“Today it is artists who are asking the large, substantive questions of our world.”

(With Art on the Plains XI, we’re examining the rich landscape of the artistic upper Midwest. The juror for AOP XI, Hesse McGraw, assembled an exciting exhibition that displays the complexities of visual art in our part of the world and, in turn, takes aim at preconceptions of the Midwest and reinforces its ingenuity.

McGraw is the curator at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha. He provided the following interpretation of AOP XI for our gallery guide. He will also deliver a gallery talk this Saturday night at the AOP opening reception.)

Hesse McGraw, chief curator at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art

The 47 artists in the Art on the Plains XI live and work in the global Midwest. Although their work emerges fervently from the terrain, culture and ethic of the Plains, it resists and upends the quaint color of this exhibition’s title.

Far from the provincial assurance of American Gothic, this exhibition collectively asserts unease with the flat stereotypes of our home. The image of the Plains presented by their work is a both/and Place — exotic and xenophobic, nostalgic and adventurous, homespun yet rigorous, desaturated, but no less ecstatic.

Werner Herzog’s 1977 film Stroszek gave us a weird and painfully impossible Middle America. That is still here, but this middle ground is contested, its landscapes are more surreal than pastoral, and rural depopulation has prompted a hopeful gallows humor. Rather than sink under the weight of knowing too much — having global perspective but a provincial everyday — these artists create a space of openness, belief and ingenuity. They have rejected cynicism to celebrate the authentic absurdities of life in the Midwest.

The exhibition careens through the fault lines of Middle America: shrinking cities, corporate agriculture, race and class divisions, and meat and potatoes culture. Their works graciously reveal a place whose politics are more complex than stark red and blue and where taste is a battleground.

The last three years — since the last Art on the Plains exhibition — have been a singular and tumultuous period. In the wake of the global economic collapse of 2008, our political structures have become increasingly constipated with useless oppositions and brinksmanship. Yet within this landscape, and self-punishing extremes such as Kansas’ elimination of its state arts commission — artists continue to advance the frontiers of our culture.

Today it is artists who are asking the large, substantive questions of our world. Their training — in deep ingenuity, creative agility, learning to solve problems by asking a different question — is fundamental to locating new ways out of our extant ills.  We are living through an ideal moment to recognize the transformative impacts of art and artists on our world. In contrast to the extremities of our political and media landscapes, one finds radical normality in artists. Theirs is a benevolent danger, intense pragmatism and hyper-rationality.

Art on the Plains XI works to defray caustic misconceptions, even as it opens new veins of thinking through our region. These artists explode our view, granting restlessly expansive perspectives of this specific world.

–Hesse McGraw, 12.21.2011