It's Monday a.m. at the State Fair, and there's nary a Pronto Pup to be found. There are no sunburnt 4-H kids yet, either, and the Honda-sized swine are still lolling happily in their own excrement halfway across the state. The fairgrounds is a hive of activity, however, with semi trucks crawling antlike through the narrow streets to deliver fair-going accouterments like deep fryers and Port-a-Potties. On the Mighty Midway, crews of men in armpit-sweat-stained T-shirts advertising defunct metal bands--genus: carnelevarus americanus--are slapping together a carousel, stopping every so often to recommend anatomically implausible maneuvers to one another. There's a distinct and not altogether unpleasant smell in the air: fresh-cut grass, animal funk, and a fragrance vaguely like that of industrial-quality chemical bathroom cleanser.
Less pungent by half is the art barn, though this retreat from the Midway is caught up in its own preparatory bustle. By the fair's conclusion, between 125,000 and a quarter of a million visitors will pass through the gallery and absorb a touch of culture in the midst of the lumpenprole bacchanal. For parents, bloated and exhausted, it will be an edifying respite. For their kids, bloated and exhausting, it will be another boring segue between rides that involve frightening amounts of rotation, torque, altitude changes, and disco music. For the hundreds of participating artists, both ambitious amateurs and professionals toiling in anonymity, it will be a chance to display their work before the potentially-art-buying masses, in a venue quite unlike anything else on the local arts landscape.
The art barn is not really a barn, by the way, but a squat, ivy-clad building sandwiched between Machinery Hill--a few acres of toothy farm equipment--and the palatial 4-H headquarters, which doesn't look at all exciting (unless you're really into macramé or something). Pat Crump and her husband Bob, the curators of this year's Fine Arts Exhibition, are inside making the final adjustments in the lighting and installing flora around the capacious gallery. "The show takes about six weeks to put up," Pat explains. "The judging is done in one day at the end of July. Then it takes 10 days to get everything placed and labeled." In the couple's 14 years of involvement in the show, Crump continues, they've refined the setup process somewhat.
Bob Crump, meanwhile, is skeptically eying a large wood and metal sculpture waiting to be wrestled into its proper berth. "I just got my hernia fixed," he puffs. "I think I'll wait till some more muscles get here."
The Crumps are sprightly, slightly gnomish-looking retirees from the metro area who have a deep appreciation for art and a long view of history. Both are former advertising executives who now spend much of their time making woodblock prints and painting. For as long as either can remember, they have been drawn to carnivals; they often spend weekends sketching scenes at county fairs around Minnesota. Bob, in particular, is an aficionado of the carnival atmosphere. "He loves the signs," Pat explains. "Especially the one with the lady turning into a gorilla."
Bob smiles sheepishly. "I do like the barnyard freaks. They don't have them much anymore, but some of the older joints still do. And, of course, the people-watching is great."
The Crumps consider that, as superintendents of the State Fair art show, they've found a perfect spot in which to indulge their various passions. "You really have to be a fair fan to do this," Pat says. "It used to be that we'd have quiet times, quiet evenings. Now it seems like attendance goes up every year."
Though the Crumps must occasionally double as gallery guards in order to protect the art from an errant Pronto Pup or Sno-Cone, they also take time to enjoy the fair's various culinary diversions. This year, Bob explains, he is particularly heartened by the prospect of a church food tent setting up opposite his position. "Twelve days of Swedish meatballs!" he exclaims while patting his belly. "Heck, that's why I'm here."
Bob Crump is a historian of the fair's art show, and, in conjunction with the Minnesota Historical Society, he's put together an archival catalog of work from shows dating back to 1907, when the fine-art category first diverged from the sphere of domestic activities. "It was originally part of the women's department," he explains, pointing at a small, faded photo of Henrietta Barclay Paist, who took the blue ribbon for painting in 1907. "At first, the drawings were mixed in with needlework and various sorts of crafts. But eventually the show began to take on its own life."
He gestures toward a wall documenting the gamut of 20th-century taste: a Monet-inflected oil painting from the 1920s; a gray social-realist tableau painting by a WPA artist in 1934; a prize-winning cubist composition from the Fifties; a few brightly colored neo-realist portraits; and a sampling of recent photographic work. "A hundred years of art in 50 feet," he says proudly.
The variety of this year's show is equally dizzying. The absence of an entry fee and the limited requirements--the artist must be a Minnesota resident, and the work must be smaller than six feet square--means that almost anyone who wishes to can submit work. And, though competition grows tougher every year--of the 1641 pieces submitted this year, 324 were selected for competition display--there are plenty of reasons for local artists to vie for a ribbon. Along with $10,000 in fair-sponsored prizes--$500 for a first-place finish--the flood of fairgoers who pass through the show in two weeks dwarfs the number of potential art-buyers who would be exposed to an artist's work during a typical gallery exhibition.
"It's a very big deal," explains Darlene Dusenka, this year's first-prize winner in the watercolor category. "The quality is superb and everyone can enter. If you win, it looks nice on a resume. And it's always fun to win ribbons. It's a big ego boost."
Todd Heimdahl, a retired art instructor who has been competing in the show since the late 1970s, asserts that the greatest benefit of the show is increased exposure. "There are ivory towers in the art world. With this, people can just slide in on their way from the Pronto Pup stand. If you sell to a limited clientele, showing here definitely expands the number of people who are familiar with your work."
Certainly, there is disdain for the State Fair among some artists: Call it elitism or professional pride, but there remain those who choose not to exhibit their work a few yards from a horticulture barn. In addition, the limitations on size mean that most multimedia and installation art--which, let's face it, constitutes the contemporary avant-garde--is necessarily excluded from the show. The judging can also be frustrating: Because the jury, professionals in one of the exhibit's eight categories, changes every year, even professionals are sometimes passed over if their work doesn't suit a particular judge's taste. Bob Crump himself has felt the sting of rejection: "When the judges turn your painting to face the wall, you sort of want to slink off." Younger artists or those with easily bruised egos, he suspects, may never return.
Yet, on its own populist terms, the State Fair art show is now the closest thing Minnesota has to an open exposition. With the demise of biennial exhibits at the Walker and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, it is also perhaps the most complete available survey of the local visual-arts landscape. It may not be avant-garde, in other words, but it's a sampling of the passions and preoccupations of our homegrown artists, and also a celebration of the simple fact that there are people here who are passionate about and preoccupied with making art.
And indeed, even a cursory perusal of the gallery--which, given the assortment of available amusements, is all fair patrons are likely to give it--turns up a wealth of unexpected gems: Marie Olofsdotter's triptych of dreamy forest creatures; Martin Springborg's haunting gelatin print of a man leaving his bed, and possibly a marriage; Carl Erickson's exquisitely crafted porcelain teapot; John Salminen's breathtakingly detailed watercolor of the Queensboro Bridge; Dusenka's bold, colorful streetscape; Edina artist Chris Mars's cartoonish scratchboard image of grotesques with malformed faces; Kurt Anderson's near-photorealist portraiture. The variety is disorienting, but many of these pieces leave you wanting more: It would surely be worth a trip through an entire exhibit of any of these artists' work. (This being the State Fair, however, you're expected to sample a little of everything).
Not all the art is this good, of course, and some is not at all good. There are plenty of oil landscapes that would not look out of place on the wall of Motel 6, and more than enough drawings of grazing cows. For a State Fair show, however, there is surprisingly little pastoral kitsch on hand. Here's something to think about: As the art show has grown over the years, the farm-equipment display on Machinery Hill has dwindled. Which probably says something about the corrosion of bucolic rural life as the defining mythology of Minnesota, don't you think? It could be that, in another decade, the now-passé pictures of barns and livestock will be prized memento mori of an Elysian landscape that's quickly dissolving into exurban housing developments and office parks. Which, in turn, makes looking at those pictures of stupidly grazing ruminantia a little more poignant: Like a lot of things at the fair, they allude to an existence that's now more nostalgic reverie than shared experience.
Even in the non-cow-related art, the fair's agrarian roots flower in unexpected directions. This year's first-prize winner in painting, for instance, St. Paul painter Margo Selski's "The Brooding Box," references the boxes in which chickens lay their eggs for a metaphorical statement about female fertility. Using beeswax as an undercoating, Selski creates a cracked surface resembling that of late-Renaissance hagiographic paintings. The work's subject is equally eerie: a vaguely Elizabethan woman with an enormous brocade dress combing her hair while a rooster stalks around the bottom of the frame. It is, Selski explains, her metaphorical response to new motherhood and the attending, sometimes overwhelming responsibilities.
"I think it's all about hormones," she says with a wry cluck. "I'd call it hormonal surrealist. It's an autobiographical painting of myths about fertility and desire. I want viewers to be curious, but also to leave things ambiguous." Mission accomplished: Selski's image, luminous beneath its glassy, ancient-looking facade, gives off a near-tangible aura of closely held mystery.
Part of the pleasure of an open exhibition is discovering still-unknown talent like Selski. The other part is revisiting old favorites, who, in some cases, only surface once a year to exhibit their work at the fair. One such artist is Jerry Rudquist, a recently retired art professor at Macalester College who, in 1997, submitted the beloved and now iconic portrait of Petunia the Pig. Rudquist has participated in the show since 1955--he entered a portrait of his mother that first year--and has seen it evolve from a minor event in the dingy, low-lit mezzanine level beneath the Grandstand. "After they moved into the new building," he explains, "there were fewer Sunday painters, and more professionals."
Rudquist is also a great fan of the fair. He is especially taken with the chickens and rabbits, who, he considers, exhibit the same physical variety as his human subjects. "They're like people in that we're all essentially the same, but we differ in wonderful and interesting ways. I plan to spend lots of time with the rabbits. If you see me wandering around the fair, that's where I'm headed."
Though Rudquist sold "Petunia"--his entry this year is an academic portrait of a luxuriously bearded old art-school chum--he has not entirely retired his pig. He recently finished a sequel to the original painting, "After the Fair," which features a rather bloody pork chop superimposed on a ghosted background of the original Petunia--a vivid reminder to fairgoers that the animal barn and the pork-chop-on-a-stick stand are only one stop down the assembly line from one another.
The big night for Rudquist and his fellow artists is the Tuesday before the fair's public opening, when hundreds of contestants, friends, and well-wishers crowd into the art barn to find out who will take home the blue ribbon. For some of the artists, it is the first time their work has been seen by the public. Others are old hands, and circulate through the sweaty throng, shaking hands with friends and offering congratulations or consolations. Despite the crowd and the conspicuous absence of climate control, the mood is jubilant--as advertised, a great get-together.
Early in the evening, there is an excited shriek from one corner of the gallery. Linda Brown, a middle-aged watercolorist from Chaska, has just learned that her entry, a picture of turtles piling over one another, has won a second-place ribbon. "It's the ultimate thrill," she exclaims. "It's all the best artists in Minnesota. For us to be exposed and to meet all the other artists. It's just so exciting."
"It's the Academy Awards of art shows," her companion, who has also won, adds. "This is the largest fair show in the country. I've seen other shows, and they just don't compare." Brown poses in front of her turtles for a photo, smiling widely.
A little later on, the crowd begins to drift out into the cool evening. The lights of the Midway are on now, flashing orange and red and green against the violet backdrop of the sky.
"What'd you think?" a woman asks her husband as they wander off.
"To each his own," he says. "To each
Which seems about as graceful an appreciation of the art barn--and, hell, art itself--as anyone is likely to come up with.
The State Fair Fine Art Exhibition is on display through September 4 at 1442 Cosgrove St.; (651) 642-2200.
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