Mia's "State of the Art" is an unstuffy contemporary art show for all


“State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now” is a survey of contemporary art put together by a museum founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton.

State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now

Minneapolis Institute of Art

The goal of this show is to make contemporary art more accessible to the average viewer. It's an exhibition aimed at someone who may abhor anything that comes to the Walker Art Center on the grounds that they don’t “get it.” This is a collection that seems to say that contemporary art isn’t just for hoity toity patrons, but for the rest of us, too.

Honestly, there’s something to be said for opening the door a little wider and letting folks in to see what contemporary art is all about. 

The curatorial team for the traveling exhibition, put together by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (which is based in Bentonville, Arkansas), spent a year traveling the country. They visited nearly 1,000 artist studios in rural communities and urban centers, organizing and planning two different traveling exhibitions.

The larger of the two, which is currently on view at Mia, includes 52 artists from a diverse range of backgrounds, geographic areas, and ages. Using criteria that included virtuosity, engagement, and appeal, the curators chose mostly mid-career artists who have had some success but aren’t yet widely known.

“There’s not a lot of head-scratching pieces,” says Dennis Jon, associate curator of prints and drawings at Mia.


At the same time, there’s quite a bit of political art in the show, and many of the artists have taken on issues such as race, the foreclosure crisis, endangered species, overconsumption, and the impact of war. The exhibition is not so much “contemporary light” as it is about art that communicates in ways that clarify instead of obfuscate. 

The most provocative work here comes from Pittsburgh-based artist Vanessa Gorman. Her sculptural piece White Naptha Soap or, Contemporary Lessons in Shapeshifting (2013) shows two girls with black faces and white minstrel lips in dresses assembled out of doll body parts, shells, and other random objects. They both hold weapons, a hammer for the larger figure and a gun for the smaller.

It’s a piece that really stops you in your tracks and hits you in the gut. It would be hard not to be provocative when dealing with the subject matter of minstrelsy and the ways that black bodies are imagined by the white gaze in America’s history, but Gorman’s treatment is particularly startling. Clad with the dismembered body parts of white dolls, the two black figures seem to erupt in a battle cry, goddess-like and ready for a revolution.

If this is the type of art work the Walmart foundation wants to support, by all means, let’s hope they keep it up.  

Other standouts of the show include The John Riepenhoff Experience, where you stick your head into a mirrored box filled with jewels and a colorfully adorned skull; Ligia Bouton's pig hoods, which she made for Understudy for Animal Farm; and Dave Greber's Stillives II: Vignette, a dizzying floor projection.

Laurel Roth Hope's Flight of the Dodo, a Baroque-style homage to the world's first recorded extinct species, pairs well with her knitted version of the same bird. Eyakem Guililat provokes with his portrait series of himself and white people in Ethiopian dress in an Oklahoma landscape.

Also noteworthy are Delita Martin's Sisters, mixed-media portraits of black women; and Pam Longobardi's Ghosts of Consumption (for Piet M.) (2013), a piece made up of plastic trash found in the world's oceans. 

The show includes three Minnesota artists: Andy Ducett, Chris Larson, and Cameron Gainer. Ducett's piece Mom Booth features volunteer moms who sit in a booth and offer advice, information, and motherly love to visitors. 


"State of the Art: Discovering America Now"


Through May 29

Tickets are $20