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An examination of contemporary art in Northwest Arkansas

What is contemporary art? It's a question I'm curious about myself. After visiting New York's Museum of Modern Art, lovingly known as the MoMA, I wondered how objects such as a blank white shirt on an equally blank white wall or jars, labeled blood, sweat, and tears convey meaning in a way akin to Van Gogh’s swirling, cool “Starry Night.”

Perhaps for some, like artist Christopher Marley, it carries significance in appreciating organic design.

“Remove these organisms,” Marley said, “I mean, really remove a lot of the organic out of the organism, and make them so that we can see them as design elements. So that we can see them as, as these perfectly designed architectural marvels.”

For others, maybe it's a reflection of society and its history, like artist Kristen Tordella-Williams.

“To…commemorate that moment of in-betweenness,” Tordella-Williams said, “and like a ghost forest at once was there.”

But first, we trek back towards nature. Born far from nature in Los Angeles, Christopher Marley wouldn't seem the go-to guy to learn about the natural world. But after moving to the northwest region of the United States and hearing about his dad's career, it's clear where Marley was first exposed to the idea of using organisms as art. The quotes by Marley are from an interview conducted by Ozarks at Large’s Kyle Kellams.

“I had an inside scoop on this because my dad, since he was a little kid,” Marley said, “was a bird breeder, was a bird fanatic. He started out as a little kid raising pigeons and then he went on to Australian finches. And then for whatever reason, he kind of settled on mid-size color mutations of Australian parrots—I have no idea why that was his thing.”

“But he built these gorgeous aviaries everywhere we went, whether we had times of plenty and times of not plenty as I was growing up,” Marley said. “And it didn't matter—the first little house we moved in, or the first bigger house we moved into—he went out back and started building his aviaries.

“And so, it was ever-present. But his birds would eventually die as well and he wouldn't know what to do with them. [So] they would end up in our freezer. And I've mentioned this before, but I mean, as a kid, it was totally normal that if you want to get to your popsicles, you dig past the dead birds and get your popsicles.

“And for the longest time, I thought, ‘Well, my dad is the only weirdo out there,’ as I grew up and learned that this is not normal behavior. You know, I figured that he was the only one who does that. As it turns out, everyone does that.”

At 18, Marley moved out of the house and traveled the world for a decade working with notable brands like Louis Vuitton, Giorgio Armani, and Nike. But he says a discovery he made while in China opened his eyes to the world of insects.

“And I'm staring at this bush because I have nothing else to stare at. And the bush has been there the entire time. I've been looking at it and I hadn't noticed anything. And as I have nowhere else to look—pre-cellphones—I noticed that there was movement on this bush that had been there the whole time—I hadn't noticed it. And I just start looking closer and there is an entire colony of—to this day, I mean, they're probably some kind of a crazy mite. To this day, I don't know what they were and I was like, ‘What the—what is going on here?’

“And I just was fascinated by what was going on. And then as I'm looking at this, some like damselfly-dragonfly-looking thing lands on the same bush. I'm like, ‘Holy crap, look at that! That's amazing!’

“And then some spider attacked it and I'm going, ‘This is like some magical bush where everything happens!’ I couldn't believe how lucky I was. And, amazingly, that attunement to what was happening there, all of a sudden, everywhere I looked it was happening.”

And in the same way that nature happens everywhere, so does Marley’s art. His latest exhibit Exquisite Creatures, is currently being displayed at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. But more of his works have been put up as far away as Paris, France in La Galerie du Bon Marche.

If you were to take a look at more of these Exquisite Creatures, what would you see?

In his piece, titled “Singularity,” there is a blank white portrait decorated with a swirl of turtles from a bird's eye view, creating an eye-catching spiral of shells. Each shell is unique: different size, color, pattern.

Another piece is an arrangement of shiny, colorful beetles in a flower-like formation, all speaking in exotic reds, greens, and blues. In creating elaborate art from these vertebrates and arthropods, Marley says he hopes to change perspectives on a worldwide scale.

“There's ways that sometimes—especially you know, us in the first world—have ways of sometimes being a little bit theoretical in our views,” Marley said. “We feel like ‘you know what? If we would just cordon off this half of the world and get the people out of it, then everything would be peachy keen.’ But, number one, it’s not very practical, and number two, we are a part of nature. And we have a need to affiliate with the natural world. And we have a right.”

While Marley focuses his contemporary displays on nature, Kristen Tordella-Williams takes an approach more concrete.

Tordella-Williams was born and raised in a suburb outside of Boston. She grew up with a family that would prefer to do the exploration themselves. Initially, she wasn't even sure she wanted to pursue art but ultimately decided to attend the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth as an art undergrad with the encouragement of her high school art teacher. There, she found her preferred medium.

“Sculpture, for me, is where I found my home,” Tordella-Williams said. “Sculpture is not one medium. To compare myself against, say, painting. Like, yes, painting can be very expansive in terms of what you can do that could be considered a painting. But in sculpture, you can literally take any material and use it and then incorporate that into your work.”

After that, she attended grad school at Alfred University in Rochester, New York. Following a few years of bouncing around New York, she was offered the opportunity to teach art at a small liberal arts college in Jackson, Mississippi, called Millsaps College—roughly a 21-hour car ride from Boston. There, Tordella-Williams taught for seven years. She eventually moved to the University of Auburn where she currently teaches.

While Marley's exhibit is in Bentonville, further south in the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum is Tordella-Williams exhibit…

“Ah, precipice!” Tordella-Williams said.

Her Precipice exhibit showcases several of her sculptures and they all tackle pertinent issues in the modern world.

“Where we are right now in terms of climate change,” Tordella-Williams said, “we're on the precipice of a massive change.”

One such piece takes up residency on a tattered and beaten page, its borders caving at places. A steel blue sea surrounds a lone dock, painted in rusted iron.

“So a symbol of decay or industry,” Tordella-Williams said. “Using iron as an image-making material as opposed to a casting material, and then rusting them and having that rust be what creates that image. So this kind of like caustic imagery.”

Another piece titled Working Impact features a series of laser-engraved woodblock prints of laborers present at the beginning of the 20th century in a small town southeast of Jackson called Laurel, Mississippi—when the town was a lumber hotspot. There are engravings of lumberjacks, barons, and everyday citizens in an attempt to capture that now-absent moment in time on the wood that helped drive the town forward.

“So when you go to Laurel now,” Tordella-Williams said. “You don't see stumps. You see trees, you see homes, you see neighborhoods. You don't even really think—there’s no real lumber industry there to commemorate that moment of in-betweenness and…a ghost forest that once was there.

“So it's like, again, it’s…a little bit of a visual poem, a little bit of a requiem to what has happened, [how] industry has impacted us. And it was the reason why I could be displaying my artwork in that town because a lumber baron founded that museum. So it was like all these kind[s] of layers of sight in history and industry.”

So we arrive at the question yet again, what is contemporary art?

Really, it seems as though there isn't any difference between modern and traditional art. Sure, the pastels may be traded for cloth on a wall or archives laser engraved in lumber or dead animals, even. But the purpose remains the same.

“Let's separate ourselves for a moment from the life history of this organism,” Marley said, “or from the mannerisms of this organism or the danger of this organism. And let's just focus on the aesthetics of this organism and, wow. I mean, you can't—humanity can't touch it.”

“And it's a language too,” Tordella-Williams said. “A language for communication that is, hopefully, a way that we can reach people emotionally and expressively. [It’s] not just a mental thing, but an emotional way of community. It’s something that doesn't require words, but also could, you know? A visual language—something that you respond to, and responds to you.

No matter where we are. In nature or a local coffee shop, appreciate the art all around us. Art is not defined by the plaque that tells us who made it. It's simply knowing it was created for a purpose.

Christopher Marley’s Exquisite Creatures will remain on display at Crystal Bridges until July 29 and Kristin Tordella-William’s Precipice will show at the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum until May 19.

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Josh Droll is a student at the University of Arkansas and a contributor to Ozarks at Large.