Tar Heel connections at national Arkansas exhibit

May. 08, 2014 @ 11:25 AM

“State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now,”
Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, Arkansas, Sept. 14-Jan. 19-2015.
For information, visit www.crystalbridges.org.

It was the spring of last year. The idea was impossible: Find a young energetic curator to help identify 100 American contemporary artists whose art is exceptional, but have no national recognition; borrow their work and mount a one-of-a-kind exhibition that draws from every region of the United States.  The show will open at Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, Arkansas, on Sept. 14. They found their curator, Chad Alligood, a 29-year-old with super art credentials, and by July 9, 2013, he was on the road.
East of Bentonville, in Durham, in October last year, Jeff Whetstone opened his computer and found a message from someone at Crystal Bridges asking if he would be available for a studio visit in the next few days. In a telephone conversation Whetstone and I talked about that visit. “I have lots of studio visits and I had heard about Crystal Bridges so we fixed a date and after thinking about it, I decided to show my weirdest stuff, so I pulled out photographs and a couple of my videos.”
Whetstone’s description was enthusiastic. “Chad came in with a handheld HD video and an audio recorder and talked, asked questions and recorded all at the same time. It was effortless and I forgot he was taping me. His questions were fresh and his comments were astute, knowledgeable, fascinating and critical.” 
Whetstone continued: “He looked carefully at my work, listened to what I had to say, and was out of here; this was a man on a mission. I went from not knowing what to expect to wanting to be part of the show. I thought: ‘This is going to be important and it will be decentralized; it will be happening in Arkansas.’” He said he did not hear anything and forgot about it; there had been no indication one way or the other. A couple of days before I called he finally heard; they had chosen his video “Drawing E. obsoleta” (black snake). 
He explained he caught the snake at the N.C. Museum of Art’s outdoor park, took it home in his knapsack, put it in a bucket and began to manipulate the snake to make its own drawing. He was ecstatic. “It’s me and the snake, it’s graceful and visual. It’s a creative process and it exists outside me. It is my most raw piece, unadorned. It is the most direct piece I have ever done; I have distilled it down into pure form.”
Whetstone is a professor in UNC’s Art Department with degrees in zoology and photography. He said he runs around with a camera, documenting rural people and their connection to the wilderness. “I’m like a hound dog with my nose to the ground, having a camera out in the world.”   
My telephone conversation with Alligood was a long one, especially after he told me the museum had chosen three artists from North Carolina. The other two are Bob Trotman, a realistic sculptor who works mostly with wood, from Casar (about 50 miles from Penland), and Peter Oakley, a marble sculptor, from Banner Elk. 
Alligood said, “I was hired for the ‘State of the Art’ project, but the job has morphed into full time. I really like Bentonville. I’m from Perry, Georgia, a town of 9,000. I was the first in my family to go to college and had never been to a museum until I left Georgia.  Bentonville is like coming home.”  
The process of identifying artists included local curatorial voices: galleries, cooperatives, local movers and shakers, looking at local shows. With the help of a few assistants, they made lists and culled names. In North Carolina alone, they visited 22 studios in four or five days. Alligood continued, “I’ve been on the road nine months. I visited 800 studios in 40 states and 250 cities. I spent a lot of time driving, looking at my GPS and sleeping in hotels.”
He talked about what he looked for in the art. “We looked for virtuosity, engagement with relative issues, accessibility; we also did not shy away from controversial topics. I wanted work of the moment and I knew it when I saw it. Some are academically trained and some are self-taught. The artists are probably evenly divided between men and women and represent the diversity in the United States.” Artists may or may not have a regional identification but they are not known nationally and this is going to give them that national identity. He said there will be a catalogue. The show will be organized aesthetically rather than thematically and part of the exhibition will travel internationally.  He continued, “The work will take up about 20,000 feet of exhibition space and so the whole museum will have to be rearranged.”  
We talked about Alice Walton and her involvement with the museum. Her interest in art led to the Walton Family Foundation's developing Crystal Bridges Museum, which opened in November 2011. They intend to become a premier venue for American art and artists.
I also spoke by phone to Trotman and Oakley and they reported a similar whirlwind visit by a young man who is smart and terrific. They had heard of Crystal Bridges, the Walmart money behind it and its outstanding American collection and were flattered to be included. They said it was all very secretive, including signing a confidentiality agreement. In fact they had heard almost nothing until just a few days before I called. Trotman is represented in North Carolina’s major museums; his “Shaker” and “Ladder Man” will be in the exhibit. He received a B.A. in philosophy from Washington and Lee and is a self-taught artist. 
Oakley went to Appalachian State working through an interdisciplinary degree program of psychology, philosophy and creative writing.  He kept a roof over his head as a stonemason and one day began to carve ordinary objects, like take-home Styrofoam boxes. 
In the beginning he bought used marble from the graveyard monument people. Now he buys from quarries in Colorado and Nevada. At the moment he is working on a Mercedes diesel engine in black marble, and Crystal Bridges has commissioned him to finish his white marble “Singer Sewing Machine.” They will also borrow one of his Styrofoam-type pieces from the N.C. Museum of Art’s collection.
When I asked them how they would compare this show to the Whitney Biennial, to a man, they said the Whitney is about artists from the big cities, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. This show, they believe, will really represent what is happening in American art around the country. Alligood said there are lively interesting things going on all over our country and added, “People will come to see this show. [The museum] opened in 2011 and we have already had over 1 million visitors.”

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.