The Southern arts scene has come a long way since 1919 when social commentator H.L. Mencken wrote his controversial essay “Sahara of the Bozart.” That piece, which outraged most Southerners at the time of its publication, argued that this part of the country was a desert of creative activity, a wasteland devoid of “all civilized gesture and aspiration.”
It was certainly true, at the time, that there were no major repositories of the visual arts in our region. The High Museum in Atlanta was not established until 1926, and the Columbia Museum of Art not until 1950, both institutions housed initially in the former residences of important patrons. And professional arts education lagged behind the rest of the country until Southern colleges began to offer degrees in the visual arts after World War II.
Fast forward to 2019, and H. L. Mencken would be astonished by the state of the visual arts in the American South today. As evidence, one has only to visit the 701 Center for Contemporary Art to see the current exhibition of work by nine artists, all of whom were selected as State Fellows of South Arts. Established two years ago, the regional, nonprofit was established to “celebrate and support the highest quality art being created in the American South,” per the 701 CCA website.
Thus, in addition to its support of the performing and literary arts, the Atlanta-based organization also selects each year an independent jury whose responsibility it is to identify one visual artist each from South and North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky and Tennessee to be a State Fellow. These fortunate nine have their works exhibited in a special show and each earn a $5,000 prize.
The 701 CCA is the only host institution for this year’s exhibition. Thus, area residents have a rare opportunity to see some of the very best work by some of the very best artists now active in our part of the country. The selected pieces now on view can be roughly divided into two categories: works focused on form and shape, and works that provide social commentary and explore concepts beyond the visual.
In the first category is a large-scale work by Jamey Grimes, who teaches at the University of Alabama. Sprawling across the ceiling of the gallery is a mass of school-bus yellow, corrugated and perforated plastic entitled Roil. As its title implies, this piece agitatedly expands overhead, twisting and turning in upon itself. Providing a colorful but rather menacing canopy under which gallery visitors must walk, the work is part and parcel of the artist’s continuing record of his and our collective encounters with the forces of nature.
Natural transmutation is also the focus of the hand-embroidered and beaded sculptures of Floridian Amy Gross. From a distance, her pieces read like extravagant floral bouquets. But up close, the viewer can tell that the artist has very different organisms in mind. With labels like “Spora Mutatus,” we can tell that the “blossoms” in question are fanciful replicas of small reproductive bodies; thus, the artist counsels the gallery visitor, there can be beauty even in bacteria.
An artist who specializes in small objects “writ large” is the 2019 South Arts Fellow from South Carolina, ceramicist Virginia Scotchie. This show includes her riff on two laboratory vessels, the ball crucible and the funnel crucible. Beginning with their basic forms, she alters their substance and color and magnifies their dimensions to the size of free-standing sculpture. Particularly impressive is her wall-encompassing assortment of 25 ceramic pieces, each melding functional and natural forms into three-dimensional art objects.
In a similar formalist vein are the works of Asheville resident Andrew Hayes. Constructed of paper and steel, his five pieces in the current show play with the concept of the book. Interior Reflections, for example, features a rectilinear metal frame roughly in the shape of a book from whose top edge drips paper in four vertical strips. Other Hayes-conceived book forms now on display replicate the configuration of shelved tomes or counterpose the flexibility of paper against the rigidity of forged metal.
The second category consisting of works that offer social commentary or explore larger concepts is represented by the majority of the artists in the CCA exhibit. In this regard, consider Georgian Bo Bartlett’s large-scale, oil-on-linen portrait of a polar bear on a small outcrop of ice. Entitled Dominion, the work may very well call attention to the diminishing territory of that traditional “rider of icebergs.” An artist strongly influenced by the inhabited landscapes of Andrew Wyeth, Bartlett often places figures in an environment that hints at suspended narrative.
Equally connected to the larger culture are the three clever acrylic-on-panel pieces by Kentucky-based Lori Larusso. Capitalizing on the stereotypical province of the 1950s housewife, particularly the kitchen, these works subvert gender expectations. The bottom half of the two-part If you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, for example, features a two-dimensional explosion of smashed eggs, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the frequently undervalued skills — and the latent explosive energy — of the typical domestic worker.
The photography of Mississippi-based artist Rory Doyle also plays against type with six digital images inspired by the abiding cultural phenomenon of the black cowboy and bearing witness to the black heritage rodeos staged up to the present in parts of the rural South. In some of his photos, Doyle coyly melds the cowboy archetype with more current customs as evidenced by the dental gold in the mouth of a smiling Dallas cowboy and the frenzied twerking at one festive hoedown.
In some conceptual works in the current show, the message is far from implied. Sprawled across the gallery floor is, for example, a set of six upholstered words, each nestled in a steel frame with metal legs and all of them arranged like the seating for a home theater. These fiber pieces — cloud-white, handsewn fabric stuffed with mattress quilting and foam — spell out the time-tested dictum: “Be careful what you wish for.” Is New Orleans native Stephanie Patton providing us with a three-dimensional cautionary message regarding the tempering of expectations?
Equally thoughtful is the 18-piece installation by Andrew Scott Ross, a professor at East Tennessee State. Entitled Dry Erase, these Styrofoam boulders covered in white board paint and emblazoned with images drawn in white board marker offer commentary on how the meaning and value of objects shift in time. In this case, what may have begun life as primitive graffiti may over time assume a very different importance when perceived with a curatorial eye.
If he were alive today and visiting Columbia, H.L. Mencken would have to admit that what he referred to as a “desert” has become a garden of creativity.
What: South Arts 2019 Southern Prize and State Fellows
Where: 701 Center for Contemporary Art, 701 Whaley St.
When: Through May 5
More: 803-779-4571, 701cca.org
Let us know what you think: Email firstname.lastname@example.org.