The Momentary, the mini-MASS MoCa in Bentonville that Tom and Olivia Walton and Steuart Walton created in a former Kraft cheese factory in Bentonville, opened with fanfare on Feb. 22 with art, nonstop musical performances, trampoline bouncing and dancers rappelling down the side of the building. (And then closed temporarily March 15, as did every museum in Arkansas, because of the coronavirus outbreak.)
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 draped in wool acoustical curtains. There’s coffee from local roasters Onyx on the ground floor and a glass-walled bar on the top floor with a view, Director Lieven Bertels boasted, that reaches all the way to Oklahoma. The Breakroom cafe shares space with a large gallery, so that, for now at least, you can eat lunch while watching a kaleidoscopic video turning a pineapple into a Cubist’s dream at the same time.
Giant neon script on the side of the Momentary spells out its message: “You Belong Here.” Bertels calls the facility a “living room for arts” that stands in contrast to the traditional museums 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.”
Paintings, sculpture, video installations and ceramics by a highly diverse group of artists make up the Momentary’s maiden exhibition, “State of the Art 2020,” more than 100 works in all that are divided between the 63,000-square-foot Momentary and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The most arresting work in the Momentary portion of “State of the Art 2020” is Paul Stephen Benjamin’s “Summer Breeze,” an installation in which a video repeating Billie Holiday singing “black bodies swinging” from her song “Strange Fruit” is paired with a wall of several high-contrast black-and-blue toned videos repeating the image of a child swinging toward the viewer. The child’s aggressive back-and-forth swinging set to Holiday’s song about lynching is tremendously moving. Located in a side gallery, Holiday’s “black bodies swinging” resonates throughout the adjacent gallery and into the cafe: living room art space.
The diversity at the Momentary — from the curators to the cafe staff to the visitors and among the artists and their subject matter — is gratifying. The artists chosen for the show, by curators Lauren Haynes, Alejo Benedetti and Allison Glenn, are the face of America, like Sama Alshaibi of Tucson, Mae Aur of Memphis, Domingo Castillo of Miami, Jiha Moon of Atlanta, JooYoung Hoi of Houston, Suchitra Mattai of Denver. Also, drag queen Jody Kuehner (Cherdonna) of Seattle. Some of the works have been merged into the permanent collection in the main galleries at Crystal Bridges, such as photographer Mari Hernandez’s self-portrait “Colonizer” hanging amid the grand portraiture of early American aristocracy. (For “Colonizer,” Hernandez donned a prosthetic nose and chin and wears a costume; the colors are so arrestingly highly saturated the photograph could almost be mistaken for a painting).
The scale of the Momentary allows for the installation of Mattai’s “Dialectic,” a 480-by-180-inch tapestry of vintage saris from India and from her Indo-Guyana family, rolled and woven together, Frances Bagley’s grouping of figures emerging from stone, “Shangri-la,” and the pink and yellow performance space “Ditch” for drag artist Kuehner/Cherdonna.
Refreshingly nonderivative paintings include Su Su’s “A Life in the Woods” and “Darwin,” cartoon-like oils that illustrate how stories — in this case “Bambi” and “Curious George” — are understood in different ways depending on the culture one grows up in. Jordan Seaberry’s wonderful “Blueberry (The Right to Self)” of a woman sort of hovering over a living room owes a lot to Kerry James Marshall’s paintings, such as “Our Town” at Crystal Bridges.
Ronald Jackson’s 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 in a flat, hard-edge style.
Our 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 Trump’s hateful/idiotic/juvenile/deranged tweets. Walker is the father of artist Kara Walker.
Wheeler Kearns Architects of Chicago, with lead architect Calli Verkamp (a native of Charleston, Ark.), turned an abandoned factory into a showplace. Oklahoma artist Addie Roanhorse’s arrow pattern — inspired by Osage attire — on the glass entryway walls and exterior glass of the Tower is clever and elegant. That 70-foot-tall Tower wall made a perfect backdrop for the dancers of Bandaloop, who rappelled down its face against a backdrop of projected art and pulsing music during the opening weekend.
“State of the Art 2020” runs through May 24, unless it’s extended because of the closure of the museum. Next up: The installation “Nick Cave: Until.”