Quality art displayed at Mid-States show

BIG-CITY folk may not know it, but much good to excellent art is produced and exhibited far away from the major art centers. Community and regional exhibitions in such places as Oregon, Florida, Nebraska, and Arizona are no longer the provincial affairs they often were 20 or 30 years ago. If anything, they are now almost as sophisticated and professional as group shows in Los Angeles or Chicago.

They are likely to include work by young artists with emerging national reputations, local painters and sculptors of proven ability and accomplishment, ``Sunday painters,'' and a sprinkling of talented and ambitious art students.

They will have been invited, usually by the local museum, to submit work to one or more art professionals brought in to select the show and to award prizes. The latter tend to be quite generous, ranging up to several thousand dollars, with the winning pieces often becoming a part of the sponsoring institution's permanent collection.

One of the best of these regional shows is the ``Mid-States Art Exhibition'' sponsored by the Evansville Museum of Arts and Science. Established in 1948 and limited originally to artists living within 50 miles of Evansville, it has since expanded its boundaries to a 200-mile radius and now receives entries from six Midwestern states. Anyone living within that area is welcome to submit up to four slides representing two pieces to be viewed by a visiting expert serving as juror. If accepted, the artist is notified, and the work is sent for inclusion in the exhibition.

This year's Mid-States annual, the 39th, drew 517 entries from 271 artists, of which 65 pieces by 55 painters, sculptors, draftsmen, and printmakers were accepted. Eleven purchase and merit awards totaling $6,000 were given to individuals from Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Kentucky. The top award, a $3,000 purchase prize, went to Susan Calza of Urbana, Ill., with the next highest award, a $1,000 purchase prize, going to Juanita Todd of Lexington, Ky.

Since I served as this year's juror, I was in a position to see the range as well as the quality of the work submitted. Both were exceptional.

Almost every contemporary mode of expression was represented, and the overall level of execution was very close to professional.

Surprisingly, not a single piece ``demanded'' to be eliminated during my first run-through -- something that has never happened to me before. (Generally, a good 10 to 20 percent of the entries are rejected during the initial viewing, and at least half are gone after the first hour or two.)

According to John Streetman, the museum's director, this lack of obviously weak or bad work was largely due to the show's reputation as a top-notch Midwestern event, and to the fact that every one connected with it has worked hard over the years to raise the standard of what is submitted.

Whatever the reason, I was confronted by a large and impressive group of items to sort out. What I saw ranged from the most straightforwardly realistic to the most rigidly abstract, from exercises in post-modernism to delicate figure and floral studies, from tiny prints to huge canvases. Whittling them down to the final 65 pieces required time and a bit of ruthlessness, with the last hundred or so proving the most difficult to sort.

We ended up with quite a show. In addition to the two top winners, I was particularly impressed by the contributions of Warren Farr, Haynes Atkins, Greg Potter, David Bushman, Glenn Felch, and Dennis Deusner. The works on paper, especially, were outstanding, and I was surprised and relieved to find hardly anything that was primarily trendy or gimmicky.

An annual exhibition of such quality cannot, of course, exist within a vacuum. It needs support, and in the Evansville Museum of Arts and Science it has an enthusiastic and committed sponsor.

Organized in 1904, and housed originally in an 1850 mansion and subsequently in a former YWCA building, the museum now makes its home in a dramatically modern 1959 structure designed by Victor Gruen. After extensive interior renovations proved inadequate in the face of the museum's growing needs, a $2.7 million expansion project was launched, leading to the completion in 1985 of a 13,000 square-foot addition and an expanded Science Center designed by Woollen, Molzan and Partners.

The museum is situated on the banks of the Ohio River, and it contains comprehensive collections of art, history, anthropology, and science. Its holdings of 19th- and early 20th-century American art are of special interest, as are a number of its earlier European paintings and its selection of Rembrandt etchings.

Most impressive of all, however, is the extraordinary manner in which all aspects of the museum -- from art to astronomy -- are fused to make a visit to its galleries a beautifully integrated and informative event. I know of no other museum its size of which that can be said.

The Mid-States Exhibition will be on view through Nov. 30. A traveling exhibition, composed of approximately 25 works plus appropriate purchase award winners, will travel for nine months to various institutions within the entry area. Wilde exhibition

John Wilde, who was profiled July 2 in this newspaper's ``Artists at work'' series, has just opened the exhibition on which he was working when I interviewed him in Wisconsin. It can be seen at the Schmidt Bingham Gallery, 41 West 57th Street, New York, through Nov. 29.

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