As usual, Artur Silva takes you by surprise. The Brazilian-born artist, one of 20 contemporaries in the Indiana State Museum's handsome exhibition, Making It In the Midwest: Artists Who Chose to Stay, has affixed his contribution, a characteristically colorful collage, to the floor leading into the museum lobby. You walk over it as you go to the counter to pay the ISM's $7 admission fee.
It's a clever introduction to what turns out to be a thoughtful, two-tiered show presenting historical and contemporary work by artists who, for a variety of reasons, have made Indiana and the Midwest their base, even when the larger art world has beckoned.
The first part of the exhibition includes works by the Historical Society of Western Artists, a network of painters who formed a circuit in Indianapolis, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis from 1896 through 1914. This window of time coincided with Indiana's so-called "Golden Age," a period when the state -- and Indianapolis, in particular -- was a national leader in the literary and visual arts.
In painting, what came to be known as The Hoosier Group of Impressionist-inspired painters led the way, with T.C. Steele acting as their exemplar. There are several splendid Steele paintings here. You can practically taste the fresh air in the best of them. Steele could work in a highly nuanced manner or, as in the wonderfully immediate "Cloud," more quickly. The paint is applied brusquely, as if Steele was anxious to catch his subject before it blew away.
Landscape was the Hoosier Group's strongest suit. The best paintings suggest the ways in which humans find their way into relations with the rest of nature. These paintings don't merely record place, they illuminate its timeless character.
Making It In the Midwest's flip side consists of selected works by 20 contemporary artists. The pieces span a wide stylistic range that ventures refreshingly afield from traditional subject matter. Indeed, while there are some nicely executed landscapes, most of these artists are preoccupied by the world inside their heads. Dreams, surrealism and psychedelia make appearances in works across a range of media by such artists as James Wille Faust, Jay Parnell, Malcolm Mobutu Smith, Rob Day, Maria Tomasula, David Morrison and India Cruse-Griffin.
Nhat Tran, whose Urushi lacquer painting technique finds paradoxical depths through her organically colored surfaces, and Tom Tedrowe's sculptural wood constructions that put the furniture maker's craft to fantastic use, gently assert that any ultimate meaning lies in the work itself.
Greg Hull's entry, an over-size, crimson conflation of bicycle spokes and parasols, seems to defy gravity near the entrance to the museum's IMAX theater. Look for it on your way out.
Making It In the Midwest: Artists Who Chose to Stay runs through Oct. 18. The museum is located at 650 W. Washington St. For information, call 317-232-1637 or go to www.indianamuseum.org.
A book inspired by the Hoosier Group portion of the show, T.C. Steele & The Society of Western Artists, by Rachel Berenson Perry, has been published by Indiana University Press ($49.95).