while not a traditional landscape, Chris Larson’s video Heavy Rotation (2011) shows the artist manipulating his immediate environment, cutting through a studio floor before making the entire room appear to rotate.

Vanessa L. German. Artist Considers the 21st Century Implications of Psychosis as Public Health Crisis or, Critical/Comedic Analysis into the Pathophysiology of Psychosis, 2014; mixed-media assemblage; 40 × 55 × 26 in. Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo: Edward C. Robison III.

Vanessa L. German. Artist Considers the 21st Century Implications of Psychosis as Public Health Crisis or, Critical/Comedic Analysis into the Pathophysiology of Psychosis, 2014; mixed-media assemblage; 40 × 55 × 26 in. Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo: Edward C. Robison III.

State of the Art illustrates the wide range of issues and types of media employed by artists currently working across the nation, not just those that benefit from the commercial spotlights on the most cosmopolitan locales. The show crafts a narrative: that America’s artists continue to experiment with unconventional materials, especially those with a certain folk history; that labor- and object-based works are valued; and that the theme of landscape still has a deep resonance with artists. With the exhibition’s broad curatorial aim that attempts to find common ground between a large, disparate group of artists, it can be difficult to find substantive meaning. Still, the exhibition features much work that should be seen, and showing the work of underrepresented artists should be a mission of all museums.

State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now is on view at the Telfair Museums through September 4, 2016.

NOTES

[1] Thierry de Duve, “The Readymade and the Tube of Paint,” in Kant After Duchamp (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1966), 163.

[2] One good example of a work with a primarily conceptual cast is the series Geolocation (2009–13) by Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman, in which the artists traveled to the locations indicated by social-media posts (with geo-location services turned on) and took photographs; these are displayed along with their respective messages.

 

 

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