I’m sitting in the cafe at the Momentary, the contemporary art/performance/hangout in Bentonville that Tom and Olivia Walton and Stueart Walton have created in a former Kraft cheese factory, and I can hear over and over again Billie Holliday singing the phrase “black bodies swinging” from her song “Strange Fruit.” The video installation, “Summer Breeze” by Paul Stephen Benjamin, is the most arresting work in the Momentary portion of “State of the Art 2020,” the exhibition of work by contemporary artists from all over the country. Holliday is shown in a black and white video on a large TV screen in front of the installation, with clips of R&B artist Jill Scott singing the same phrase on smaller monitors on either side of Holliday. Playing behind those monitors, repeated on large and small screens, is a high-contrast video, vivid blue and black, of a child swinging on a swingset. The child is swinging directly toward the viewer, and the child’s aggressive back and forth swinging against Holliday’s song about lynching fills your ears is tremendously moving.
“State of the Art 2,” the follow-up to the inaugural 2014 exhibition, opens the Momentary, which got a preview last night from VIPs and is open today to members. Tonight and the next two days will be filled with music (including Australian artist Courtney Barnett, violinst Keir Gogwilt and others) and performances, including the dancers of Bandaloop scaling the outside of the building, a work composed for the opening by a California theatrical troupe, and much more.
There are 100 works in “SOTA2020,” with some of the larger pieces in the 63,000-square-foot former cheese plant at Eighth and E streets and an abundance in Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art up the street. The industrial space has been transformed: A garage is now the RØDE theater, named for contributor RØDE Microphones, an audio company based in Sydney, Australia; the fermentation room, once a two-story-tall square space, is now a theater. The large gallery is across from the cafe, so that you can eat (for now) and watch a kaleidoscopic video turning a pineapple into a Cubist’s dream at the same time. Giant lit script on the side of the Momentary spells out “You Belong Here,” and and director Lieven Bertels said the presentation of art among living spaces — as a “living room for arts” — is in contrast to the traditional museum setting in which the importance of the art is reflected in Neoclassical architecture and grand entrances — like the steps to the Metropolitan, for example — and in which art is viewed in sort of “religious silence.” At the Momentary, Bertels said, “You can just come in and the art is around you. You can come in here to hang out. The idea is that you feel at home. … You can grab a coffee and you can take that coffee through the gallery.”
Though I can sit here with my $3 Topo Chico in view of Fayetteville artist Anthony Sonnenberg’s melting porcelain sculptures, I don’t think the setting has lessened the dignity of the art, and that is thanks to the huge industrial scale.
Bertels also noted the diversity of both the art and the staff, which is tremendous. There are all kinds of people here, in all kinds of tones and ethnicities. It’s as exciting as the diversity of the art, from the curators to the cafe staff to the visitors. The artists chosen for the show, by curators Lauren Haynes, Alejo Benedetti and Allison Glenn, are the face of America: Sama Alshaibi of Tucson, Mae Aur of Memphis, Domingo Castillo of Miami, Jiha Moon of Atlanta, JooYoung Hoi of Houston, Suchitra Mattai of Eugene, Ore. Drag queen Jody Kuehner (Cherdonna) of Seattle.
Crystal Bridges curators, inspired by the work, divided the work into themes, but you don’t have to know them because relationships are clear in how the curators have chosen to hang them. Some have been worked into the permanent collection in the main galleries at Crystal Bridges, such as Mari Hernandez’ photographic self portrait “Colonizer,” in the Early American gallery featuring grand portraiture (Hernandez has on a prosthetic nose and chin and is wearing a costume in this fascinating photograph.)
The huge scale of the Momentary allows the installation of Suchitra Matta’s “Dialectic,” a 480-by-180 inch tapestry of vintage saris from India and from her Indo-Guyana family, rolled and woven together.
I was taken with several paintings. Peter Everett’s “Vermillion Screen” is of a thickly (but precisely) painted red mesh over a teardrop-shaped image formed of smaller teardrop images. The red is luscious, a fussy layer of paint at the bottom of the painting behind the screen completes what is refreshing abstraction. “Susu’s “Darwin” is two paintings that illustrate how the same story — in this case “Bambi” and “Curious George” — are understood in different ways depending on the culture one grows up in. Ronald Jackson’s flat portrait of a woman behind a mask, “In a Day, she Became the Master of Her House,” and a companion piece mix the commonplace with the exotic.
These nasty Trumpian times are reflected in several artworks, including Larry Walker’s “Tweet, Tweet … Look Who’s Here … or Aliens, Wall Spirits and Other Manifestations,” a collage that incorporates a thatch of yellow hair, bits of “Mars Attacks” poster art and our miserable excuse for a president’s hateful and idiotic tweets.
Wheeler Kearns Architects of Chicago, with lead architect Calli Verkamp (a native of Charleston, Ark., have done a bang-up job. Oklahoma artist Addie Roanhorse created a show-stopping arrow pattern inspired by Osage attire on the glass entryway walls and exterior glass of the Tower, the sleek, glass-walled bar atop the museum.
So tonight, I’m off to hear a solo harpist Mary Lattimore and watch dancers cavort from the top of the building down the side. Because it’s Bentonville.