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From the Wabash to the Droops

200 Years of Indiana Art at the Indiana State Museum

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The earliest painting in the Indiana State Museum's 200 years exhibit is a landscape watercolor entitled "Ship Rock," by a British officer Colonel Henry Hamilton in 1778. Compared to one of the latest works on display (a digital print from 2015 by Indianapolis-based Robert Eagerton, entitled "Night Bird"), it's clear that the breadth of this show outlines years of a legacy in the making.

In between the two spectrums there's just about every kind of artwork that you can imagine. Chief Fine Arts Curator Mark Ruschman wasn't content just to dip into the Indiana State Museum's collection for this exhibition.

"We have a wonderful collection here," says Ruschman, who has been in the contemporary art forefront in Indianapolis for the past 30 years, and most notably as the owner of the Ruschman Gallery (which closed in 2009). "We have the largest collection of T.C. Steele works; we have works by his contemporaries in the Hoosier Group... We also have a growing modern and contemporary collection. So we have the wherewithal to do a 200 year show in house; but I felt that it was really important to go out and travel the state and bring works into this exhibition to engage people from all over the state."

Contemporary art aficionados will be thrilled to see that one of the works that Ruschman corralled is "Intersections" by Pakistan-born Indy resident Anila Quayyum Agha. This hanging cube, which won both the public and juried competitions at 2014 ArtPrize in Grand Rapids Michigan, is made from laser-cut wood, and painted black, hollow save for a single light bulb placed inside it. Cut into each side are intricate networks of lattices that recall the ornamentation of the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain. And these lattices will cast shadows in a space specially created for this installation work.

RELATED: The subversive beauty of Anila Quayuum Agha

This isn't the only installation piece in areas available for public access, free of charge (as opposed to the main exhibit that requires a general admission ticket). Near the museum's parking garage-side entrance is a sculpture by Hanover College professor of art Leticia Bajuyo entitled "Event Horizons," which presents scale-models of various black hole wormholes twisting around, using mostly CD and DVD discs as media, approximately 11,000 of them.

Let's say that you could travel through a black hole back in time to experience Hoosier history as it was lived by those who were here in 1816. And let's say you could then also fast forward to 2016 as if time were the 500 track and your vehicle was Juan Pablo Montoya's Indy car. While the aforementioned scenario, of course, violates the laws of physics, the "200 Years" might just be the next best thing between the two.

"It's an art exhibition and a history lesson as well," says Ruschman. "Combining those two things has been a real eye opener for me, a learning process.... So we go back to the pioneer painters of the early1800s; we work our way up through the more established artists, groups like the Richmond Group, the Hoosier Group, the Brown County Art Colony, and then jump from the earliest practitioners who were basically itinerant artists traveling around the state looking for whatever work they could get."

But things started to change in the 19th Century as artists travelled to Europe to learn to paint in the classical tradition. And then the 20th Century brought art schools to Indiana — Herron opened in 1906 — along with a tide of revolutionary ideas about art (that were, it must be said, slow in coming to the Hoosier state). But by the time Robert Indiana painted his 1971 work "Terre Haute," his hard-edge, sign-like painting no longer seemed particularly revolutionary. "Terre Haute," is, however, just as specific to a particular time and place as George Winter's "Moccasins" painting. Or, at least, to the idea of place.

The exhibition isn't, of course, limited to 2D art, encompassing as it does furniture and sculpture and 20th Century glass and ceramics.

"Back in the '50s and '60s we started to move away from just production and function ware to using material to create sculpture and nonfunctional objects," says Ruschman.

Near the terminus of this exhibition you'll find "Dark Fantasy," by Indy-based African-American artist Walter Lobyn Hamilton; it's a dead-on portrait of a Black woman composed mostly from broken LP records.

Across from that is a collaborative painting by The Droops entitled "Soft Serve," painted in 2015. The Droops is a collective group of six young artists based in Indianapolis. Among other oddities, their painting depicts a melting ice cream cone and an outstretched hand popping up from a burial plot à la Carrie (the motion picture) in Day-Glo colors.

"For this particular collaborative painting we took the approach of choosing everyone's top 'go to' color to work with at the time and create a limited palette with just those colors," says Droops member Emily Gable. "The six of us then chose our own imagery to put in each individual box."

If it were possible, it would be an interesting exercise to abduct Colonel Henry Hamilton from the banks of the Wabash in the year 1778 — using Leticia Bajuyo's "Event Horizons" as a vehicle — to place him in front of "Soft Serve." It's a painting touched by both whimsy and dread, from a moment that oftentimes seems too close to the end of history. What do you think Hamilton would say?

Writer Arts, Faith & Equity

Having lived and worked in Indy on and off since 1977, and currently living in Carmel, I've seen the city change a great deal. I love covering the arts in all its forms, and the places where the arts and broader cultural issues intersect.

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