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Hard edges 

The 59th Delta provokes thoughts about why we love our unnatural lawns, and what is real, anyway?

If the manner of art-making reflects the society in which its made, then it may be that the work in the 59th annual Delta Exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center, which features more than its usual portion of trompe l'oeil and nonpainterly representation, embodies the current political true-false argument. Even the abstract work in the Delta makes use of reality's hard edges.

Or maybe it's just that today's deep divisions on what is true make the visitor to the Arts Center's annual juried show of regional artists more aware of how people can be tricked or, in turn, informed.

Bucking a political trend of growing misogyny, however, was the selection of the cash awards: All four were women. The juror, Betsy Bradley of the Mississippi Art Museum, who selected the works without knowing the identities of the artists, went for the unconventional: works in ceramic, cut stainless steel, stitched and quilted cotton and strips of paper that abandoned the picture plane.

The winner of the Grand Award, Clarksville artist Dawn Holder, both imitated and manipulated reality with her "Grass Variation (Mown Path)," an installation of blades of grass crafted from green porcelain. Holder, who teaches at the University of the Ozarks, said the grass idea came to her as a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she was doing a lot of work "that investigated suburbia." That evolved into thinking about the high value our culture puts on the mowed and tidy lawn, which she pondered "first from an ecological point of view. Why are we so interested in spending time and resources to keep a perfect lawn?" Then, she began to think about the "undertones" of the perfect lawn, "how the lawn is imbued with morality. If you are the bad neighbor that does not mow your lawn, what does that say about you?" And from there, Holder was off and running with the cultural symbolism of grass and the strangeness of covering our yards with a non-native plant that requires more water than agriculture to meet its use. With her artwork, she is taking the lawn from the outside, where it's ubiquitous and unseen, and transplanting it indoors, to generate thoughts about why we invest a groomed monoculture yard with status.

Holder's milked the grass theme — she has arranged her 5-and-a-half-inch ceramic blades in various configurations, including another in this show, "Grass Variation (Diagonal Mound)," since 2013 — but to good results so far. (You can see more of Holder's ceramics, though very different works, at the Historic Arkansas Museum, in its Trinity Gallery.)

Artists Kendall Stallings of Dallas and former Delta Award winner Robin Tucker of Little Rock challenge our perception of what is true with their hyper-realistic works; visitors can't be blamed for wanting to touch the masking tape and its upturned edges in Stallings' "Misplaced Identity" and the rope that binds the package in Tucker's "Nothing Underneath."

The hyper-realistic surrealism (a contradiction in terms, but about right) of honorable-mention winner Daniel Mark Cassity makes another appearance at the Delta, this time with "The Wonderweapon." Cassity, of Hot Springs, describes his works as both funny and dark: The wonderweapon is an axe propelled by feet and shoes stuck on the ends of a toy wooden spoke, and various dangerous things are attached to it: a pistol, a missile, a knife, a spider. One of Cassity's favorite objects, the troll doll, rides the weapon.

Carlye Wolfe of Memphis won one of two Delta Awards with "Fall," small stainless steel cutouts of leaves and other plant and insect forms hung on nylon line from the ceiling; the shadows the cutouts cast on the wall add another dimension. The other Delta Award went to Paula Kovarik, whose Joan Miro-in-thread-like "Chaos" is one of the few abstract works in the show; you may remember Novarik's work "Pollinators" in last year's Delta.

"Body: Flesh and Bone" by LaDawna Whiteside, a former Grand Award winner, was chosen by the Contemporaries group for their award. "Body: Flesh and Bone" is a monumental work of wide strips of paper on which Whiteside's drawn perfect lines in graphite. The strips of paper undulate, pinned to the wall in such a way that they bulge and crisscross each other rather than lie flat.

Tim Tyler of Bella Vista won an honorable mention for his nighttime scene "The Trike," but it is his "Liberty Supine" that you'll come back to for second and third looks. It is another quasi-photorealistic painting, of a woman lying on her back on a table covered with the American flag. She is backlit, the light glowing through the gathers in the off-the-shoulder gown that rides her breasts. The Bella Vista artist's portrayal of light is stunning, and makes up for the too-perfect beauty of the woman.

Tommy Wallace of Conway won an honorable mention for his photograph of a work of photorealism in a funky country eatery, "Leslie Cafe," in which a jarring, oversized Chuck Close-like drawing of a bearded guy hangs over the beadboard wainscoting and next to a vintage can of crackers.

There are some lovely figurative works in the show, like Little Rock Central High School art teacher Jason McCann's "The American Student: Marshayla and the Drawing Class," an honorable-mention winner with beautiful lines and an uncommon palette of vaguely complementary colors, and Little Rock native Wade Hampton's painterly "The Blue Hat (self-portrait)." Little Rock artist Baxter Knowlton's brushstrokes in "Woman and Dog," a large oil, define mussed sheets, the creases in the reclining woman's clothes, her face, a la Alice Neel.

Darrell Berry of Little Rock provides a quiet, familiar and atmospheric oil, "Hopper, Arkansas Church," in which a late afternoon light falls sharply on clapboard buildings under an unusual greenish sky.

It might have been fun if three large vertical works — Jeff Horton's "Billboard No. 2," Kellie Lehr's "Embedded Possibilities" and Kevin Arnold's "Last Party" — had been hung side by side. All three rely on the geometry of line for impact, but in different ways: Arnold in a trompe l'oeil composition of folded pieces of paper, Lehr in cutout-like shapes that appear to move, Horton in straight-edge architectural stripes.

We expect excellence from and are never disappointed by Little Rock artists David Bailin, represented in the show with "Halloween" (part of his "The Erasings" series inspired by his father's failing memories), and Aj Smith, whose huge graphite portrait of an African-American man "Endangered" is here.

So many notables. Little Rock artist Carl Napolitano's ceramic "Maya," an African-American figure engraved with words of warning not to go out at night; Frank Hamrick's "Harder than writing a good haiku," a tantalizing (because it's tucked in an acrylic display case) handmade book of what appear to be photographs of scenes from Louisiana, where he teaches at LSU; Robin Horn's carved redwood swirl "Kicker"; Bryon Clifton's photograph of a lone man lunching under a picture of Jesus in a Peruvian cafe ("Chirinos"); the chromogenic color prints in deep blue and Kelly green of North Little Rock photographer Heather Canterbury; the sterling silver necklace "Hairplug Sampler" by Greenfield, Mo., artist Lisa Hamilton.

This year's show is another in a series of excellent Delta exhibitions, and ought to cement its reputation as a show in which regional artists want to be seen. In 2021, when the Arts Center's gallery space will be transformed into a larger, more user-friendly cultural center, who knows how wide the Delta could reach.

The show runs through Aug. 27.

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