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THERE'S A NEW exhibit at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, and it makes you wonder how they keep doing it. By "it" we mean swinging for the fences every time--and connecting. The new display is called All Things Being Equal and focuses on the work of Hank Willis Thomas, an artist who shows how pop culture and art can keep the focus on civil rights and social justice.

If you don't know what to expect before walking into the exhibit, all we can say is be prepared for some powerful messages. Cute pictures of puppies and kittens, this is not. Mr. Thomas has something to say, and should anybody listen, it leaves an impact.

Before entering, you pass a work called 14,719. It consists of 16 blue banners that are each 28 feet long. What's on each banner? Stars. And each star represents a person shot and killed by someone else in the United States in 2018. It really sets the tone for what you're going to see inside the exhibit.

One of the first pieces you see is called I am 3/5 man: 20 pieces of black and white framed text that contains different phrases referencing history. It starts with "I am ⅗ man," a nod, or head shake, to the Three-Fifths Compromise, in which three out of every five slaves counted as a person in the South, without having three-fifths of the vote.

We felt a little bad for Allison Glenn, associate curator of contemporary art, who was leading the tour. When she kept trying to introduce the I am a man piece, the doors to the exhibit kept opening and closing, each time with a loud clicking sound. She did a fantastic job leading us and maintaining her concentration through such distractions.

A constant inspiration on the works throughout the exhibit was the death of Mr. Thomas' cousin, who lost his life to gun violence. When motivated by such a powerful memory, one can't help but implant some of that energy across several works. That's what Mr. Thomas appears to have done.

Perhaps you recall Mastercard's commercials that would go through a list of items, providing their cost, but then mention something that was priceless. Mr. Thomas took the concept and ran with it for Priceless, which shows a grieving African American family at a funeral. The photograph has text and prices, like "Gold chain: $400" and "9mm pistol: $80." It gets heavier with "Picking the perfect casket for your son: priceless." Talk about melancholy commentary.

Sports and pop culture also weave through the exhibit. Our favorite piece is a print from 2011 called The Cotton Bowl. The left side of the print shows a kneeling plantation slave picking cotton, and mirrored on the right side is a crouched football player facing the cotton picker.

The artist explains his work this way, "I'm really interested in thinking about, in this work, bodies who worked in fields for free to make people wealthy for generations, and how the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers work primarily for free on college football fields and are making people wealthy in this multi-billion dollar industry. So the work is about the past and present coming face to face in both land and labor. So perhaps this is a sense of history repeating itself."

Whoa.

Agree with his take or not, the man knows what he wants to say and makes no apologies for saying it. It's incredible to not only have a strong message, but to also possess the ability to weave that message into art so others can experience your creation and perspective. We're not talking about taping a banana to a wall here.

One of the biggest pieces in the exhibit is titled Guernica. Pablo Picasso's work of the same name from 1937 shows a Spanish town that was bombed by Nazi forces and was viewed as a provocative political statement about the horrors of war. Mr. Thomas' take imitates the scene but remakes it from a large spread of NBA jerseys of different colors and teams, from the former Seattle Supersonics to the Toronto Raptors.

Mr. Thomas suggests with this work that combative team sports like basketball are stand-ins for war.

As with Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrored Room, art at Crystal Bridges isn't limited to traditional physical media. The exhibit also features lenticular prints which act like holographs. Depending on your angle, the pictures look different and show different text. One message reads in different pieces "History is past," another, "White imitates black."

And then there is a section of retro-reflective art, where everyone in the media preview group was encouraged to hold up their phones, turning on their flashlights and looking closely at the art hanging on the wall. The result allowed us to see different parts of the somewhat hidden picture revealed as the image was illuminated. Now that's immersive art.

One of the final pieces was a projection of interviews called Question Bridge: Black Males. The videos are black men interviewing other black men from celebrities to convicts. The piece serves to show how varied black males are with representations unseen in most popular media today. It defies any stereotype.

We walked out into the cold winter morning with more questions than answers rattling around in our head, but the best art exhibits leave their audience feeling that way. It's a grand result of attending most exhibits at Crystal Bridges. And that's why we love going back time and time again.

The exhibit runs through April 20. As always, we'd encourage everyone to see it, with an open heart and an open mind.

Editorial on 02/08/2020

Print Headline: The art is the deal

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