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See yourself in the 'Delta' 

Where art is about what we share.

MARJORIE WILLIAMS-SMITH'S 'THE MESSENGERS': Her metalpoint is "as good as it gets," juror Shea Hembrey says.
  • MARJORIE WILLIAMS-SMITH'S 'THE MESSENGERS': Her metalpoint is "as good as it gets," juror Shea Hembrey says.

Take a deep breath, Arkansas Times readers, and relax. This is not a harangue about our prevaricating president, though he certainly deserves one, or a story about the piteous state of Arkansas's political minds.

It's about art, which is something we can all come together over, or at least view together. Rare is the gallery fistfight: Should Jackson Pollock's splatters hang next to Margaret Keane's sappy big-eyed girls, fans of both would not come to blows. They wouldn't even Tweet.

In fact, we dare to say that for whatever courtesy is left in Arkansas we can thank the arts, and the Arkansas Arts Center's "Delta Exhibition," the juried show of works by regional artists that is now in its 60th year, is a big piece of that. Conceptual pieces that prompt as much head-scratching as admiration — always a feature of the "Delta" — get gracious receptions. See much in the way of gracious behavior outside a gallery these days? John Salvest's American flag (1994), made of matches tipped red, white and blue and packed into an explosives box, did not provoke a shouting match. Nobody suggested our moral fabric had gone to hell when examining Pat Larsen's sculpture that blew the viewer's skirt up if she got too close (and was wearing a skirt, 1997). Here, showing side by side in the Arts Center's galleries, have been Ginger Feland's live snails munching on a head of cabbage next to Warren Criswell's narrative painting of a woman carrying a naked man (1995), and still folks sang "Kumbaya." The 1990s, of course, were a happier time, but the 3D work in the 2018 exhibition — including a deflating and inflating 8-foot-tall faux fur bear — had no one Googling "how to emigrate to Canada."

Therefore, with the nation descending into us vs. them, this writer's recommendation is that people grab their worst enemy and head to the "Delta," for there is a place where you'll hold hands in awe of such works as "The Messengers," Marjorie Williams-Smith's copperpoint, aluminum point and conte crayon self-portrait with roses, and find common ground looking at Milly West's photograph of a White River bridge in fog.

Sixty years of peaceful relations, thanks to art.

***

As a show of regional work, the "Delta" has a welcoming intimacy, said retired registrar and Arts Center institution Thom Hall, and that makes it hugely popular to gallery-goers whether they can put a name on what they're seeing — New York School? Figurative expressionism? — or not. The work on the walls or on the floor or hanging overhead is made by people visitors to the show know, or have met, or with whom they share a cultural language. The exhibition "gives people immense permission to have an opinion" about what they're seeing, Hall said. Even if it's a Tim Hursley photograph of a two-headed calf (2016), they feel secure that they can say whether it's art or not. That's not always the case; it's that fear of "not getting" art that keeps some people away from museums.

Since 1958, the "Delta" has allowed artists in Arkansas and its contiguous states (and a few outliers) a chance to put their work before such big-name art critics as The New York Times' John Canaday (1970) and Grace Glueck (1986) and The New Criterion's Hilton Kramer (1982), and artists like Will Barnet (1974), Robert Gwathmey (1979), Graham Nickson (2000), Alison Saar (2001), and James Surls (2007). It has allowed the big-city folk to see that art is, in fact, being made between the coasts.

Three jurors waded through the record 1,424 entries to the "Delta" this year: Brian Young, gallery director at the University of Central Arkansas; Les Christensen, an artist and director of the Bradbury Art Museum at Arkansas State University; and Shea Hembrey, a native of Hickory Grove and a conceptual artist whose 2011 creation, "seek," a "biennial" of 100 works of art by 100 artists, all of whom were actually Hembrey, won him acclaim and a TED Talk appearance. The three winnowed the huge number down to 52 works made by 46 artists.

Conceptual art takes a backseat to more traditional work in this year's show. The conservative nature of the entries — a lot of portraiture and landscapes — was a surprise to the jurors, who expected to see more new media. Only three videos, for example, were entered.

As a result, Christensen said, this year's show "might be a show that would appeal to people who don't normally look at art, because it has a lot of work that is so traditional, accessible."

Perhaps the domination of landscape entries — making up as much as three-fourths of works submitted for judging — shouldn't have been a surprise, Hembrey observed, because of the region's natural beauty. "That really came across," he said. Young, formerly a curator at the Arts Center for several years, noted that work in the "Delta" continues to draw from the essence of place, though artists now are more traveled and, thanks to social media, aware of how their contemporaries on the east and west coasts are working.

click to enlarge THE JURORS: (From left) Shea Hembrey, Les Christensen and Brian Young worked their way through more than 1,400 entries to choose 52 for exhibition.
  • THE JURORS: (From left) Shea Hembrey, Les Christensen and Brian Young worked their way through more than 1,400 entries to choose 52 for exhibition.

Young particularly noted Hursley's work in the show, "Pine Bluff Mortuary" and "Comet Rice, Stuttgart, Arkansas," as proof of the continued aesthetic of regionality. Though Hursley is known internationally for his photography, from his work at the Museum of Modern Art, Andy Warhol's Factory and the brothels of Nevada, his work brings the Delta to the "Delta." "Tim Hursley embodies what the 'Delta' is about," Young said.

Hursley is not the only artist widely appreciated. Large-scale charcoal artist David Bailin, painter Criswell, woodworker Robyn Horn, photojournalist Benjamin Krain, printmaker and drawing master Aj Smith, and metalpoint artist Williams-Smith, to name just a few, exhibit nationally. But they still choose to compete for a spot in the "Delta."

There are strong installation pieces, but the strength of the 2018 "Delta" lies in two dimensions. Jurors noted the aforementioned self-portrait by Williams-Smith ("world class in technique" and the artist being "as good as it gets," juror Hembrey said) and described Aj Smith's large graphite portrait of a weathered woman, "Faces of the Delta: Geraldine," and Donna Pinckley's photographs of interracial couples — two men in one, a family in the other, titled with the insults they've received — as genre standouts (quintessential "Delta" portraiture, Young said). Hembrey was happy to see such psychologically challenging works as "Sticks and Stones," Anais Dasse's large oil-and-ink on paper of children dressed in a kind of weird camouflage tangling with fierce wolves, and Melissa Cowper-Smith's entrancing "Unremember" video in which paintings devolve into photographs and back again, the denouement an enormous fire. ("Sticks and Stones" won a Delta Award; this writer is sure that "Unremember" deserved one.)

A diplomatic Christianson declined to cite a favorite, saying only that she was "really impressed by and surprised by the number and quality of figurative and portrait pieces submitted."

This writer is under no such constraints, and would have given awards to Criswell for his oil "Eat Now (Again)," a scene of two hands poised over a plate of spaghetti with crows flying above — a work with two tops that can be hung both ways. Loren Bartnicke's meaty abstraction, an impasto creation with cactus leaves and drooping figures, was another work overlooked by the judges (at least this go-round, for all three stressed that their award selections could have been very different at another time, thanks to the vagaries of mood and current events). Spencer Purinton's "Peripatetic Terrine," in which hard-edge, hot-pink shards and blue feather shapes spill against a black background, is one of those works that bring you back for second and third looks.

But while the "Delta" may be shy on what you'll find in New York — none of the artists is sitting in the middle of the gallery and inviting visitors to sit silently before them, as Marina Abramovic did at the MoMA in 2010, nor are the rooms covered in Yayoi Kusama's polka dots — there are several worthy 3D pieces among the portraits and landscapes. With the exception of Max Adrian's "Solo: The Furry Divine of Fearsome Desires," that inflating bear of leather and fur, they are a bit more constrained than the conceptual pieces of earlier "Delta" shows, such as Jean Flint's stretched-acrylic mimicking flesh hanging from a steel rod ("Evidence of Passage," 1994), less incendiary as John Salvest's match-tip flag ("Flag," 1994) and less eyebrow-raising than Ginger Feland's aforementioned snail/cabbage work. But it's good work by artists the Times has not written much about before. Check out the work by the following:

James Matthews

A viewer might look at "Eviction Quilt No. 3, Green Medallion" and think of it simply as something to keep him warm. It's plain, made of rectangles and squares of denim and gray and green pieces of cloth, tied with knots rather than stitched together.

But there's a backstory to "Eviction Quilt," as its name suggests, and that makes all the difference. Matthews, the director of communication for the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas, has for the past three years created quilts from clothing tossed to the street after an eviction. "There are lots of evictions in Little Rock," Matthews noted, thanks to Arkansas's notoriously draconic landlord laws. Yet, Matthews said, the project, which takes him to neighborhoods all over Little Rock, is more documentarian than social wake-up call. The placement of the green central square in "Eviction Quilt No. 3" recalls the green windows in a tin-roofed nightclub near where the clothes were found.

click to enlarge WORKING WITH THE DISCARDED: James Matthews creates quilts, such as "Eviction Quilt No. 3 (Green Medallion)" from clothes tossed to the street by banished families.
  • WORKING WITH THE DISCARDED: James Matthews creates quilts, such as "Eviction Quilt No. 3 (Green Medallion)" from clothes tossed to the street by banished families.

What should the quilt be called? Craft? 3D art? "To a certain extent, I don't care," Matthews said in a recent interview. As a graduate of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Matthews is both observer and creator. In addition to the quilts, he has constructed and then photographed assemblages of street-side detritus. He's trying to photograph all the churches in Little Rock. He blogs about historical places. He finds inspiration in Little Rock's pockets of poverty, places that he knows many people would be shocked to discover. Matthews is drawn to such sad areas perhaps because when he first came to Little Rock — it was 2006 — he was shocked by its homicide rate. His first project was to photograph places where killings had taken place: front yards, sidewalks, parking lots. They showed the surprising banality of the locations. He made postcards from some of the photographs, as if they were tourist shots: Welcome to Little Rock!

Matthews, 42, who sews at a dining room table in the front room of his home, is working on the final quilt in the eviction series. He was a bit leery of talking about what might be his next project — his wife warned him people would think he was a bit off when they hear of it — but he agreed to drive this reporter to what he calls a "dog dump" on Maryland Avenue beneath Interstate 630 and beside a railroad track to talk about his idea. Matthews travels here every other week or so and he always finds the weeds littered with the carcasses of dogs. A collar revealed the identity of the matted fur and bones of one deceased animal we saw on our trip. Why here? Matthews wonders. He is intrigued by the juxtaposition of the uncaring way dogs are being dumped in this place with the obliviousness of drivers speeding overhead on the interstate.

Matthews sometimes collects the skeletons and cleans them off at home. He has even collected carcasses for further decomposition in his backyard, beneath a bucket. Unfortunately his daughter, then 5, observed him at this labor, and later told some of her friends at school whose dogs had died that her dad would take them. He had to put her straight; he's not in the market for dead dogs.

Matthews won an honorable mention for his eviction quilt, which juror Young described as a perfect fit for the "Delta." Another of his quilts was also selected for the 2017 exhibition. You can see more of his work at asurplusofobjects.com.

Aaron Calvert

Henderson State University associate art professor Aaron Calvert's "Always Facing South Bear" is a cylindrical ceramic creation spelling out its title and depicting Southern-themed images. It's a departure from the older work shown on his Arkansas Arts Council's Artist Registry page: an intricately carved earthenware piece depicting a figure in a boat offering up a frog to a bundle, soda-fired cups, mugs, plates and teapots featuring stylized ants. He turned to whimsical, hand-built pieces in 2014, inspired by his love for the outdoors and the wild and a tad burned out on the wheel. "I've always been a real big surface person, whether I carved or drew ... and I wanted something really bright," Calvert, 44, said. Hence the vivid, highly saturated glaze under-painting of "Always Facing South Bear."

A native of Ohio, Calvert lived in Arkansas for several years before he realized that when someone said "Bless his heart" it was a put-down, not intercessory prayer, he told visitors to the "Delta" opening.

click to enlarge TALKING TECHNIQUE: Ceramicist Aaron Calvert talks about glazes on his "Always Facing South Bear" with visitors to the "Delta Exhibition" opening.
  • TALKING TECHNIQUE: Ceramicist Aaron Calvert talks about glazes on his "Always Facing South Bear" with visitors to the "Delta Exhibition" opening.

"Coming to the South was a bit of a culture shock," Calvert said. "Being from the North, I felt like what I was seeing was 'South,' no matter which direction I looked. ... I'm always facing 'South.'

"When I was working on the bear, that idea just kept playing over and over in my head and I ended up putting it on the bear." One of the images on the bear is what appears at first glance to be a Dixie flag, but the stars make a Y rather than an X. "However you feel about that flag, my goal as an artist was not to cram my thinking down people's throats, but just open the conversation," the artist said.

Calvert said he likes the "Delta" because the work in the show isn't nostalgic — its not all barns and chickens — but about contemporary life here, and he likes that. "The downside is there's usually not a lot of ceramics in there," he said. Jurors "can't make that mental jump from contemporary to ceramics unless it's a big, colorful bear."

Juror Young saw a bit of famed experimental ceramicist Jun Kaneko, whose high-gloss glazed and rounded cylinders were exhibited at the Arts Center in 2009, in Calvert's work. Calvert said that made a lot of sense: He is in the "lineage" of Kaneko, since the ceramicist he studied under — the iconoclastic Kirk Mangus — was a student of Kaneko's.

Calvert won an honorable mention for "Always Facing South Bear." It was his second "Delta" honorary mention; he won in 2017 with his gold-faced ceramic woman, "Giving Figure." He does not yet have a web page, but is working on it.

Dusty Mitchell

At the opening reception of the "Delta," people walked all over Dusty Mitchell's installation "Pressure," a checkerboard of square, flat black-and-white bathroom scales. Each square showed a different weight, some in pounds, some kilograms, some accurate, some way off.

Some people, however, would approach the artwork, but stop short of stepping on it. It's those people, said Mitchell, of Mountain View, that the artwork is for: those fearful of the number the scale might show, pressured to think their weight defines their identity.

Mitchell, 39, has the distinction of being the only artist in the "Delta" to have been on a Bravo reality show that, like "The Voice" and "Project Runway," put artists in competition. He watched the first season and successfully sought a place in the second, an arduous process that included waiting for hours in a line in Chicago to put his portfolio before "two kids going to graduate school at the Art Institute," being assigned an art project as another step in the application process, and having to undergo psychological and IQ tests. "It was pretty intense," he said. The show, which aired in 2011, started with 14 artists; he was in the top five. The top three got to make their own work, rather than work on assignment. "I feel like if I'd gotten to that step, I could have done some damage."

By then, the Michigan native — and now a school principal in Mountain View — had had work accepted into the "Delta" a number of times. Like "Pressure," Mitchell's work often addresses perception and societal quirks (his 2016 "Delta" appearance, "Home Sweet Home," at first glance appeared to be a cross-stitch but was actually flies placed sampler-like on stretched fly strips). He's made pointillist portraits made of crayons stacked on end; an exit sign that on closer examination says "Exist"; a bomb substituted for a globe of the earth; a flag made of toy soldiers, firefighters and policemen.

click to enlarge WEIGHING IN: Dusty Mitchell with his "Delta" installation, "Pressure"
  • WEIGHING IN: Dusty Mitchell with his "Delta" installation, "Pressure"

If that latter work recalls the work of John Salvest, there's a reason: Mitchell studied with the conceptual artist at Arkansas State University. He said Salvest was "the best thing that could have happened to me." In Salvest's class, Mitchell said, he learned "I can make whatever I want out of whatever I want. ... It's the opposite of abstraction."

Mitchell has two pieces in the 2018 "Delta": In addition to "Pressure" is his etched stainless steel "Diet Coke (From Trump Tweet Series)." If his messages are obvious, that's what Mitchell wants. "I have no interest in making a painting that people have no access to. I put it all out there."

Mitchell said the "Delta" was one of the first art shows he saw as a student at ASU. "That's when I first started meeting people I considered professionals, they were showing in that show. The first year I got in, that was a big deal for me."

***

One theory about why the "Delta" had a record number of entries is that anyone rejected from the show gained an automatic spot in the "Delta des Refuses" exhibition, which opens Friday, June 8, at the Butler Center. The show, in its third year, will feature the work of more than 100 artists. Read more about that show in the To-Do section of this paper.

The "Delta Exhibition" runs through Aug. 26.

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