Amplifying Rising Voices: Muskegon Museum of Art

Established in 2018, the biannual Bennett Prize fosters the artistic careers of women figurative artists by providing winners $50,000 and the opportunity to create, over the next two years, a solo exhibition, which afterward tours.

The prize is intended as both recognition and empowerment; a carving out of space, in other words, ordinarily taken up by men.

After an open call, four jurors selected 10 finalists: the best of the best. Although all represent points on the spectrum of figurative realism, those points lie some distance from each other; on one end are Ruth Dealy’s semi-abstract figures, and on the other Ronna Harris’ contemporary channeling of the old masters.

On May 18, Shiqing Deng was announced as this year’s winner. Deng’s paintings demonstrate both technical mastery and a controlled but questing imagination. They imply secrets, obscure narratives; dreamy, they might, if pushed, tilt into the nightmarish. In addition, the Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt Prize for Achievement in Figurative Realism, a related prize, was given for the first time. The $10,000 prize was awarded to Ruth Dealy.

The finalists’ work can be seen at the Muskegon Museum of Art. Rising Voices 3: The Bennet Prize runs there through September 10th. In addition to the artists mentioned above, the work on displays includes striking pieces by Haley Hasler, Laura Karetsky, and Kyla Zoe Rafert, among others. 

Also running through September 10 is The Lessons I Leave You: Paintings by Ayana Ross. Ross, the 2021 Bennett Prize winner, depicts scenes we might have seen outside our own windows or inside our own houses: a woman (a mother, we assume) speaks earnestly with a boy; a white-bearded man is teaching a boy how to golf. Through judicious use of light and color, Ross grants them a retrospective quality; they’re everyday moments as seen in memory, when we finally understand how important they were. It’s remarkable work.

Kristina Broughton, Muskegon Museum of Art’s marketing director, said that the prize allowed Ross to quit her job. “Before that, painting was her side hobby. She’s said that the prize was absolutely life-changing.”

Running through August 27 is another exhibition devoted to realism, although not exclusively of the figurative variety, is American Realism: Visions of America, 1900-1950. It’s a collaboration between four museums: the Detroit Institute of Art, the Flint Institute of Art, the Kalamazoo Institute of Art, and the Muskegon Museum of  Art.

“It’s about America defining itself,” Broughton said. “About it shaking free of the influence of western European art. Or of keeping those influences, in some cases, but with homegrown subjects.”

The exhibition consists of paintings, drawings, and prints, and includes the work of major artists, among them Edward Hopper, Alexander Calder, George Bellows, and others.

Broughton urges people to come see the work in person. “It’s a different experience in person. It’s not until you get in front of it that you can see the fine details, the brushstrokes. Or scale: something that might look small on your screen might be enormous in person.” 

In the end, she concluded, it’s about intimacy. In person, nothing stands between you and a painting’s secrets. 

Muskegon Museum of Art 

296 W. Webster Ave., Muskegon

The Bennett Prize: Rising Voices,
Through Sept. 10

The Lessons I Leave You,
Through Sept. 10

American Realism: Visions of America, Through Aug. 27