The idea for the exhibition “Area 919,” currently at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, came about over the course of a series of museum, studio, and gallery visits arranged to introduce curator Marshall Price to the area after he relocated from New York City. What resulted is a strong exhibition, organized by the museum’s four contemporary curators, of work by 13 artists living and working in the Triangle region of Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill in North Carolina (whose area code is 919).
The artists were chosen for the quality of their work rather than a conceptual or formal connecting thread, although the layout enhances both meanings and imagery throughout the exhibition. From the museum’s atrium, dynamic gestures and bright colors pull visitors in with Exploded Hipster, a large wall installation by Lincoln Hancock in collaboration with the collective Yuxtapango. Band T-shirts, neon pants, plaid button-ups, and metallic, pleated, and otherwise whimsical frocks are tacked onto the wall, more tightly so on the left, suggestive of explosive movement. Each article stretches outward and upward to a visually riotous effect. The clothing, sourced from music lovers in the region, reflects the area’s strong contemporary music scene, such as the successful recording label Merge Records and the Hopscotch Music Festival, where this piece was originally installed in 2012. The other half of the installation’s title, “hipster,” refers to the people who might don those clothes, and suggests the question: which comes first, the image or the lifestyle? While the piece doesn’t offer a clear answer, it demonstrates the energizing effect of an intellectual, trend-seeking youth culture.
The gestures of Exploded Hipster repeat and reverberate in two nearby pieces, a wall-size print titled Melanoplus Swarm, by Jeff Whetstone, and a video playing on a monitor, Explosions in the Sky (Dien Bien Phu 1954) by Hong-an Truong. Whetstone’s immense black-and-white image, printed on Photo Tex, recreates the scale of the outdoors, but surreally and without color. Thousands of swarming insects are black dots that blend with a washed-out, gray-scale sky. Truong manipulated black-and-white footage of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the conflict that resulted in the end of French occupation of Indochina in 1954, to create frenetically paced imagery that is at first obscure. Visitors may use headphones to hear the accompanying soundtrack, a Vietnamese cover of The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel, which adds poignancy and clarifies the content of the video.
Speaking of emancipation, the striking assemblage, What Does Revolution Sound Like? by Andre Leon Gray, is in the same corner as Truong’s work. Each component of Gray’s piece refers to black activism. With tar on canvas, he painted a large-scale oval portrait of Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the 18th-century Haitian Revolution. The man’s skin is textured and his features smooth. L’Ouverture’s solemn likeness hangs over a rattan chair (similar to one that Black Panther Huey P. Newton sat in) that stands, thronelike, on a speaker box wrapped in camouflage. The speaker is silent and thus provocative. Boxing gloves (alluding to Muhummad Ali) hang over the arm of the chair. Although this work is from 2010, its allusions to empowerment and justice bring to mind recent protests of police brutality against black men, such as die-ins at shopping malls and people gathering on busy highways to bring traffic to a standstill.
Social change is at the forefront of Stacey L. Kirby’s work, Power of the Ballet, which here is in a more focused context than the site-specific performative installations where she often shows her work, such as her Declaration Project, (http://cargocollective.com/staceykirby/The-Declaration-Project-2013). Power of the Ballot is a large booth made of 100 stacked voting collection boxes, one for each county in North Carolina. The neutral, white-cube setting enables the booth to stand as a sculpture as well as an interactive piece. Viewers may step past bright green curtains at its entrance, climb a single wooden step, and ring a bell, whereupon a hand reaches out to provide a form asking what impedes you from voting. Kirby made the boxes after researching vintage North Carolina ballot boxes from the 1950s through the 1970s. Her use of the vintage is thoughtful.and considered; the wood grain and typed labels of each identical box are touchstones to the past— how long ago did women or citizens of color gain the right to vote? What outcomes would there be if we all could and did cast our ballot? Like watching a Mad Men episode, steeped in an aura of vintage authenticity, we may marvel at how the more things change, the more they remain the same. But Kirby makes her art to increase awareness and to mobilize to create real change. She will mail every form submitted to Power of the Ballot at the Nasher to a North Carolina Senator.
Lavar Munroe and Stacy Lynn Waddell ADD LINK have series of works on paper hung on adjoining walls. Their proximity to each other highlights their common use of ornate beauty, repetitive mark making, and storytelling to share intense subject matter. Munroe’s mixed-media works combine collage, graphite, and pink neon marker with incredible draftsmanship. Handwritten notes are a vital part of each composition, the words describing trying situations, such as verbal exchanges in prison and rats being stabbed by makeshift weapons, with an overarching narrative of overcoming obstacles despite all odds.
Waddell has two scenes of tropical beaches and a paper relief with gold leaf, Moby Dick. The beaches are made with the repeated marks of a branding iron with watercolor, Austrian crystal, and collage. The branding iron is used to damage the white paper to describe palm trees and a shoreline, conjuring a setting that can be read on many different levels. One potential narrative is that it depicts the setting where slaves where transported in the 18th and 19th centuries. Moby Dick is made with gold leaf on paper, each delicate, shimmering, pane of gold accumulating to form a solid rectangle with the book’s title etched into the gold.
Across the gallery from Waddell’s works is a video by George Jenne, Knowing Me (knowing you), in which a man’s upside-down, whiskered chin and mouth fills the screen. A museum guard told me that she thought it was an animal when she first watched it. Although I could identify the mouth immediately, I understood her point, as the visual frame’s dramatic perspective abstracts the speaker’s body and has an initially bewildering effect. We don’t ever gain access to this character’s eyes during his arresting, second-person narrative, in which he tells us, as he begins to clip his beard, that he changed his name. He speaks to you as a lover, describing bouquets of perfect flowers, drunken nights, and the son you have together. The story becomes progressively more violent as his hair dwindles to stubble; at the end of the nine minutes, he is clean-shaven.
Harrison Haynes’s gridded series of six framed, inkjet prints focus on the part of furniture that we do not typically gaze at, but rather rest upon. In each frame, the upholstered cushions are cropped so the seams, creases, and stains make quiet compositions and lovely colors, all the more appealing for their specificity.
Jeff Bell, Casey Cook, Damian Stamer, and Bill Thelen also have works in the exhibition. It is a rich and concise show that facilitates new conversations between distinct bodies of work and also, hopefully, between the artists themselves. This regionally focused show is done well, and I can see it as the beginning of a series taking place at the Nasher every five years or so.
“Area 919” is on view at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University through April 12.
Shana Dumont Garr recently relocated from Raleigh, North Carolina, where she was the director of programs & exhibitions at Artspace, to the Boston area, where she is an independent arts writer and director of Kingston Gallery in Boston’s South End.