Tucked away in a quiet corner of the fairgrounds, the Fine Arts show is generally a refined display of earnest artistry. And then every so often someone lets rip with something quite unexpected. A "Roadkill Quilt," for instance.
With this "baby blanket," Pamela Valfer solved the vexing problem of what to do with old mink pelts. She recycled a bunch into a 5-foot square stretched like a painting. Paws flailing, tails dangling, bead-eyes gleaming, the critters' jaws are clamped forever into their companions' flanks. The minks are a sad but perversely hilarious remnant of a bygone era. In an inspired pairing, the installation crew hung nearby Matthew Tyler Brutger's palladium photo of a poignant collection of taxidermied thrush and robins.
High on talent and technique, the impressive 2012 Fine Arts show boasts 345 paintings, photos, prints, drawings, sculpture, textiles and examples of ceramic and glass art. The show's undisputed star is "Red Cloud," Duluth sculptor Douglas Bieniek's white marble portrait of the Oglala Lakota chief (1822-1909). A stunning rendition of the warrior-statesman, the sculpture is a bigger-than-life-size bust complete with full headdress and ornamented tunic. A technical tour de force, "Red Cloud" is worthy of the Old Masters and, one hopes, of the leader who inspired it.
Among sculptors, Thomas Alan Page captures in bronze the crazy energy of a hot dog skier careening down the slopes, grinning maniacally. And Minnesota's wood wizard, Frederic Haines Cogelow, produced another masterpiece in "Finn Hall Banned," a bas-relief of two twinkly-eyed guys before a cabin.
Birds are big, starting with painter Eric Cornett's "Brown Pelican," a beady-eyed bird with a fierce beak and a sleek, Romney-esque crest. Nearby hangs photographer Kristina Irvin's droll riff on gated communities, "Birdhouse Gate." In Janet L. Bayliss' aptly named photo "Murder of Crows," a blur of dark wings flutters against an amber sunset, while in "Starling Vertigo," Ryan E. Kane makes a poetic abstraction from a flock rising into a dusky blue sky.
At first glance "Foot #1" by Stephen Hiroshi Ozone appears to be a fashion photo of a pale human hand in strange mesh gloves, but upon examination proves to be a huge, surreal image of a thoroughly scrubbed bird's foot splayed against a black ground, its curled nails buffed to Parisian sheen. It's bizarre, creepy and an absolute knockout. Nearby hangs "Egg," painter Douglas James Talalla's marvelous, 3-foot-square tribute to the fried version sizzling in a pan.
Photography's cornball humor award goes to Laura Lynn Mager for "Minnesota Gothic," her charming snap of a young couple costumed as Paul Bunyan and Babe posed before the Weisman Art Museum.
The Master of Obsessive Detail prize goes to Kevin C. Johnson's "Jack of Spates," an incisive portrait of a cigar-smoking bon vivant drawn to the last chest hair. Andy DuCett's collage/drawing "Thumbs Up (We Must Be Living Right)" is a fascinating scale-shifting fantasy of modern life.
More than 7,000 sunflower seeds pop like shark's teeth through the white canvas of Avigail Manneberg's "On the Cusp," a surrealistic "painting" that cleverly melds the slashed canvases of the Italian conceptualist Lucio Fontana with the 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds that Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei dumped on the floors of London's Tate Modern.
And surely Kate, the future queen of England, would appreciate "She Was a Crab," a gray silk fascinator -- that is, a perky little hat -- trailing silk seaweed in its snappy claws, stitched up by Jean Hawton of Redwood Falls.