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VOL. 129 | NO. 222 | Thursday, November 13, 2014

Vic Fleming

It’s Art

By Vic Fleming

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“But is it __?” This clue is used in dozens of crossword puzzles. The answer is ART. At Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, tucked away in the Northwest Arkansas hills, the question’s answer is “You’d better believe it!” My heart sings to know that Crystal Bridges, open now since Nov. 11, 2011, is a major world player in its field.

As we make the turn toward the Museum’s entrance, what to our eyes should appear but several sculptures in a 20-acre field that appear to be made of ... hay? Artist Tom Otterness’s piece, “Makin’ Hay,” is witty and playful, while offering a commentary on the relationship between farmers and their land. Words don’t do it justice.

We park near the hayfield. Three and a half miles of manicured trails wind through the 120-acre campus. And what a campus it is! Breathtaking landscape features balance off against the Ozarks’ beauty. We stroll a leisurely half-mile to the buildings, enter, and then embark on hours of absorbing the current exhibition, “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.” It ends Jan. 19, 2015. It’s free, courtesy of Walmart and Sam’s Club. And it’s ... magnificent!

The museum’s curatorial team traveled the country – over 100,000 miles – scouting out comers in the industry. They interviewed over 1,000 artists. And selected 102 of them, representing every region of the country. The work they selected ranges from paint-on-paper to basic photography to electronic installations to videography performances – and more.

The intent seems to be to examine how today’s artists are innovating with materials old and new. As well as how they are engaging with relevant issues of the times. To say nothing of how the works themselves reveal and suggest narrative, stories that may have inspired the artists – to say nothing of those evoked in the viewers.

I was captivated by “Forever,” a piece in which John Salvest employs, as his medium, old paperbacks. They’re arranged like building blocks: several books horizontally stacked to form a square rest atop several lined up vertically to form a square. Multiplied by hundreds, to dimensions of 74 inches x 210 inches x 4.5 inches, they form a banner. Against a beige background, the red letters formed by book spines spell out “FOreVer” (sic).

Then there’s Mark Wagner’s “Overgrown Empire,” a depiction of two New York City skyscrapers. Is it a painting? Is it a photograph? Neither. Careful inspection shows that his medium is cut-up one-dollar bills. Hamilton Poe’s “Stack” employs box fans (12 of them), sombreros (also 12), and weighted plastic eggs. You must see it; I can’t describe it adequately.

Nothing grabbed me more emphatically, though, than Jonathan Schipper’s “Slow Room.” This is a living room full of furniture, each component of which is attached to a cable. All the cables run through the same hole in the wall, beyond which a mechanism is slowly tightening things up. It’s programmed to reach maximum tautness in mid-January. Thus, each item is being pulled slowly toward the same fate. Each item will be tugged, first, out of position; next, out of its comfort zone; and, ultimately, into discomfort, collisions, even destruction. Not unlike the human condition, I think.

I can’t get the word magnificent out of my mind. Magnificent setting, magnificent construction, magnificent art.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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