A Shift Of Consciousness
By Mary Bentz Gilkerson
Statewide art exhibitions like the TRIENNIAL, produced by the South Carolina Arts Commission and the South Carolina State Museum between 1992 and 2004, refl ect more than current trends in the state’s contemporary art community. They reveal deeper shifts in how the culture of the area perceives itself. Even as recently as the TRIENNIAL 2004 there was degree of self-consciousness about the way that both the curators and artists approached their regional position. The result was the selection of work that for the most part focused on the universal and mainstream rather than a regional sense of place.
In the intervening seven years the South Carolina art community has become much more comfortable with a greater postmodern sense of regionalism: a strong connection to place revealed in the way that artists freely mine themes and media that have been considered traditional for the area – landscape and figurative narration, clay and craft traditions – combined with an awareness of the national and international art dialogue. This initial Biennial, produced by 701 Center for Contemporary Art, reflects that shift of consciousness.
At its most fundamental level, place is topographic landscape, a mapping of geographical features that illustrates a culture’s relationship to the space it inhabits. Working from aerial photographs, Mary Edna Fraser maps the South Carolina coastline from great perspective distance, using traditional batik processes on oversized silk panels. Jarod Charzewski explores landscape topographically as well, creating installations that use precisely folded and stacked clothing or books to mimic the undulations of the earth and its interaction with man-made structures. Kim LeDee creates sculptural installations from carefully woven constructions that move from the flat surface of the wall into the gallery. Small plastic toys fill her miniature environments revealing the absurdities of communal conflict.
Landscape and place extends beyond topography in the multimedia installations of Gwylene Gallimard and Jean-Marie Mauclet. Their work is deeply rooted in the particularities of a community, going beyond simple documentary or social commentary to explore the complex intersections of place with traditions, histories, stories and spirit. Their process of working intimately within a community gives their work insightful depth regarding the paradoxical nature of human relationships.
Figuration and narration go hand-in-hand to invoke personal memory, trauma and history as well as direct challenges to examine our communal relationships to issues of race and sexuality. Winston Wingo’s sculptures use combinations of organic and geometric shapes to address the relationship of humanity to nature and technology. But they also address the dehumanizing factors that have effectively “erased” minorities from the broader dialogue within the culture.
What is subtle in Wingo’s work is exquisitely direct in Damond Howard’s and Colin Quashie’s.
With wit and passion Quashie uses the language of media marketing to dissect stereotypical views of cultural relationships and expose them as separatist constructs. He uses the seduction promised by contemporary advertising to lure the viewer into a conversation that can be haunting in the depth of the issues raised.
Howard incorporates some of the most heinous examples of 19th century illustrations and caricatures into self-portraits that reflect on the conflicted sense of identity and self that dominant culture imposes on minorities – in his case, an African-American man from South Carolina. Like Quashie, he uses humor to leaven the harshness of the commentary without diluting his message.
The narrative is also very personal in the work of Aldwyth and Peter Lenzo. While the literal figure is absent from many of Aldwyth’s works, it is implied through the multiple narratives she creates in her collages and sculptures. Although she resists categorization and rejects labels outright, the many little biographies that fill any one of her works form larger statements that are certainly astute social observation if not commentary. Lenzo’s clay sculptures are heavily embellished reliquaries of triumph over suffering. Building on the South Carolina craft tradition of the face jug, Lenzo creates self-portraits that contain all the pathos of the human condition.
Jim Arendt, JRenée, Stacey Davidson, Karen Ann Myers, Jon Prichard and Lucy Bailey pursue shared communal narratives, both traditional ones and those created by the disjunctions of contemporary culture. Arendt uses multiple layers of faded denim, the very fabric of the working class, collage together to explore connections to work and place. Using a similar narrative tradition, JRenee’s vivid paintings on glass contain echoes of Romare Bearden’s collages and cutouts and pull from the shared myths and traditions of the African-American community of New Orleans. Lucy Bailey’s figurative work is a quiet counterpoint, exploring the human body using forms that have an archetypal, archaic quality.
Davidson sculpts dolls that she then arranges in scenarios. These fictional narratives become the subjects of her subsequent paintings. There is an uncanny quality to the painted dolls, a level of fiction within fiction, both innocent and vaguely disturbing. Myers’ subjects inhabit a similarly charged psychological space, one that focuses on our cultural obsession with youth, beauty and glamour. The stories she tells of cocktail parties and power games are off set by a deep sense of loneliness. That absence is filled in Prichard’s drawings and performances by the ceremony and ritual of the fictitious society he creates his work around.
Thomas Whichard and Marshall Thomas create very ambiguous, loosely defined narratives based on the dialogue between artist and model. The stories are potential fictions, slices or moments, removed from their contexts.
Chris Todd’s sculptures imply a human presence through her use of exaggerated and distorted chair forms as surrogates. There is a whimsical quality to the sculptures that is off-set by the precarious nature of the predicaments that she places them in.
Abstraction, the modernist ideal, has become one of the many genres available to contemporary artists. Alice Ballard and Jim Connell both reference ceramic craft traditions in creating organic, abstracted works that move beyond traditional vessels to function as sculptural objects.
Shaun Cassidy, James Busby and Katie Walker pursue an art of pure abstraction where the subtle relationships of shape, surface and color invite contemplation. Busby and Cassidy reduce or eliminate many of the formal elements to focus our attention on the remaining ones. Mike Gentry’s grid-based collages give an aesthetic order to the jumbled visual bombardment of junk mail advertising and transform these fragments of media culture into relatively benign colors and textures.
The South Carolina Biennial 2011 reflects a shift in consciousness and perspective, a step away from the mainstream/regional dialectic. The sense of regional inferiority seems to be giving way to a synthesis of regional concerns – landscape and figurative narration, clay and craft traditions – with a more global awareness of the interconnection of all places to each other.
Mary Bentz Gilkerson is an artist, critic and curator. Her reviews regularly appear
in the Free Times weekly in her hometown of Columbia, S.C., where she teaches art at Columbia College.