USA Visual Arts Panel for 2011

Mel Chin

USA Kippy Stroud Fellow, Burnsville, NC

Dominic Molón

Chief Curator, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, MO

Sarah Lewis

Writer and Curator, Yale University School of Art, New Haven, CT

Rita Gonzalez

Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA

Ursula Davila-Villa

Associate Curator, Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX

Statement by Dominic Molón.

After an intense day of jurying the United States Artists visual arts submissions, conversation over the dinner that followed turned to the subject of Robert Altman’s legendary 1975 film Nashville, once it was discovered that one of our company was responsible for much of the graphic artwork (mostly political placards) seen in the film. After numerous reverential and passionate acknowledgements of the film’s impact, quality, and general worth, the straightforward question came: “Yes, but just what is it that makes Nashville such a great movie?” The answer—notwithstanding its strictly cinematic virtues—is that it remains one of the most accurate and effective representations of capital “A”-merica. Thirty-six years on, Nashville provides a remarkably complete and effective vision of our nation: its spirituality, its pettiness, its grandeur, its violence, its warmth, its brilliance, and its abjection. It was a fitting way to conclude the jury’s challenging day of reckoning with the astonishing breadth of creativity in the visual arts that United States Artists attracts and ultimately rewards.

Like the events in Nashville, the works of the nominated artists represent the range of the American experience, from extraordinarily sophisticated explorations into scientific phenomena, to unflinching portraits of impoverished rural Americans, to wildly theatrical “be-ins.” And like that movie’s characters, the nominees represent a broad variety of age, experience, place of residence, and career point. Artists who maintain an “activist” practice of directly interacting with their audience were considered alongside those who privilege a more conventional, object-oriented approach. Collectively, they testify to the vital necessity of art that addresses matters urgent and relevant as well as trivial and insignificant, if not the absolute necessity of art in general.

This variegation of artistic positions, biographies, and home bases made the jury’s selection process simultaneously exhilarating and enervating. We felt it imperative to strike the appropriate balance between rewarding young artists of potential and promise and celebrating those building upon years of achievement and taking their work into exciting new directions. We also wished to remain acutely aware that two coasts do not the United States make, and that the recognition of the extraordinary work being done by artists who have significantly elected to work outside of the recognized American centers of art and culture was essential to our process. Our discussions could not have been more cordial, collegial, and, at times, high-comical, but they always seemed to reflect nineteenth-century French poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire’s assertion that good art criticism be “passionate, partial, and political.” Though we all took particular favorites to heart for various reasons—both personal and professional—we all from the outset understood that, with the level of support being given and the significance of the award, critical rigor and compromise were of the utmost importance.

Support for the arts in times of increasing adversity has become that much more challenging yet that much more vital, with an ever-darkening global economic forecast and natural catastrophes seemingly springing up weekly in unexpected places around the world. One can hardly be blamed for maintaining a feeling of dread and concern in such troubling times. Yet with United States Artists courageously leading by example, one can once again look towards Nashville for a final parallel. At the risk of creating a “spoiler”—and if you haven’t yet seen the film get yourself IMMEDIATELY to—when all appears to be lost in the wake of a traumatic event, a song sung by one of the movie’s most unexpected characters galvanizes all involved to find a way of pushing through, of moving beyond the difficulty. The title of the song, “It Don’t Worry Me,” seems fitting in this case, for as long as United States Artists continues to provide much needed support for creativity of all types to flourish in America, troubled times or not, well… it don’t worry me.