“This Beautiful Tangle” is a logical and wonderful title for the current Dalton Gallery exhibition at Agnes Scott (open through December 3), the final part of Lisa Alembik’s ambitious, poetic investigation of the American South and contemporary life in general. One way or another, the previous shows, “Blackbird on Your Shoulder” (2006) and “Groundstory” (2012), were about narratives and identities — “Blackbird” incorporating actual regional stories, “Groundstory” incorporating personal ones, thus making the catalogues major components of the exhibition rather than documentation of it. Although it does not make use of literary components in this way, “This Beautiful Tangle” is about the experiences and situations that lie behind the stories we eventually tell ourselves. Or, perhaps, what lies within them. Or how the stories create the situations that we live out in reality. The thematic tangles are so diverse and interconnected that it’s best to begin in the order in which the works are presented, and try to elucidate some of the topics from there.
The digital slideshow of Steve Eberhardt’s photos are the most literal of all the entanglements—demonstrations by opposing social and political movements, most notably white supremacists vs. Black Lives Matter, but also religious and neighborhood celebrations in a freshly multicultural South. The tangle formed by communities that are neither together nor apart reappears abstractly and seductively in the entwined ribbons of color and symbolic shadows in Molly Rose Freeman’s Shadow Story, painted on the curving walls of the far side of the gallery. Freeman’s philosophical statement about the dynamics of personal and collective shadow stories is one of the more engaging artist statements to appear in recent exhibitions. “This mural is the story of a relationship: the engagement of two forces, intimately linked and responding to each other in a way that makes it not two stories but one. And behind the story, the shadow story, the history and presence of what is hidden, veiled, denied.” (Alembik wisely included the statements on the wall, but did so unobtrusively; the viewer sees the art before reading what the artist wants us to know about it.)
In between these two contrasting approaches to “beautiful tangles,” the central gallery space gives the most claustrophobically complex artwork room to breathe. The quantity of vacant wall space surrounding these visually crowded images avoids what could otherwise have been an unintentionally oppressive atmosphere, and illustrates the importance of intelligent placement of artwork. Forest McMullin’s large photographs of flea markets are actually a glimpse of a contemporary South that is always more complex than it seems: American Flea: Ken Iron Horse is a portrait of an Apache and Algonquin artist who sells his paintings at the Blue Ridge Flea Market, while American Flea: Carmen Mendoza & Elsa Ramirez shows the women’s crowded shop at the Pendergrass Flea Market—only two examples of the ethnicities and personal stories McMullin documents in an ongoing project.
In the immense wall installation many among the many, Mario Petrirena has covered the entire opposite wall with lace doilies on a pale blue background, and added individual collages in which imagery and text form abstract patterns. These patterns hint at personal moments of the doilies’ creators: an enlarged part of a handwritten letter, for example, in which the words “birthday” and “write when you can” indicate the routine intimacy of older generations for whom letters were a primary means of communication. The other patterns include texts in what appears to be one or more alphabets of the Himalayas and/or the Indian subcontinent—and my inability to identify the specific language(s) is symptomatic of our collective ignorance, and symbolic of our present cultural tangle, in which we can read our own inheritance but not other people’s. How might this wall read (quite literally) to someone to whom all the languages are familiar? I don’t presume to answer the question.
Two galleries are devoted once again to tangles of race and gender. The question of cultural inheritance and who gets to define the terms of the dialogue is raised anew by 2016 Artadia winner Cosmo Whyte in How I Got Over, Head Boy, and Sweet Talker, which are all related to how the British educational system inherited by an independent Jamaica was wrong both in styles of dress and in curriculum details for a Caribbean island with its own unique history. Too Foreign 2 Exchange is a different perspective on entangled cultures, stitching together videotapes of the blaxploitation film, Shaft in Africa, and the Humphrey Bogart classic The African Queen. In the Bogart film, the African Queen was a small boat whose white skipper was convinced by a white missionary (Katharine Hepburn) to sink a German warship. Shaft in Africa places New York detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) in West Africa, disguised as an itinerant worker to uncover a crime ring smuggling immigrants into Europe in order to exploit them. The entanglements are so provocatively complex that it would take a full-length essay even to begin to explore them.
Jessica Scott-Felder’s Black Matter, opposite Whyte’s body of work, is a glittering, semi-transparent black curtain enclosing an open book of abstract, black drawing. This compelling installation is a marriage of myth and cosmic metaphor, imagining the conditions of a black hole in which time travel might make communion possible between descendants and ancestors. Based on folklore and the science fiction of Octavia Butler, the work explores the question of identity in the African diaspora in a different register than Whyte’s work, but the two form a particularly provocative juxtaposition.
Nearby, Aubrey Longley-Cook’s characteristic cross-stitch pieces reproduce memorable phrases spoken by friends, from the wry “stupidly handsome” to the punning “limp terrorwrist.” He considers these to be expressions of “Lavender Linguistics,” a scholarly term explained by Longley-Cook as “the language used by queer individuals and communities.”
If Longley-Cook’s framed stitchery anchors one side of the room, the crowded compositions of Heather M. Foster’s paintings dominate the remainder. The deliberately inconsistent perspective of these aggregations—of people of all races and their pet animals—combined with reversed words such as “syawla” for “always,” creates a personal iconography that is nothing short of mesmerizing. If there is a problem with this personal mythography, it is that the subject matter is less than obvious. Ssendnik 9, for example, is “kindness” spelled backwards, with the number 9 alluding to the victims killed by Dylann Roof in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, but Foster provides no clue to this except for tiny details in corners of the painting.
Charlie Lucas’s welded-metal Couple at the end of the gallery, that opens out to the adjacent theatre, represents a moment in which the African-American vernacular artist and his wife were going through marital difficulties. As in Lucas’ other works, the postures of the figures and the economically expressed facial contortions communicate the message more than adequately.
In the back gallery, a happier take on conjugal commitments is portrayed by Didi Dunphy’s Kissing Jim, a bright red metal version of the Victorian conversation chair, in which couples could engage in close but decorous intimacy. The back gallery is the least resolved visually, in part because Hope Hilton’s project with students was designed to be rigorously messy. Herbarium is an expression of her interest in topophilia (love of place) anddérive (the Situationists’ “drift”) in the form of leading students from the community through the process of documenting the trees and plant life on the campus of Agnes Scott College. The results, covering an entire wall, are wondrously diverse, ranging from meticulous sketches to annotated leaf outlines.
Julia A. Fenton’s Leviathan installation dominates another gallery. It’s made from her own wedding gown, plus fish hooks and artificial rose petals that allude to Jewish legends about the female great sea monster slain by God to preserve humankind. Fenton’s version of the slain and skinned monstrous feminine occupies nearly half the gallery in a spectacularly lovely cascade of white cloth and red petals.
The remainder contains Karen Tauches and Calvin Burgamy’sReading the Mind in the Eyes, video projections of closeups of eyes of people of various ethnicities and genders. Multiple-choice answers appear on-screen that list a range of possible emotions depicted, with the correct choice circled. The work was born out of an online test designed to research and evaluate a viewer’s ability to interpret emotion from subtle facial cues. Some viewers may be disturbed to find how poorly they understand the nonverbal signals of others—and this is an excellent metaphor for the daily, social tangles in which we find ourselves, in which emotional cues, a combination of biology and culture, are less obvious than we think.
“This Beautiful Tangle” is on view at the Dalton Gallery at Agnes Scott College through December 3. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 10am to 5pm and on Saturdays from 12pm to 4 pm. It will be closed on Thanksgiving Day and Friday, November 25, but will reopen on Saturday, November 26.
Jerry Cullum is a freelance curator and critic living in Atlanta. His poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of local and national publications, including Art Papers and Art in America.