Sarasota Art Museum exhibit offers a snapshot of American life

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“State of the Art 2020: Constructs” features 33 works of art by 21 working artists from across the country. Their work is a freeze frame of contemporary American life. Their mercurial media include ceramic sculpture, installation, neon sculpture, painting, photography, textile art and video performance. This traveling exhibition Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art divides their work into three fairly arbitrary sections: Planet, Place, and Self.

Planet

This part, as you might expect, deals with ecology. Some of these works simply celebrate the Third Rock of the Sun. But much of it sounds like a warning. Planet Earth has encountered the enemy – and it is us.

Alice Pixley YoungThe installation “Geist, Lighthouse and Transmissions” (2019) is a dance of projections and shadow play. The artist (a Ringling College alumna) has created hand-cut miniature models of decaying industrial infrastructure – transmission lines, railroad water towers, a derrick, and more. She placed these tiny models in bells. The jars rotate in front of a light source, creating ever-changing shadows.

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Amy Casey“Highground” (2019), depicts a submerged world. His acrylic painting shows a few random buildings, surrounded by an endless ocean. These human structures look precious and twee – like dollhouses. But some are overwhelmed and swept away. The tall, dry buildings rest on giant tree trunks sticking out of the water. The symbolism is easy to decode: civilization survives when it is rooted in the great systems of nature.

Suchitra Mattai's 2019 work 'Exodus', made from vintage sarees from India, Sharjah and the artist's Indo-Guyanese family, is on display at the Sarasota Art Museum in the 'Constructs' exhibition at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Square

Art is not created out of nothing. It’s made with the mind and hands of an artist – and artists don’t come from nothing either. Each creator is anchored in a specific place, with a local dwelling and a name. The work in this section shows you where they come from.

In India, a sari is a woman’s outer garment – a ribbon of fabric that can be wrapped around the body in different ways. indo-guyanese artist Suchitra Mattai celebrates this heritage with “Exodus” (2019). Mattai’s installation weaves a host of sarees together – garments gathered from several generations of her family and others across India and the United Arab Emirates. The coin resembles a rainbow-colored tsunami – an apt symbol for waves of immigration and settlement.

In Mattai’s work, “place” is a big idea. As vast as the Indian subcontinent and the global diaspora of Indian culture. But small places matter too. Meeting places and refuges are the breeding ground where art and artists grow. Neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, Haight-Ashbury and SoHo. Or even a hometown bar scene.

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It’s the photographer’s goal L. Kasimu Harris. His latest series captures vignettes of New Orleans’ vanishing black bars and lounges. Many have been closed, after waves of real estate speculation during the reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina. Harris celebrates what’s left.

His “Come Tuesday: Sportsman’s Corner” (2018) pays homage to the Black Mohawks – an African-American “crew” who performs in Indian costume during Mardi Gras. Their celebration pays tribute to the black slaves who fled the white plantations of Louisiana to Indian villages – and were immediately accepted as brothers and sisters.

This story lives on. New Orleans’ black bar scene is the reason. Harris wants that legacy to continue as well. And not just in his photos.

Miami-based photographer George Sanchez-Calderon knows how he feels. His home/studio in Miami was also a gathering place for South Florida artists. The Florida Department of Transportation decided this was the perfect location for an interstate on-ramp. The artist refused to sell. FDOT claimed eminent domain and claimed ownership anyway.

The artist’s “NOT FOR SALE” neon sign was his latest act of protest. The green of neon, the color of silver. But the “NO” is exhausted. Because money has conquered history. At least in this round.

Ronald Jackson's 2019 painting

Self

According to Socrates, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of wisdom”. Introspection led many of these artists to an existential approach. For them, the “self” is not a fixed essence. It’s constantly under construction – and the ultimate DIY project. Their art speaks here of this constant reinvention.

It partly depends on what you choose to reveal to the world. “The whole world is a stage.” But until everyone is equal, some of his players are wearing masks.

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Which brings us to Ronald JacksonThe portraits of . His characters are always African American, always masked and always looking straight ahead. Your mind wants to know their stories. The artist only gives you hints.

“In one day, she became the mistress of her house” is a perfect example. The face of a black woman. The unhidden parts are three-dimensional and skillfully modeled. The mask she wears has a stylized two-dimensional leaf pattern; the background behind it also looks like wallpaper.

Jackson wrote that this practice originated during his tours of Iraq in the US military. He had read the obituaries of fallen soldiers. The accompanying photo was still as centered as a high school yearbook image. He imagined their stories, knowing that they were far from the truth. His monumental masked portraits invite the viewer to do the same.

Where Jackson hides, Jody Kuhner revealed. She is a visual artist across a range of mediums, and a drag performer as well (aka “Cherdonna Shinatra”). His installation “DITCH” (2019) brings all this together. The space is an open room, like a huge diorama. Inside, it’s a colorful explosion of soft foam sculptures – under the watchful eye of ‘Mom Donna’, an exhausted but attentive mother figure in a jester costume. The riot of color is accompanied by a riotous video of Kuehner in character, performing with his drag troupe. “It’s me”, says the artist. Without any filter.

But identity means more than the outward presentation of oneself. There is also the self behind our eyes. This interior life is purely private. For an artist, the phenomenological world is also under construction. Experience is not passive. And seeing is not believing.

This is especially true when you don’t like what you see.

Like, say, the unsettling liminal spaces of big-box retail stores.

Su Su's Darwin, an oil on canvas, is featured at the Sarasota Art Museum in the “Constructs” exhibit at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Su-Su“Darwin” (2018) is a walk through one of these strange valleys. Her meticulous oil-on-canvas painting paints a surreal vision with photorealistic detail. The scene is a household goods store. Normally a scene of plenty — but the shelves have nothing to sell. Instead of consumer goods, this fractured space is filled with creepy orangutan dolls and distorted cutouts of Curious George, the irrepressible monkey from children’s books by Margret and HA Rey.

What does it mean?

My hunch is that the artist got goosebumps buying a new pan one day. Su Su wondered why? And answered his own question in this painting of a friendly fake store that doesn’t feel like home.

This smorgasbord selection doesn’t do justice to the 33 pieces here. The art you’ll see has common themes and obsessions – but it’s always as diverse as possible. The artists behind it all walk on different drummers. Their art says, “This is who and where we are. The result is a glimpse of the present moment, at least from 2020. But that today is already yesterday…

I can’t wait to see what these artists are up to right now.

‘State of the art 2020: constructions’

Organized by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Curated by Alejo Benedetti, Allison Glenn and Lauren Haynes, the original 2020 exhibition was a group show featuring 61 works of art by over 100 artists. The traveling version of this show split it into three smaller exhibits; “Building” is one of them. It is on display until September 11 at the Sarasota Art Museum, 1001 South Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-309-4300; sarasotaartmuseum.org.

Read more visual art stories by Marty Fugate

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