The South’s turbulent history has shaped and cultivated a rich legacy of art. In the talk “Illuminating the Spirit: A Conversation with Artists Mary Whyte and Jonathan Green” at the Gibbes Museum of Art Monday afternoon, Whyte and Green discussed their careers and influences.
The exhibit “Mary Whyte: Working South,” on display at the Gibbes through September 9, is a collection of watercolors documenting the failing industries of the South and their effect on working-class people.
“There’s a certain profoundness I look for,” said Whyte of her subjects. “People that fall under the radar or are unpolished.”
Her subjects are captured at the moment of an inevitable social-economic shift. The majority of the images, painted in watercolor, consist of a solitary figure standing, sitting or leaning in a static pose amongst his or her work. The pictures are rather quiet in the absence of action. Many of the people in Whyte’s paintings have their eyes averted and wear inscrutable expressions, making it difficult to establish a connection between the painting and the viewer. Whyte seems to be saying that when these people’s jobs disappear, so will they.
Her paintings blend photorealism with washes of color; in “Lovers,” one can see an elderly woman’s individual veins and strands of hair, while smoke blends with and obscures a man in “Black Liquor.”
The works in the exhibit have a Norman Rockwell-like quality, minus the cheer. Some of her somber compositions also brought Whistler to mind.
“My hope is that people who come to the exhibit will recognize people in the paintings,” said Whyte. “We recognize emotion, therefore we see ourselves in paintings.”
Green is not currently showing at the Gibbes, but will have an exhibit in the fall of his and his partner’s art collection.
He spoke extensively of his experiences growing up in his community as a black artist. Green is fascinated by the accomplishments of blacks in the U.S., the legacy of slavery and the Lowcountry rice culture which built Charleston and much of the South. He received applause multiple times while he spoke.
“For any child living in the southeast not to know about the rice culture is an unbelievable disservice to our children, because if they don’t know about rice they don’t know about history,” Green said.
His current artistic interests lie in the question, “What if?” What if slavery had not occurred? What would Africa be like? How would African-American culture be different? He noted the importance of educating youth about their heritage and spreading culture through art.
Whether it considered the disappearing South or hope for cultural renewal, “Illuminating the Spirit” illustrated the profound effect of southern culture on its artists.
Rebecca Seel is a Newhouse School graduate student.