A gaggle of school kids leads me through a tunnel of crocheted afghan blankets. The textiles’ clashing patterns transform the entrance to the exhibition ‘State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now’, at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas, into a sea of mandalas and psychedelic gods’ eyes. The children trail their teacher who, with her lank hair and camo fleece, looks like an extra from Winter’s Bone (2010), filmed not far from here in the Ozarks. She marches on; the kids stop. They cry: ‘That’s cool!’ and ‘Awesome!’ A boy points at the diamonds overhead. Tentacles lap around the doorways and, yes, this is awesome. I love Jeila Gueramian’s installation as much for the kids’ responses as for the work itself. The title, It’s You (2014), seems strikingly apt. In it, I see Mike Kelley’s ghost – suburbs, dark pasts, family histories – while the kids have their own takes, perhaps of grandmothers and knitted throws or blanket forts. The experience shifts how I see art and place, place and audience, context and curating.
In New York there’s a deep distrust of Crystal Bridges. Bentonville is the home of Walmart, the retail giant, and the museum was founded in 2011 by the heir to the company, Alice Walton. Before I fly out to Arkansas, a painter asks me: ‘Who do they think visits it?’ A publisher wonders: ‘Who do they think is their audience?’ What’s really being asked is and who do they think they are? Neither painter nor publisher, it seems, can believe anyone in the Ozarks might look at art. I can tell you who Crystal Bridges is for. Those children – the ones I’m trailing behind – plus the hundreds of others visiting the museum that day. ‘State of the Art’ aims to show under-recognized American artists from every region of the us. It claims to feature less art than usual from the cities – from what might be called the ‘art world’ – while big signs overhead tout Walmart’s underwriting of entrance fees. Putting aside the issue of a company that won’t pay for its temporary employees’ health care yet sponsors a museum, I’m here in the American heartland to find out something about localism and its relationship to art.
After that first shimmering moment with the afghan blankets, however, I’m disappointed. The work feels too literal, too obvious: Hamilton Poe’s Stack (2013), for example, riffs on Donald Judd’s more famous eponymous works but is made from window fans, and John Salvest’s Forever (2013) is created from the spines of romance novels that spell out the work’s title.
But something happens a third of the way through the show. I stand before Susie J. Lee’s video portraits from her series ‘Fracking Fields’ (2013). In each, a man stares out at me: one dressed in camouflage and a knitted hat, another in the blue collar of manual work. Lee returned to the town where she grew up, in the rural Midwest, to shoot portraits of frackers, asking them to look at the camera for as long as possible. The results provide a nuanced take on a charged topic, and the men possess the disarming gazes of the women in Johannes Vermeer’s paintings. I’m unnerved not only by their stares, but also by the realization that the show is not for me – or, rather, that the show is for a part of me that I rarely draw on as a viewer of art.
You see, I have two lives, two kinds of provincialism. I live in upstate New York, where my neighbours look like the teacher in camo and the men in Lee’s portraits, yet I write about art for frieze. I have two communities: one is the second-poorest in New York State; the other is the art world. That very phrase makes me self-conscious, and often I think about how to bridge the two. Before coming to Bentonville, I tried to explain to the publisher and the painter that it was great a museum had been built in a community which had no access to art before its arrival, and that I know what this is like as I live in an area where few people see contemporary art. Only when I’m in Crystal Bridges, however, do I understand what that might mean: that the art might not look like what I think art is.
Chad Alligood, one of Crystal Bridges’ curators, tells me about the time his friend from New York visited ‘State of the Art’. ‘She went through the catalogue and said: “No and no and no and no.” She hated it.’ Alligood talks, too, about his childhood in rural Georgia and being the first one in his family to go to college. ‘I didn’t have a significant experience of a museum before college, and many here haven’t either, so we want this show to make contemporary art meaningful. My friend’, Alligood says, ‘realized the show wasn’t meant for her. The art-initiated are not the target of the exhibit.’ This might sound obvious, but here I see that context matters as much as the art itself, that it makes meaning mutable.
‘A local artist is not as good as a local vegetable,’ wrote Paper Monument’s founders, Dushko Petrovich and Roger White, in an essay on regionalism for the 2013 deCordova Museum Biennial. It’s true. I support my local farmer but not the local gallery down the street with its watercolours of Catskills landscapes. At the same time, living where those artists originally worked, I often ponder that very landscape and the Hudson River School as my inheritance.
American art was founded on regionalism. The Hudson River School created the first local art movement, which is often referred to as American history painting, setting it against the dominant tradition in Europe at the time. Today, the Hudson River School seems a dead end in art history, saddled with Manifest Destiny’s dark imperialism, while J.M.W. Turner, with his romantic landscapes, sets out one of the paths to abstraction. Meanwhile, capital-R Regionalism is still seen as a reactionary response to urban elites. During the depression, artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood returned to their Midwestern homes to paint local scenes, and the movement is dogged by Wood’s American Gothic (1930), whose countless reproductions damn Regionalism to a Norman Rockwell mawkishness.
But what does ‘regional art’ mean now? In his book The Contemporaries, published in spring 2015, White quotes the artist Dan Graham: ‘It’s time to leave all this shit behind; the art world is poisoned; get out to the country or take a radical stance.’ Perhaps getting out is the radical stance. Particularly if it broadens the questions or the conversation – or, indeed, the audience.
Graham’s quote hails from 1969, begging another question: was it ever thus? Or has the time come to escape? During a recent conversation, Petrovic – who has spent many years in Boston, while White lives in Vermont – told me: ‘The internet makes leaving New York possible. Still, if you leave, people always think you’ve died.’ There have been numerous articles about artists being priced out of urban centres and I’m just one of many figuring out the calculus of poverty vs. creativity. In 2014, the Whitney Biennial was curated by three people not simply from outside the museum but from outside New York City. The degree to which the press and museum made a big deal of the curators’ status was testimony to how strange the idea of finding art outside the given centres of the art world still is. Today, when the whole idea of going local comes with hints of going native, I am pretty convinced it was truly ever thus.
Such ways and whiles of art history remind me of the show ‘What Nerve!’ at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, which opened in the autumn of 2014. The exhibition established an alternative history of representation from the early 1960s onwards, looking at four groups outside New York working with ceramics, surrealism, painting and comics – much of it garish, bold and sexy. There was Bay Area funk in the early 1960s, the Hairy Who in Chicago at the end of the decade, Destroy All Monsters in Michigan in the early 1970s – with its ’zines and band and charity-shop gothic practiced by Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw – while, at the end of the 1990s, Forcefield in Providence, Rhode Island, brought together video and performance, took on alter-egos and cloaked themselves in crocheted afghan jackets. Each group tried to build an aesthetic away from the cool, distanced work shown in New York City. The funny thing is, I always read Kelley and Shaw in the light of dematerializing objects and cultural critique. Mine was a positively Greenbergian take on their work. Where the great critic reduced pop to colour and flatness, I made Shaw’s collection of thrift-store paintings a conceptual gesture.
Instead, follow a different line: one that runs from regionalism through pop and funk, the Hairy Who and Chicago Imagists, up to Kelley and Shaw, then maybe back to New York in the late 1970s with the Colab collective. The group’s return to representation was set in the Lower East Side, and the scrappy works by Colab members Christy Rupp (rats) and Kiki Smith (figurative pieces that were, perhaps, a reaction to her father Tony’s practice) could easily relate to funk artist Joan Brown’s 1962 Fur Rat. Soon, the eschatology of ab ex to conceptual to minimal and on starts to seem positively provincial, the product of a certain locale – one with the might of the Museum of Modern Art and market behind it, not to mention the academic art-history system. Rejecting regionalism seems to close down other ways of examining art and place, not to mention the importance of audience.
Michelle Grabner – one of the 2014 Whitney Biennial’s curators – is committed to art outside New York City. She lives outside Chicago and, with her husband Brad Killam, runs a gallery aptly called The Suburban in her tiny garage. The two also have a larger, non-profit space in a former alms house called the Poor Farm. Grabner calls Chelsea a kind of non-space, citing ‘the contextless-ness of commercial galleries’. While working on the Biennial, she also curated ‘A Study in Midwestern Appropriation’ at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center (where the Hairy Who first showed). Talking about the exhibit now, she says she sees in the Midwest a kind of localism ‘of comic and self-deprecating qualities. It’s unique to a regional culture and utterly different from the appropriation in the 1980s set out by Douglas Crimp and Hal Foster. Also, it’s not meant to be bought or sold. There’s little proprietary interest in the images.’ Hearing that, I think of the Detroit-based Poe’s Stack and how I’d found it silly. My take was conditioned by New York City standards. I saw a one-liner vs. self-effacement. The exhibit at Hyde Park, Grabner explains, reflected her distance from the art world, the perspective she gets outside it. Now she’s moving even further away, to Milwaukee, a rust-belt city with fewer pretensions than Chicago and, unlike Crystal Bridges, she often shows work that seems less didactic – or maybe it’s art that looks more like art to me. Over the years, she and Killam have shown artists ranging from Rochelle Feinstein and Jessica Jackson Hutchins to Padraig Timoney and Andrea Zittel: not ‘regional’ at all.
Asked how she discusses their work with her neighbours, Grabner admits she often doesn’t: ‘Saying, “A New York-artist is coming” shuts down a conversation, so often I just let people have their assumptions.’ Sometimes, Grabner does try to explain – although this is often at the cost of coming across as the neighbourhood weirdo. ‘That woman in that house,’ is how she puts it. Her space in rural Wisconsin, the Poor Farm, has a closer relationship with its community. ‘Its history trumps the art going on around it and pulls people in. It makes them more comfortable.’
On the plane back from Arkansas, I think of the greater awareness of language, art, meaning and context that I have as a result of living in a small village with fewer residents than a single New York City block. As it does for Grabner, distance makes me more aware of who is speaking, who is inside and outside those conversations, who is included and who isn’t even addressed. That awareness seems profound. Localism could be called provincial, but it could also ask questions such as: what makes work contemporary now? What issues are being grappled with and which questions asked? As more artists and writers move outside the ‘centre’, how can that open up art and increase its relevance as artists confront new communities and contexts?