Mountain Plains Contemporary Biennial opens at Salina Art Center

Adam Anglin | In My House I’m Not As Afraid

It is an honor to be invited to select this year’s artists for the 2024 Mountain Plains Contemporary Art Biennial (Salina Biennial) and to see such a strong pool of talent spanning across ten states. The breadth of artists in this year’s Biennial is a representational cross-section of the caliber of artists working in the interior of the country. Consistent with Salina Art Center’s mission, the Biennial directly contributes to the creation of “exchanges among art, artists, and audiences” in the near geographic center of the continental US, and in so doing, helps to decentralize the coasts as dominant epicenters of art.

After studying the past two iterations of the Biennial, similar organizing principals resurfaced including subject matter concerning: materiality, landscapes, portraiture, the environment, and abstraction. Albeit they are common categories, they are far from definitive, in that artists are now predominantly working across disciplines and mediums. Collectively, the work on view, exemplifies a broad spectrum of traditional and experimental methodologies, from R. Dugger Houston’s use of egg tempera to Pam Little’s digital painting.

Presumably, catalyzed by the pandemic, climate catastrophes, and cost of living, cities within the mountain plains region have undergone shifts in the make-up of their artistic communities with the influx of coastal transplants. The national call for social justice in 2020 and the wide-spread adoption of DEAI (diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion) principals has since diversified the representation of artists and increased the visibility of historically marginalized communities including rural areas. However, our progress towards equity, is seemingly one step forward, two steps back, wherein the politics from state to state are increasingly in flux.

All that said, the primary motivation behind my selection, was to present diverse backgrounds and amplify their voices, in most cases, by showing more than one work, in order for visitors to become better acquainted with their artistic point of view. Although, it created a densely packed show, I wanted to offer artists a platform to display a larger sample of work, in part to create a more in-depth visual dialogue between the artists’ subjects, methods, and materials. Many of the topics center around universally relevant concerns, related to social justice and environmental issues through the lens of lived experience.

Other intersections occur within the ongoing conversation around the antiquated hierarchy between fine art and craft. The number of artists employing textiles in their work, reflects its increased ubiquity throughout global contemporary art practices, and merits its own section. Although, difficult to define by materials or methods alone, visitors will find textile-based work throughout several loosely defined categories. Textiles are having a resurgence—no longer beholden to gender norms or narratives restricted to domesticity. Works such as Heather Schulte’s, Abraham, Abraham! and Systemic (in)justice, are instead being modernized through contemporary frameworks, in this case, sociopolitical commentary created in cross-stitch.

Another example of how materiality is categorically shapeshifting, is Megan McCoy’s, Top Down and Booty, which, at first sight, appear as geological formations, but are in fact abstracted anatomical compositions in tufted acrylic yarn. They are representative of how artists are employing fiber in more painterly ways—occupying more stylistically, fluid spaces in between realism and abstraction.

The tone of the exhibition is set with this in mind—the ways in which bodies can also function as landscapes and vice versa, to help map time and space in our rapidly-changing world. The stage of the exhibition is set within this crossroads—a type of reckoning of past paradigms within dominant historical narratives while simultaneously navigating an unknown, technological frontier.

This duality can be detected within Adam Anglin’s mixed media works, In My house I’m Not As Afraid and I Know I’ve Changed But Please Still Love Me, which, in his words, straddle the “tension and harmony between the natural world and synthetic forms.”

Classic modes of landscape photography as seen in Eric Hagemann’s, San Luis Valley, and Alan Paine Radebaugh’s oil on canvas, CANYONS 35, are juxtaposed with domestic “landscapes” of everyday objects, such as Lim Puoch’s oil paintings, Pink Sink and Rolls on Deck. This transition into the private realm is ushered in by a salon-style gallery of portraits, which provide a deeper psychological synopsis of how artists continue to use visual art as a form of advocacy and activism. Notable works include, Ang Bennett’s acrylic and metal leaf paintings, Resplendent Resurgence and Celestial Echoes, which serve as an “academic inquiry and an exploration of societal portrayals” that transforms traumatic experiences into a celebration of the “joy, power, and innate beauty inherent” in their queer, Black, trans identity. Shyanne Dickey powerfully “challenges an American structure that whitewashes black history” in her multimedia work, Window Frame. Her practice aims to not only increase the visibility of successful, black, female farmers in the Midwest, but to also subvert stereotypes residual from slavery.

Aside from an increase in marginalized representations of the West, there are also nods to cowboy culture, perhaps the most widely circulated signifier of the region-at-large. Through recent traveling exhibitions, fashion campaigns, and, of course, music, with Beyonce’s new album, Cowboy Carter, the cowboy theme is on trend due to its long overdue recognition of its multicultural, multifaceted origins. Kate Oltmann’s pencil drawings laid on top of graphic quilt patterns, Hold On Tight and 3 Cowpokes, represent her family’s history as homesteaders within Glacier National Park in Northwest Montana. While Cody Norton, a queer hunter, aims to “intervene and disrupt heteronormative, white, male-dominated spaces” through his self-tanned bison hides, digitally etched with images featuring gay cowboys from the film, Broke Back Mountain.

However, the largest category that encapsulates much of the work, is related to nature and the fragility of the environment. Jee Hwang’s interest in her natural surroundings is reflected in her metaphoric use of oversize plants in her self-portraiture. Keith Buswell also uses images of trees symbolically, to convey how we are all interrelated. Citing the ecologist Suzanne Simard, whose 2016 study proved the root system of trees relays information to each other through a network of fungi, going so far as being able to provide nutrients to young and dying plants. He compares this interconnected reliance to his own community in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Another way in which artists continue to metaphorically address current topics is through the construction of abstracted forms. Abstraction has long held appeal in its ambiguity, although often improvisational and spontaneous, it can also be highly calculated, at the same time. Samatha Haan’s Fragment series, is based on a mathematical theory of communication, from which she developed her own analog system of language. While Clinton Marstall’s paintings replicate biological patterns informed by a recent study proving that observing fractals reduces physiological stress. Another artist, who uses patterns as a form of solace, is Cesar Lopez, influenced by American minimalism, he chooses to work with opacity “to preserve all of the nuance of one’s subjectivity and experience in forces, that seek to capture and flatten one’s subjectivity for easy legibility or categorization.”

–Juror Jane Burke, curator at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art in Boulder, Colorado

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