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2018 fall Arkansas fine arts preview

Crystal Bridges completes the American story with "Art for a New Understanding."

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HISTORY PAINTING: Canadian First Nations artist Kent Monkman's "History is Painted by the Victors" is among the works in "Art for a New Understanding" coming to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
  • HISTORY PAINTING: Canadian First Nations artist Kent Monkman's "History is Painted by the Victors" is among the works in "Art for a New Understanding" coming to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Is Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art the most woke museum in the country? That's what The Washington Post suggested in an article earlier this year as the museum began to reinstall its early American galleries to, Director Rod Bigelow said, better reflect "the complexity of the American story."

The early American galleries were initially dominated by images of patriarchy and aristocracy and unspoiled scenery — the 18th century Franks family; George Washington; the Marquis de Lafayette; Mrs. Theodore Atkinson and her flying squirrel; the poet and artist gentlemen of Asher Durand's "Kindred Spirits"; romantic landscapes by Cole, Innes, Cropsey et al., Bierstadt's nostalgic scenes of Native Americans fishing and George de Forest Brush's "The Indian and the Lily." A thematic reassembly of works in the first galleries now pairs such works with a 19th century Salish cradleboard, Lakota Siouxan beaded skin pouches, an 18th century portrait of a Spanish lady; a 20th century painting, "Florida Mexicana," by Alfredo Ramos Martinez; Nari Ward's 27-foot-long installation "We the People," the words spelled out in shoestrings. The themes of the galleries are painted on the wall in both English and Spanish: The full complement of America has been invited to the party. As that redo was going on, over in the temporary exhibition galleries was the superb "Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power," a show of work by outstanding African-American artists working from the 1960s to 1980s.

Now comes "Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now," an exhibition of more than 80 artworks, including painting, video, sculpture, performance art, photography and more, opening Oct. 6. The works address contemporary issues of social justice, ridicule stereotype and show Native artists to be not a part of a solemn, monolithic culture, but as diverse as America itself, with a keen wit sharpened to a fine edge by historical affronts (like genocide) by white America.

One of the artists whose work will be at Crystal Bridges is Kent Monkman, a Canadian First Nation artist whose work would be rightly shown next to Bierstadt's "Indian Encampment." While Bierstadt renders an idyllic scene of Natives swimming in a creek near their tipis, Monkman's arch landscape "History Is Painted by the Victors" shows a Native man in high-heeled and thigh-high red patent leather boots painting beside a mountain lake and surrounded by nude white men who've cast off blue uniforms. A couple of the men are boxing, others are wrestling, one's playing a panpipe, most are languid. Monkman's used his alter-ego, warrior-in-drag Chief Eagle Testickle, to add a bit of daring snark to history painting. Monkman is a terrific artist; this work is reason enough to go to Crystal Bridges for "Art for a New Understanding." He's also painted a takeoff on "Kindred Spirits"; instead of friends Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant, Monkman's put a Native and a white man fighting on the rock; let's hope that is also in the show.

Also enlightening: a 1990 photograph of laughing artists Lisa Mayo, Gloria Miguel and Muriel Miguel, who in 1976 founded the feminist Spiderwoman Theater, the country's longest-running Native female theatrical company; Shan Goshan's two baskets, "Removal," in which the artist has cut a copy of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 into thin strips and used them to weave traditional Cherokee baskets; and from Crystal Bridges' own collection, James Lavadour's landscape-reminiscent abstracts "Shake."

"Art for a New Understanding" runs through Jan. 7. Crystal Bridges has scheduled all sorts of programs in conjunction with the show, including painting and sculpture workshops, films, artist talks and more. On view now is "In Conversation: Will Wilson and Edward Curtis," an exhibition that pairs photographs of contemporary Native Americans by Wilson with the early 20th century photographs of Curtis.

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Pablo Picasso, Robert Mapplethorpe, Henri Matisse, Kazimir Malevich — these are among the artists whose works Swiss-born Martin Muller of San Francisco has collected. Muller has a Little Rock connection — he lived here in the 1970s — and it was in this town, the Arkansas Arts Center says, that he began to explore post-war American painting. Muller will return to Little Rock for the opening of "Independent Vision: Modern and Contemporary Art from the Martin Muller Collection," opening Friday, Sept. 28, at the Arts Center. The exhibition of 89 works is a survey of diverse modern and contemporary works from the old and new world, with works by such 20th century masters Corbusier (Swiss-French), Picasso (Spanish), Warhol (American) and Malevich (Russian), and contemporaries Gottfried Helnwein (Austrian), Joel Besmar (Cuban) and Frederick Hammersley (American).

Muller moved to Little Rock from Switzerland for a job with a Swiss-American company and while here spent time in the Arts Center's Elizabeth P. Taylor library familiarizing himself with American masters. In the late 1970s he decided to move west and get into the gallery business. He founded his gallery, Modernism Inc., in 1979.

As he traveled across the country to San Francisco, he's quoted in an Arts Center news release as saying, "I marveled at discovering masterpieces of modern American art, from Edward Hopper to Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and later, the Pop and Minimalist artists, especially Donald Judd. Now, some 40 years later, it gives me great joy to have come full circle back to Little Rock and be able to share at the Arkansas Arts Center some of the wonderful artworks gathered along the way."

The show runs through Dec. 30.

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