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A deeper Delta 

Region’s art is diverse, mature.

click to enlarge IN THE DELTA: Vessel by Joe Bruhin.
  • IN THE DELTA: Vessel by Joe Bruhin.

The 49th annual Delta exhibit at the Arkansas Arts Center is a curiously engaging exhibit, a show that viewers will willingly spend a fair amount of time ingesting. Willingly, because there’s so much to see: The 66 entries in the show cover a huge range — from conceptual to landscapes, in paint, clay, cloth, pencil and metal — and the vast majority of it is well executed.

So what’s curious about its appeal? It’s that the show’s pull is due to the sum of its parts, rather than any one piece. There have been Delta exhibits in which a small number of entries made a visit worthwhile. This show’s value lies not in the majesty of any one piece, but in the collective maturity of regional art-making.

The Delta seems a little heavy on Arkansas artists this year, but not knowing how many entries originated outside Arkansas makes it hard to defend the assumption that non-Arkansans showed less interest in applying to the juried show. Ceramic artist Don Reitz says in his juror’s statement that his primary concern in choosing the work was whether the art was a sincere effort by the artist to make a statement, whether it “went beyond the seductive surfaces, technical dexterity, size and so forth.” Reitz made the unusual comment that he “enjoyed the paintings when I juried the submissions, but was disappointed in some due to the selection of the framing. Often times it was overpowering and it detracted from the work.” That may explain why 29 pieces in the show are three-dimensional and only 11 are paintings, that is, either oil or acrylic (or both) on canvas. There were 10 photographs chosen, a good number in that media for the Delta. Works on paper make up the rest.

The Delta Award went to Mississippi artist Chris Wubbena’s installation piece, “author of revisions, reinventor of the world.” A pair of pants — extending from a picture frame into an old Royal typewriter perched on a funky table atop a wooden platform — is the central element in this quite large piece, placed in the atrium of the Arts Center. On the back is a window-like recess in which dozens of sheets of printmaker’s paper — including a photograph — have been spiked. The typewriter and the spike suggest a journalistic theme, bolstered by the name of the piece, but Wubbena has not precisely communicated his story, and he’s left the lede off. Non-reporters may see the piece entirely differently; Reitz apparently did.

There are several pieces that leap from their genre’s traditional limits. Among them: Fox artist Joe Bruhin’s “Ghazal No. 1,” a vessel with a ragged, crystallized lip, coral-like growths on the base and glazes of green, red and brown circulating across the surface. Missouri artist Zac Willis’ disturbing digital prints, “Untamed Oppression Nos. 7, 8, 11,” feature animals doing bad things to one another in what looks like some back alley torture chamber. A squirrel is tied up and gutted, another mammal’s head is on a spike, another squirrel is poking tongs at an animal trapped in a cage. Shadows suggest armadillos holding scissors. The pictures would be just terrible if there weren’t something beautiful about the way the focus shifts from clear to fuzzy and the bluish tone of the black in the black and white prints. Martin Coffeen of Nashville offers a huge colorful oil of a slab of steak with a fork. Little Rock artist John Bruhl’s beautifully crafted “Vessel II” is a wood and glass table; like the sides of a boat, ribs of wood curve upward to support a glass surface shaped like a ship’s bow.

Memphis artist Wayne Edge contributes a 3-D Kandinsky with his graceful “Solar System,” in which slender stems of rosewood rise more than 7 feet high to support an oval nest of more rosewood pieces on which small stones are attached.

Let’s hear it for the Little Rock artists: Cathy Burns apparently framed her painting, “Palimpsest Series: Fetish i,” properly; Reitz awarded her large abstract work a Delta Award. A palimpsest is a drawing on top of a drawing (or writing on top of writing) in which the previous work peeks through; her painting has a scrubbed gray surface through which numbers and scratchings can be seen. Robyn Horn’s improbably arcing and finely gouged wood sculpture “Slipping Stone” won an honorable mention. Steven Walker created “Land of Plenty,” a representation of the American flag in which toilet paper rolls alternate with plastic forks and spoons to make the stripes. Catherine Siri Nugent has embroidered tulle and draped it over an uptilted ironing board whose legs point to a suspended fleecy object; the effect is of a Madonna offering up a child. Jane Hankins, who’s known for her whimsical ceramic women, is edgier here with her “Double-High Authoritarian Machine and War Dog,” a ceramic and meanly grimacing George Bush from whose open, empty head falls strips of paper with factoids on war written on them. A bit of polka dotted underwear shows on his backside.

The show runs through Feb. 25. Give yourself some time to go through it.

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