Any visitor to the 701 Center for Contemporary Art might indeed echo the lines from John Webster’s seventeenth-century drama, The Duchess of Malfi: “Mine eyes dazzle.”
Indeed, even after some very savvy adjudication, the gallery is still packed with paintings, sculptures, mixed media pieces and installations. Out of 134 submissions for the 2019 701 CCA South Carolina Biennial, 24 artists made the final cut. Twelve had their work showcased in Part One of this year’s exhibition, running from Sept. 26 to Nov. 3. The remaining 12 are currently showcased in the second floor Whaley Street gallery.
How does one make sense of such a group exhibition, especially one that claims to map “contemporary art practice in our state”? The works in Part II of the Biennial are just as diverse, in media and subject, as those in Part I. But, as one might expect from any exhibition featuring the creativity of artists living in the American South, certain preoccupations form a connective thread.
According to Wim Roefs, 701 CCA Board Chair, only 10 of the artists in the current show are native to the region. But I would argue that even those recently transplanted from locations outside the American South soon fall under the spell of our state’s splendid natural resources and rich cultural heritage.
South Carolinians, rooted for generations or newly minted, are keenly aware — some might say obsessed — with a sense of place. The landscape, both as external reality and as an object of personal perception, looms large in our consciousness.
This is certainly true of some of the most compelling works in the current show. Take, for example, the six mixed media pieces by Coastal Carolina professor Steven Bleicher. Encased in shadow box frames, each 14” by 11” piece features a graphite drawing of a particular locale, a segment of a map pinpointing that spot, and an object found by the artist on his visit.
The top half of Magnolia Beach Club, for example, is a drawing of an open window in the brick wall of what remains of this once-popular African American resort on Pawleys Island. Beneath that rendering is a hand-drawn map of the approximate location of the ruins. Superimposed between the two is the jawbone of a sea creature. The work is an exercise in modern archaeology — as fossils offer evidence of what once roamed the waters off our coast so do the ruins of this particular beach club stand as a testament to a time when racial segregation restricted beach access for some because of the color of their skin.
Layered landscapes are also prominent in Greenville resident Michael Marks’s three oil and acrylic works, which blend architectural styles from various periods in environments of dizzying complexity. At other times, the landscape takes on cultural implications, as in the case of Charlestonian Katelyn Chapman’s oil rendering of a Pepsi refrigeration unit repurposed for the preservation of the trophies of a deer hunt and Kristi Ryba’s politically engaged reconceptualization of the deeply receding distances found in late-Medieval and Renaissance paintings, settings populated this time not by saints and European nobles but purposely by the less-than-honorable associates of Donald Trump.
Navigated space is the name of the game in three large-scale installations in the current show. There is Naomi Falk’s Boundings, a set of eight shoulder-high silos, some circular and some oblong — each made of wire fencing interwoven with orange tape — through which visitors can move only with arms upraised in an exercise in constricted mobility. Similarly, Jim Arendt’s three-part installation composed of denim-draped cardboard, resin and fiberglass replicates supine human forms. How many times have we overlooked the homeless in public places, resembling little more than piles of discarded clothing rather than unfortunate souls forced to sleep on the street? Arendt, a Coastal Carolina professor, makes it impossible for the visitor to ignore his prostrate figures, as pennants sprout from their flattened forms. In one large gallery alcove, we also confront the impressive paper installation of Hartsville artist Adrian Rhodes, who uses her prints as 3-D modular elements in an immersive display. The result is a giant bee hive with portholes both to inner space and to the stars.
The presence of the past in the present is also a theme prominent in Southern culture. We see evidence of this preoccupation in the paintings of Conway-based artist Yvette Cummings, who explores the challenges facing her daughters as seen through the lens of her own trauma-haunted girlhood. The same female-centered exploration one can find in both the intricate mosaic-like, acrylic-on-tile pieces of Columbia resident Carol Pittman, who uses the images of ancient goddesses and nymphs to offer commentary on modern womanhood, and the equally intricate mixed media-on-plastic works of Charleston-based Dorothy Netherland, which meld her child’s face with fashion advertising that offers an impossible and improbable feminine ideal. In addition, Susan Lenz provides visitors with her special take on the travails of motherhood, especially the loss of children as embodied in four hand-worked sleeping gowns suspended over three empty cribs.
Perhaps my favorite memory piece in the show is a ceramic work by Chotsani Elaine Dean, a professor at the South Carolina School of the Arts, who “weaves” quilts out of clay tiles. Her Memory Pieced Strip Sampler Quilt is a composition that focuses on the trade in textiles but also, indirectly, in human flesh. Inspired by the variety of design motives and techniques employed by African Americans during the period of enslavement, the construction translates one medium into another to stunning effect.
In their exploration of space, both external and internal, and in their manipulation of memory, the works in Part II of the 2019 701 CCA South Carolina Biennial cap off a successful two-year survey of the latest achievements in our state’s visual arts.
What: 701 CCA South Carolina Biennial 2019, Part II
Where: 701 Center for Contemporary Art, 701 Whaley St.
When: Through Dec. 22
More: 803-779-4571, 701cca.org