The 2021 Mississippi Invitational does not waste its audience’s time. Considering the relatively small space, a roster of forty-two artists, and more than sixty pieces on view, every curatorial decision feels amplified. One of the most stimulating parts of the show is a wall of photography and video art at the entrance. A triptych of photographs by Jackson native Christina McField’s conveys the influence that Southern greats like Eggleston or Christenberry continue to have on new generations of artists—an artistic heritage of being born in the Delta dirt. Depicting a run-down old manor on the outskirts of downtown Jackson (Childhood Memories), a ramshackle abandoned schoolroom through the aperture of a doorknob hole (The Other Side), and decaying old gym bleachers with a vine snaking its way across the frame (Stairway to Never), McField’s work is laden with a keen sense of place. Many pieces in the Invitational follow in the vein of dilapidated buildings, romantic agrarian scenes, and oak alleys lining walking paths. As a show focusing solely on artists living and working in Mississippi, it is unsurprising that the nostalgic Southern vein pulses strongly. However, the show also features conceptual and more tongue-in-cheek work that shows not only the nostalgia, but also the wit and contemporary developments of Mississippi’s artistic practices.
Perpendicular to McField’s photography, Greg Walker and Pat Galluzzo’s conceptual pieces (Tetraptych 2, Pentaptych 1, Tetraptych 1, Triptych 1) are abstract white and blue swaths of color, their forms like organisms under a microscope. The pieces do not immediately evoke Mississippi as directly as McField’s ominous, romantic photography, but upon further inspection, the connection becomes evident. The label next to Walker and Galluzzo’s works state the medium: cyanotype with Mississippi river water on cotton paper. The idea of water, dirt, blood, among other substances, imbuing energy into art recalls a familiar Southern mysticism. The deep primary blue of Walker and Galluzzo’s work also evokes Haint Blue or the bright primary palette of folk art. Whether someone intimate with Mississippi culture or an outsider, it is impossible not to see the artists’ deep connections to the local landscape and way of life rendered across of a plurality of media.
Unavoidably and appropriately, contemporary themes of the pandemic and social justice feature prominently. As a state mired in fraught history and a continual reckoning with its own heritage, Mississippi art often seems haunted by an unexorcised spirit of the past. This spirit appears in the show through works like Brenden Davis’ painting I Can Hardly See, a small piece showing an illuminated Black figure with arms outstretched, amidst ghostly hooded figures on a dark backdrop. The Black figure’s bright red smile and stark white teeth in Davis’ piece emulates racist caricatures, its interactions with the Klansmen-like ghosts in the piece illustrates a painful history. The saintly halo around the figure suggests a devastating martyrdom or a righteous hope within great darkness. The scene in the painting alludes to an unfortunately relevant theme of distressful race relations in Mississippi. However, the Invitational also offers a refreshing and hopeful outlook in works like Spence Townsend’s At the Train Station, a painting depicting a same-sex, interracial couple sharing a moment of tenderness on a bench, their little dog below them begging to be a part of the affection. In close proximity to each other, Davis and Townsend’s work contrast fear with sweetness.
Such juxtapositions appear often in the show, not only in the curatorial choices, but also within some of the pieces themselves. Cynthia Buob’s painting Woman with Tattoo is rendered in the breezy brush strokes of decorative, beach house paintings (usually depicting a cotton field or seascape), but its subject matter breaks from this tradition, starkly featuring a muffin-topped woman seen from behind wearing cut-off jeans and a bra, showing off a tramp stamp tattoo and toting a gun. Buob’s piece draws upon artists’ historical predilection towards outsiders in the depiction of a rebel, but through the witticism of a “presentable” style. The painting commands attention just like its subject, also provides a locally relatable image. As I overheard a gallery goer say, “Everyone down here has a cousin like that.”
Guest-curated by Danielle Burns Wilson, this year’s biennial is the largest since its inception in 1997. Focusing on artists living and practicing in Mississippi and always guest-curated, the Invitational this year garnered over six hundred submissions, which was narrowed down to forty-two artists. The show is a window into the spirit of Mississippi art-making and its incredible diversity of voice, practice, and perspective. Wilson contended with the large roster by grouping the works into one of three categories: reckoning, resilience, and reflection. However, given the multi-faceted nature of most of the art on view, many works could easily be placed into any one of the themes. The careful and sensitive curation of the 2021 Mississippi Invitational honors the shared human experiences of last year’s unrest and rest, but more than solely depicting our time and with such a range in artists and works, it also provides, as the curator states, “something for everyone.”
The 2021 Mississippi Invitational is on view at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson through November 7.