In 2011, Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart co-founder Sam Walton, unveiled her ultimate vanity project: the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Exquisitely designed by architect Moshe Safdie, the world-class art institution reportedly cost over a billion dollars and sits on a 24-acre site that meticulously incorporates the woodsy, natural surroundings. It’s about a five minute drive from Walmart Ground Zero — the site of Walton’s first five and dime — in Bentonville, Arkansas, a town with a population just shy of 40,000 people.
Like other destinations on the hilly terrain of the Ozarks, you enter from above. You take the elevator down to the half-shell rotunda displaying early Americana art. I knew this because there were grand, old-timey portraits of George Washington and other white-wigged men. That section even had an oil painting of Brooklyn from 1820 by that an artist named Francis Guy, depicting what the borough was like before it became a part of NYC and the Brooklyn Bridge was even built.
The museum’s collection includes work by noted labor rights proponent Diego Rivera, who if alive, would probably rather see his artwork burn than it be in a museum with a placard emphasizing: “Complimentary admission sponsored by Walmart.”
The opulence of Crystal Bridges is apparent, from the shiny steel Roxy Paine tree that greets you in front to the also shiny Jeff Koons heart, hanging casually over a cafeteria. The museum boasts some of the world’s most renowned artists.
The current exhibit, “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now,” is shockingly edgy for a place that’s related to Walmart. There’s Vincent Valdez’s depictions of lynched Mexican men, Vanessa L. German’s black figurines that were designed to ward off crime, and a big, possibly dead Mickey Mouse lying on its side. It’s not the type of artwork you’d expect in a place where Christian folk dot the hills.
According to the museum, the curatorial team “logged more than 100,000 miles crisscrossing the United States to visit nearly 1,000 artists” to assemble the show.
That list was whittled down to 102 pretty amazing artists. Below are some of my favorites. (More are in the gallery above and on the museum’s website.)
Meet Bob Trotman. His wood carved Shaker sculpture is hypnotizing as the suit-clad torso spins and spins, with its arm outstretched as if to shake your hand. But alas, that’s not its intentions. Per the artwork’s description, this businessman is out to fuck you over:
Shown only from the chest up, the figure slowly rotates atop a pedestal, never pausing to complete the meaningful engagement that the handshake might imply. In the man’s clockwise rotation, too, the back of his hand reaches the viewer first; you’re just as likely to be backhanded as greeted. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, precipitated in part by white-collar misconduct, Trotman’s spinning figure— outfitted in suit and tie—presents the very face of backroom deals and flip-flopping loyalties.
Trotman explains the piece in his own words:
I describe this work as corporate purgatory. I’m trying to look at American capitalism, working with literary sources like Death of a Salesman, dystopian examinations of the business world, and also with the fact that my parents would have liked for me to be one of them.
You hear that Alice Walton?
TRIPPED OUT LOCHNESS MONSTER-LIKE THING
I was fascinated by Jimmy Kuehnle’s Amphibious Inflatable Suit as it floated in the museum’s moat like an anchored monster and that was before I read that the artist can get in this thing and make it move.
DEAD MICKEY MOUSE
The world’s most celebrated rodent, dead? I had to see this. But the room was very, very dark. Maybe too dark, as it was only later on, via the museum’s website’s image (above), that I got a full understanding of the funeral I was witnessing.
STRUNG OUT LIVING ROOM
When first set up, this living room looked orderly, but little by little, strings are all pulling everything into one point like a hungry black hole. Very cool.
John Salvest used found romance novels to spell out the word “Forever.” Only when viewed from the side does the work really reveal its source of inspiration and structure. Wow, that just sounded very arty.
LOW RIDER PINATA
What a smart and interesting celebration of two iconic aspects of Chicano culture by Justin
Favela. I wish I could have cracked it open though to see what’s inside.
As I walked through the expansive complex and took in the views from both inside and out, it left me struggling with more questions than answers:
What the hell is something so grand doing in the middle of nowhere?
Why was it filled with what that the average Walmart customer (or the average resident in a hundred-mile radius) isn’t likely to appreciate or would probably find offensive?
How much health insurance coverage could Walmart buy its employees with a billion dollars?
It ain’t easy to reconcile such a costly museum and its wide-reaching contemporary art exhibit with a company that essentially maintains a small army of minimum wage earners to gain maximum profits.
Crystal Bridges is a remote annex of the Walmart organization, in every possible way.
(Photos: Bucky Turco/ANIMALNewYork)