Defying gravity, the four 8-foot clay bodies of Rose B. Simpson’s Countdown, her new body of works commissioned by the SCAD Museum of Art, pack a powerful presence. The figures stick their necks out, fully leaning with foreheads against the glass. It’s an act of tremendous faith, an assumption that both the glass will hold, and we, the viewer, will catch them if all falls apart. The figures themselves are thin, androgynous, their bodies built from pockmarked clay surfaces. They are impressive, adorned with Native American glyphs and long hanging prayer beads. Their faces are stripped down, eroded to their essential humble cores with stoic expressions. Laid bare, the four figures feel as though they directly gaze at us in compassionate confrontation, a sincere attempt at reasoning. The viewer is left to answer their provocation with a broad tapestry of potential meanings: deeper understandings of nature and death, power and politics, capitalism and strength, art, and beauty. Standing under these sculptures is an emotional journey of mind and body.
The exhibition is so captivating, but I can never fully take my mind off the SCAD Museum of Art as a building. The museum is situated in a renovated antebellum railroad complex. The distinctive Savannah Gray Bricks that make up the railway structure and the surrounding freight warehouses date back to 1853. When Henry McAlpin, the owner of the Hermitage Plantation, realized his land was situated on a rare-grey colored clay that was not suitable for crops, he redirected the labor of enslaved people from farming to hand-forming bricks—the resulting materials made the foundation for this art museum in a historically preserved building. The museum building itself conjures irreconcilable issues of monumentality, of memory, life, the hereafter.
Countdown puts the building, the bricks themselves, front and center. Tonally the bricks and the sculptures mimic each other. It’s a reminder that despite their differences, complicated histories, they are clay objects forged from the same earth. Simpson’s works are situated in the Jewel Box gallery, a series of four glass enclosures that break up the façade of the building and create a sun-filled threshold, cutting into the sidewalk. It’s the museum’s public face, the one space that is always open, always free. The figures are frozen in time, as the speed of the world is on full display. There is a reflection off the glass from the outside, the place you are standing projected back at you. You become more mindful of how you stand; you re-acquaint yourself what and where you stand. It’s slow looking at its finest.
In opposite corners on the glass and the walls behind the sculptures sit flattened sundials with their corresponding vinyl design. Alluding back to the exhibition’s title this is the Countdown, the rare and elusive moment where the world is aligned. The magic hour as the sun rises and falls, where communication and connection happen in the form of perfect synchronicity. I stand, unsettled, waiting beneath these timeless sculptures with the suspense of the sun.
Rose B. Simpson’s Countdown is on view at SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah through July 16, 2021.