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Liza Lou: Let the Light In at SCAD MOA

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SCAD Museum of Art new exterior. Photo by Lilly Lampe.

The SCAD Museum of Art (SCAD MOA) in Savannah, Georgia, reopened last fall after the completion of a $26 million expansion. The galleries are no longer housed in the nineteenth-century Greek Revival brick building SCAD has used since the 1980s. A modern steel and glass wing, adding 65,000 square feet of gallery space, and an outdoor terrace and performance area now run parallel to the neighboring historic railway depot, complementing it in length and injecting the area with some much-needed new design. In a city that clings to its pre-Civil War grandeur, a twenty-first-century update brings welcome respite from the time warp and provides a flattering foil.

The new design redefines SCAD MOA as a destination museum in its own right. The exhibitions accompanying the reopening feature living artists who have exhibited all over the world to great effect. New Growth: Stratum Field, an installation by Kendall Buster looms over a narrow 290-foot long gallery, looking like it was born there. Stratified layers of white polycarbonate plastic hung on aircraft cables create nebulous organic shapes given life by the natural light streaming in.

Kendall Buster, New Growth: Stratum Field, 2011. Photo by Lilly Lampe.

The Crossing, an impressive video and sound installation by 1995 Venice Biennale exhibitor Bill Viola, is displayed in the best space for video I’ve ever experienced. The typical video experience involves ducking behind a dark curtain into a room built like an afterthought, or apologetically letting in light through a door that ruins the effect for the people already inside. At SCAD MOA, you enter a large, centrally located space perfectly sheltered from outside light and sound, which increases the stunning effect of the raging fire in the work.

Eight monumental works by Kehinde Wiley are featured, lending a touch of unplanned continuity following the High Museum’s acquisition of a piece by the artist last year.

Liza Lou, Trailer, 1999-2000. Image courtesy SCAD Museum of Art.

What would be just another show by art stars in New York becomes a real treat nestled in Savannah, GA. I’m sure some will take issue with that statement, believing I’ve slighted the art acumen of area residents and students at one of the South’s best-known art schools. I don’t claim that they’ve never heard of Kehinde Wiley. It’s their business to be well-versed in the global art scene and I don’t doubt that they are. However, to have great art brought to Savannah rather than students, artists, and other interested parties having to go to New York to see it is an invaluable resource.

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Let the Light In, by Liza Lou, is the first solo exhibition of the artist in the American South and is the strongest case for the excellence of SCAD MOA’s new programming. Her works are sculptural forms, highly beaded, that reference objects like ropes, pages of paper, fences and chains. The coated glass beads that compose works like Continuous Mile (white) (2007-2008) speak to a meticulous process in the scale of the work and the minute materials used. Pieces like Find, Fix, Finish(2007-2008), composed of thousands of beads set on aluminum panel to create oriental rug-like patterns, reference craft (often a dirty word in contemporary art) but update and elevate it. The bright colors in corners of the artwork remind one of the beaded bracelets Westerners pick up as souvenirs in developing nations, yet the dominating use of black washing over the color creates a feeling of darkness and tension.

Liza Lou, Gather (One Million), 2008-2010, glass beads, stainless steel, hemp7 x 150 x 150 inches. Image courtesy SCAD Museum of Art.

Gather (One Million) destroys the conceptions of beads as craft and craft as a lesser art form. Gold-colored metallic beads are strung on one million stiff sticks of stainless steel, bunched into glittering stalks with hemp. The bunches, tightly gathered at the middle, explode at the ends with the fury of cut wires and fraying cable. Laid in rows on the floor forming a rectangle, the effect is that of a glowing silicon valley at the feet of the viewer, a remark on the fetishization of technology.

Lou will be at SCAD MOA on January 17 to discuss her work. I recommend making the trip if you can. SCAD MOA won’t make Savannah the next Marfa or Bentonville but it’s a reason to return, even when the house tours and city squares feel stale.