24 years ago this month, at Alan Sondheim’s suggestion, Xenia Zed and I published an artist pages issue of Art Papers devoted to “Love and Death in the Old South.” It featured memorable contributions from any number of since-legendary and not-so-legendary Southern artists.
I was one of the not-so-legendary artists; my contribution was a quotation from Margaret Mitchell collaged onto an appropriated photo of martin gourd birdhouses (plus columnist Celestine Sibley‘s reflection on ads for martin gourds as a sign of spring). Mitchell wrote in a letter, “Being … one of those short-haired, short-skirted, hard-boiled young women who preachers said would go to hell or be hanged before they were 30, I am naturally a little embarrassed at finding myself the incarnate spirit of the Old South.”
In the mid 1980s, the topic of the postmodern South was a big thing. I wrote several essays on the topic that unfortunately are not available online. (Bibliography upon request.)
Then the very idea of “the postmodern” went away, and now we live in nameless times.
But the question of Southern art has heaved into view again, courtesy of esteemed ex-Nexus curator Teresa Bramlette Reeves and current Kibbee Gallery curator Ben Goldman, in an exhibition titled Southern Art? at Georgia State University’s Ernest G. Welch Gallery that runs through July 29.
I want to approach the topic, however, by way of another artwork, in Goldman’s other current off-site curatorial effort, America at MINT Gallery.
Jim O’Donnell has produced a conceptual send-up of the South’s reactionary side with a series of documentary photos of the relationship between Confederate General John B. Gordon and his pet bunny rabbit, which appears under the general’s arm in a formal photograph, and on the plinth of the statue of the general mounted on horseback on the grounds of the Georgia State Capitol.
O’Donnell’s sculpture of the rabbit actually did repose on the statue for two days with an appropriate subsidiary plaque identifying it as General Gordon’s pet. Then it was discovered and removed, but not before appropriate documentary photographs had been taken.
A letter was then written to Governor Perdue, from a historical restorationist society headed by one R. Mutt, complaining about the removal of the rabbit from General Gordon’s statue and demanding its replacement in the name of maintaining the General’s honor.
The Duchampian prank at MINT treads on toes belonging to persons not noted for their sense of humor. But it raises the issue of regionally specific conceptual art—which is not the same thing as regional art. The whole tangled heritage of Southern conceptualism can be summed up by the question mark in the exhibition title Southern Art? The work at GSU is both Southern contemporary art and contemporary art about the South—two more things that are not identical.
Bethany Joy Collins declares that her allegories of the The Traceable Amount (of African American blood determining racial identity) reflect her interest in “multiple meanings, dual perception, and limitlessness in the seemingly binary.” This could be taken as the motif of the whole exhibition.
Joey Orr records himself attempting “the impossible task of reinstating my Southern accent … auditory evidence of my historically situated surroundings,” discarded in the years since 1974 as an embarrassment, “a geographic repository of material failure.” The rolling rhetoric is itself exceptionally Southern, whether Orr manages to drop his terminal “g”s again or not.
Lisa Tuttle’s repurposed family photographs are mutely eloquent revelations of historically situated surroundings, whether showing two African Americans seated solemnly next to her grandmother’s family in Bowling Green, Virginia, circa 1914, or presenting University of Virginia medical students posing bizarrely with a dissected African American corpse in about the same time period.
Stephanie Dowda and John Paul Floyd’s Family Ties seems to be a more innocuous recollection of the South of the 1940s and 1950s via such things as a message on a vintage postcard and cyanotypes reproducing family photos. There may well be a darker agenda than the typewritten motto, “We are propelled forward by the past,” but at first glance that’s the sole message. [Disclosure: Stephanie Dowda is a member of this publication’s Board of Directors.]
And that may be the totality of C. Vann Woodward’s “burden of Southern history” for a younger generation. However, the duo of TindelMichi present Prospero’s line from The Tempest, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” as an allegory of Southern Relics. John Tindel’s solo work declares, “They wanted us to whistle Dixie—we just didn’t know the tune.” Michi Meko presents the less baleful quintessence of the rural South in the uses of collards and—yes, indeed—martin gourds.
Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier’s The Awakening: A Tree Remembers has been exhibited previously, like Tuttle’s two works and one or two other pieces in the show. However, it adds crucially to the topic of the return of the repressed—in this case linking clear-cutting today to lynching in an earlier era.
Ben Venom’s heavy-handed but brilliantly executed Venom Dip Collection of snuff tins offers the sort of generation-bridging social satire that one would expect from a self-proclaimed son of the dirty South who also earned his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. “Georgia Snake Handlers” and “Northern Aggressor March to the Sea” are among the brands of Southern venom offered here.
The mix of generations in this show makes for a look at the Southern condition that is richer and more multidimensional than it otherwise would have been. Reeves and Goldman have gotten work from esteemed veterans such as Katherine Taylor and Radcliffe Bailey and from artists whose work is unknown to most audiences in Atlanta. The curators ought to consider expanding their show (which was originally planned in complement to an international conference on Southern literature) and taking it on the road.