Freedom and Marchers

Cecil Williams' "Freedom and Marchers"

COLUMBIA — For those individuals still in a state of wonderment over the recent total eclipse of the sun, there is a current exhibition offering both a linguistic and visual spin on the experience. "Eclipsing 50" at the South Carolina State Museum offers a rare glimpse of key works in the collection amassed by the South Carolina Arts Commission over the past 50 years.

According to Lori Kornegay, the museum’s art curator, each of the more than 80 works on display can be said to have “eclipsed,” as in “overshadowed” or “surpassed,” their original meaning and context. As is the case with art of any significance, they continue to speak to us today within a contemporary frame of reference.

The exhibition, which is organized into five sections corresponding to the five decades since 1967 that the SCAC has been assembling the State Art Collection, offers visitors an unusual opportunity to spend some time with the work of some of our state’s best artists and to contemplate how these examples of their creative vision still resonate in our time.

Consider, for example, two photos taken by Orangeburg native Cecil Williams in 1963. At the time of their making, they were perhaps primarily read as social documents. The silver gelatin print "Freedom and Marchers" captures the front of a line of protesters who have taken to the street in pursuit of their civil rights; "Kress 5 and 10" chronicles the dramatic response of some of those intent on denying their fellow citizens those rights.

Although these images are reminders of the continuing struggle minorities still face in this country to achieve the rights of full citizenship, viewers of Williams’ work today also can — at some distance from the heat of the moment — admire his artistry. The three young women carrying in one image the handwritten placard emblazoned with the word “Freedom” may remind us of the Three Graces of ancient mythology. In having the courage to speak truth to power, they exhibit both a creative force and a beauty of spirit.

The compositional skill on display in Williams’ "Kress 5 and 10" also demands respect. The two converging lines — on the left, the naked posts upon which lunch counter seats once rested; on the right, those same dismantled seats arrayed along the floor so that no black protesters could organize a sit-in against segregation — draw the viewer’s eye to the sullen and defiant white store employees and customers who have assembled at the far end. Enhanced by its skillful arrangement of visual elements, the image reminds us even today of an abiding truth: the extraordinary lengths that some will go to resist change.

Some visitors to the South Carolina State Museum may encounter old friends in the current exhibition; fragments of the State Art Collection have been showcased at the museum before, once in 1988-89 and again in 1996-97. These perpetual favorites hold up so well because their makers were able to reinterpret some universal theme for their time and ours. Take, for example, two works that touch on biblical narrative: Sigmund Abeles’ 1985 pastel "Annunciation with Shepherd" and Peter Lenzo’s 1992 mixed media piece "Altar to Virgin and Child." Like many of the great artists of the Renaissance, both Abeles and Lenzo used individuals in their personal circle as models for key figures in the history of Christianity.

The Abeles piece features a young woman in a quilted robe, her wet hair covered in a turban-like towel arrangement. She gazes at the viewer as a bearded man in equestrian garb enters the picture frame from the right; a German shepherd in the foreground keeps one eye on the viewer and one on the young woman whose face is bathed in light. Just what is being “announced” or “made known” in this modern-day tableau? Is it an imminent birth? A rare moment of epiphany?

The Lenzo altarpiece is constructed in the traditional triptych configuration with two wooden side panels that can be closed to form a single Gothic arch. In the center are four drawers, each containing found objects of personal significance to Lenzo. At the pointed top is enshrined a glass negative of the long-haired artist himself and his naked infant daughter. It’s a reverse Madonna and Child, if you will.

Both pieces, the Abeles pastel and the Lenzo mixed media altar, rework the concept of “holy family,” reminding us all that we are bound to others not just by blood but by spirit.

"Eclipsing 50" commemorates the 50th anniversary of the South Carolina Arts Commission by giving visitors a chance not only to sample some prime examples of our state’s outstanding visual creativity but also to pick out the works that personally reach out to each of us over time.

This story originally appeared in Free-Times Columbia.