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The 'Delta': Better than the Best 

'Toys Designed by Artists' a great go-before.

GRAND AWARD WINNER: LaDawna Whiteside's "Animal Architecture Drawing Installation."
  • GRAND AWARD WINNER: LaDawna Whiteside's "Animal Architecture Drawing Installation."

The Delta Exhibition has returned to its rightful place at the Arkansas Arts Center — in the Townsend Wolfe Gallery, now that "World of the Pharaohs" has made its exodus — and it's a good thing, because there's much work here that deserves the space and setting the Wolfe Gallery can give it. This year's show — the 53rd annual — is even better than the 2008 show, which I labeled "Best.Show.Ever."

You might expect the show to be filled with conceptual art, thanks to "Keeping the Faith," the grass upholstered bench in the lobby that is so tempting to sit on (but you mustn't). (It's by Brandon Mathis of Conway, winner of a Delta Award.) And there is some good three-dimensional work here that sneaks up on but doesn't quite qualify as installation, including a couple of pieces by Missouri artists: Rand Smith's small terra cotta heads hung from strings ("Two Sides") and Andrew Van der Tuin's "Wrapped Tetrahedron," large wire balls wrapped with stretch wrap. The best of it is Kansas artist's Joelle Ford's "What's Next?" in which three-dimensional objects, fastidiously arranged and painted with thick white house paint, are hung in panels from the wall. She's rolled up and coated in white crocheted doilies and men's socks and monopoly money, made a pyramid of poker chips, put balls of string on nails, lined up belts, filled a pouch with tennis balls, all to create unexpected textures. (The work may remind you, and make you miss, that by Jonesboro artist and Delta regular John Salvest.)

But most of the work is two-dimensional, and few wrong notes are struck. Ford's composition is echoed in LaDawna Whiteside's Grand Award winner, "Animal Architecture Drawing Installation," in which the Fayetteville artist has hung 12 sheets of paper (four across, three down) on which she's drawn precise graphite lines of varying intensity; she lets the lines twist and tangle on three sheets and made plaid-like lines with the others. The work also won the Contemporaries Delta Award. The Contemporaries Honorable Mention went to Kat Wilson's strangely engrossing "Artist, Fayetteville, Arkansas," a digital print in which lined-up scissors and paint in the foreground point to the artist in the central part of the picture; it's a busy but not messy print with areas of yellow wall acting as relief. (FYI: The Fort Smith photographer has a show of portraits coming up at the University of Central Arkansas at Conway in January.)

Ross McLean of Tennessee gets Art Notes' Best Angle award for his work "The Peel," a huge oil, from the floor's perspective, of a man crouching in a room to peel paper off a wall; beside him is a bottle labeled BOOMBOOM. I'm not going to make any attempt to make sense of the work, but the painting is a treat to look at (though I'm having a little trouble with one of the man's arms). Kristin Musgnug of Fayetteville gets Art Notes' Irony award for her painting "Tallow Tree, Texas City," a muted green and yellow painting of a flowering tree (which happens to be useful in the production of biodiesel) is set against an oil refinery in the hazy, distant background. Anne Davey of Tennessee gets the AN's Gestalt award for her charcoal on gessoed paper drawing, "Girl Underwater"; it invites study and is deftly drawn.

There is much more worthy work here, such as Lydia Bodnar-Balahutrak's "Hearts-A-Bustin'," an oil and resin collage in which a thin wash of the plant is painted against newspaper reports on war; Kate Rivers' "Victory," a maelstrom of thin strips of paper atop photographs of victims of crime. And while I think it's almost cheating to use photography as the basis of what looks like a painting, I really liked Cindy Arsaga's "Clothesline — Southern Louisiana," whose lines etched in encaustic, for reasons I can't explain, made me think of Marcel Duchamp's "The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even."

GRAND AWARD WINNER: LaDawna Whiteside's "Animal Architecture Drawing Installation."

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