Thursday, 28 September 2017 15:38

MMA’s regional exhibition showcases the best of the state

Written by  Marla R. Miller
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"Portrait of the Artist: Jo Powers" Best of Show, Donita Simpson, Royal Oak. Color photograph. "Portrait of the Artist: Jo Powers" Best of Show, Donita Simpson, Royal Oak. Color photograph.

The Muskegon Museum of Art’s Regional Exhibition Best of Show winning piece exemplifies the caliber of work chosen for the 89th annual show.

It captures a Detroit artist weary, aloof and deep in thought, photographed with emotion, technical skill and conceptual complexity in her studio

In a moment of coincidence or serendipity, Best of Show winner Donita Simpson of Royal Oak said she was searching the MMA’s website for information on the summer Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian exhibition when she came across the Regional. It was the last day to enter.

“I looked at the deadline, and thought, ‘This is a sign.’ … I just thought it was meant to be,” she said. “It’s a great honor for me. It’s very humbling for me as well. I didn’t expect anything like this."

One of the first regional art shows established in Michigan, MMA’s Regional has traditionally been held in the summer, but moved to the fall this year due to the Edward S. Curtis exhibit.

Museum staffers also hopes Grand Rapids’ ArtPrize might bring in some extra foot traffic, as visitors here for the world’s largest art competition seek out other venues and destinations.

“A lot of the conceptual threads are much stronger (in Regional). There’s a lot of experimentation and extremely technically accomplished pieces, and just a lot of unusual things that people are not used to seeing,” said Art Martin, the MMA’s senior curator and director of collections and exhibitions.

The annual show, juried by an independent juror, holds a respected position among the state’s regional exhibitions and annually attracts a diverse and large number of entries. Amateur and professional artists selected for the show vie for more than $5,000 in cash awards, plus purchase awards. 

The MMA opened the exhibition to the state in 2012 and last year moved to an online submissions format. The museum made the switch to ease the burden on artists, who previously had to hand-deliver submissions, as well as to cut down on the number of entries physically stored at the museum, Martin said. The move also has allowed artists to enter larger, more experimental pieces.

“Curatorially, the Regional for us is certainly about celebrating Michigan artists, helping them, showing their work, but we also view it as an opportunity to challenge and elevate the discourse in terms of the artmaking,” he said. “And when we switched to the digital format and the first exhibition was put up, it was immediately different than anything we mounted in over a decade.”

Out of 691 entries from 358 artists, juror Petra Fallaux culled the selection to 155 works from 145 artists.

Filled with objects both traditional and experimental across a wide range of media, the exhibit also engages and challenges visitors to consider technical skill and artistic inspiration, explore social and political discourse, and examine how others perceive the world.

Another goal of the Regional is to encourage the buying and collecting of original artwork, Martin said. Most of the pieces are for sale.

“If you want a vibrant arts community, somebody has to buy some art,” Martin said.

Martin met juror Fallaux while working on the MMA’s traveling Circular Abstractions: Bull’s Eye Quilts exhibition, and served as a juror with her on the Quilt National exhibition.

Fallaux, an independent curator, writer and artist, is the former director of the Hewlett Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University and founding director of CMU’s Regina Gouger Miller Gallery.

As a portrait artist and photographer, Simpson was thrilled for the recognition and for portraiture in general. She entered two photographs, and Portrait of the Artist: Jo Powers won the Best of Show honor. It shows Powers alone in her studio, surrounded by sketches, brushes, paint and other creative clutter of the craft.

“The lighting is beautiful — the emotional quality is compelling,” Simpson said. “Sometimes an image just strikes you as being specifically wonderful or important, and I think this is one of them.”

Born in Detroit and a graduate of Wayne State University, Simpson has an MFA in photography and started photographing Detroit artists in the late 1980s. It’s turned into ongoing series that she hopes to make into a book, and Powers’ photo is part of the project.

The series includes about 55 portraits right now, half in black-and-white, featuring artists who are fairly well-known and have shown work for more than 20 years in and around the city.

“I could easily do another 55,” she said. “I meet them or I call them up. … I have a long list of artists already that I want to do. Sometimes people are reluctant. Sometimes it takes me two years to convince somebody.

89th Michigan Regional Exhibition
Muskegon Museum of Art
296 W. Webster Ave., Muskegon
Through Nov. 8
Meet the Artist event:
Oct. 12, 5-7 p.m., (231) 720-2570

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