Theresa Bembnister is one of three curators at the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, along with Brian J. Lang and Catherine Walworth. Before joining the AMFA in 2020, Bembnister worked at the Akron Art Muum in Ohio and the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art in Manhattan, Kansas. She provided us with some inside knowledge about the exhibitions the museum is unveiling as part of its grand reopening.
Let’s start by talking about “Together,” the lead exhibition accompanying the reopening of the AMFA. How was it dreamed up?
“Together” is really about celebrating the fact that we can finally be back together with all of our guests after the museum has been closed to the public for so many years. It’s this joyous reflection on themes of togetherness. We’re dividing it up between ideas of together with friends and family (and we mean family in the broadest sense), together with community (however you want to see that word) and also together with nature.
And the works in the exhibition, some of them fall into more than one category. When you walk through the door, you’ll see some photographs by an artist named Sarah Sense. She lives in California, but she has Choctaw and Chitmacha Native American heritage. The Chitimacha reservation is in this very bayou-esque land in Louisiana and she traveled through with a boat and took a lot of photographs. Afterwards, she talked to people on the land about what their idea of this place was and she took the words and stenciled them on top of the photographs that she created. She also cut the photographs into strips and wove them using basket techniques that were handed down throughout the generations. So that work is both about nature, because she’s showing photographs of her ancestral homeland, and also about community, because she made it with the help of other people.
Another one of the new exhibitions, “Drawn to Paper,” is an assembly of pieces that exist in the AMFA’s permanent collection. Tell me about that.
The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts is known for its drawing collection. We had a former director, Townsend Wolfe, who led the museum for decades. He decided in the early ’70s that he really wanted to focus the institution’s collecting activities on drawing. He thought the institution could make its mark by collecting drawings because they’re unique works of art and they’re relatively affordable compared to paintings and sculpture.
With “Drawn to Paper,” we wanted to highlight some of the best works in the collection. We have the largest collection of works by an artist named John Marin outside of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He’s known for his watercolors. They kind of hover in between abstraction and realistic depiction of things. To me, watercolor is one of the most difficult mediums because if you mess up, it’s hard to fix it. He just has this magical touch with the brush. He’ll make a mark and it just seems perfectly predetermined.
“Tears of Chiwen” by Sun Xun is the first-ever exhibition in the AMFA’s New Media Gallery. What makes it special?
The New Media Gallery is what they call a black box space in the art world. It’s basically a really slender room. The walls are painted black. You go in through curtains, there’s benches and the work is projected on the wall. Picking Sun Xun’s work, which is animation based off of his incredible drawings, I thought it would create a bridge, like a way for people to approach new media that would feel somewhat comfortable and familiar. It’s also really fast-paced, and visually exciting animation. It’s a series of vignettes loosely based on the story of the chiwen dragon.
Conceptually, Sun Xun is really interested in history and culture and the ways in which information about those two things are dispersed. He was born shortly after the Cultural Revolution in China. He realized that the stories he learned in school about the Cultural Revolution in his history book were very different from what he was told by his parents. And so he grew up with this suspicion of the official, government-sanctioned story of history vs. what the oral history version of things are. “Tears of Chiwen” is from 2017, so it’s a little older, but it’s the first time it’s been exhibited in a museum in the United States and I think it’s really relevant to so many of the cultural conversations we’re having right now. If you think about all these debates that are happening in our state legislatures around the country about how we can and cannot talk about the history of our nation, I think Sun Xun’s work is really applicable to those conversations.
The AMFA is also debuting two installations. How is your thinking different when it comes to an installation rather than an exhibition?
They’re different in that they will be up longer. Anne Lindberg’s installation will be up for three years and Natasha Bowdoin’s installation will be up for two years. Also, they’re site-specific in the sense that each artist traveled here and made the work specifically in response to the architecture of the building.
Natasha was here for pretty much the entire month of December. Her installation is called “Spring Song.” She makes these things that she calls blooms out of a plywood type of board. She has them CNC routed and she paints on top of them. They become these sort of flower garden scapes. They’re flat, but they’re sculptures. She layers them almost like stage scenery. She also paints the walls. If you’ve driven down or walked down Ninth Street recently, you might have noticed that on the north side of the building, there’s a really big window. It’s like the size of a billboard. Once all the curtains and the signs come down and we open up, you will be able to look through that window and see Natasha’s installation.
Anne Lindberg was here for a week in March. She works with miles of a really thick cotton string and she pulls it from wall to wall and staples it in place. Her work is installed above you so you’ll be able to walk underneath it. When light goes through it, it creates this really ethereal soft glow of the colors above you. It’s mostly this really pretty blue and green and yellow with a little bit of sherbet orange and lavender coming through. She’s really inspired by the colors of the landscape around the building.
What do we have to look forward to in the coming months and years?
What I can say is that we will be showing more international artists and a more diverse roster of artists. Also, since so much of our collection is paper drawings, those all have to be switched out, because if they’re on display for too long, they’ll be damaged by the light. We will be rotating works in our permanent collection about every six months. When we use the word “permanent,” that doesn’t mean that every work is permanently going to be on display; it just means that the museum owns the work. So if you come back in six months, you’re going to see new things on the wall. I can promise that for sure.