Less adornment can offer more meaning

Less adornment can offer more meaning

BENTONVILLE–Sometimes the simplest artistic expressions are the most provocative.

That’s the case with primitive folk artists such as Arkansans Essie Treat Ward (her work, much of it focused on the whimsical antics of pioneer couple Miranda and Hezzakiah, is on display at Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale) and Spot Daniel (visit Little Rock’s M2 gallery in the SoMa neighborhood to view his distinctly original rooster, razorback, and cat paintings).

In contrast, “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse,” organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and showing at Crystal Bridges of the American Arts, is a serious and substantial undertaking that examines the aesthetic and musical traditions of Southern Black culture in the past century, many of which are common in contemporary America.

It’s a raucous, turbulent, immense and immersive experience that engages multiple senses through sculpture, paintings, photography, street sounds and dialogue, works on paper, assemblage, textiles, and music including instruments, videos, costumes, lyrics, and personal effects to explore the relationship between music and visual art in Black Southern expression from 1920–2020.

Genres such as spirituals, gospel music, jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, funk, and Southern hip hop can be heard echoing throughout the gallery space. Artists like Sister Gertrude Morgan, Bo Diddley, James Brown, Sun Ra, and CeeLo Green are featured through sound and personal effects.

Still, for me, the most affecting works in the show, which gets its name from an expression that is part of the culture of Southern hip hop music, are the quietly impacting examples of primitive and folk art tucked among looming metal structures, Nick Cave’s camouflaging soundsuits, beat-thumping music videos, edgy and violence-tinged film clips, and an assortment of found and crafted objects that defy definition.

Among my favorites is Mildred Thompson’s experimental “Wood Picture” (1965), a minimalist sculpture made up of found and manipulated wood fragments arranged in a rectangle. Thompson, a Black woman from Florida who spent much of her career in Europe, was interested in science and nature and sought to transcend what she saw as the racist and sexist politics of her time by focusing on an abstract evocative of collective human history. The wood picture on display at Crystal Bridges consists of fragments arranged to suggest a landscape, with each piece suggesting a stroke of the artist’s brush.

Another is “Plantation Houses” (1949) by Samella Lewis, who grew up in New Orleans and became a pioneer in art history; she’s known for screen prints that illustrate the age of civil rights and Black liberation. Its concept is echoed in the kindred subject matter of “Melrose Plantation” (early 1910) by Clementine Hunter, a self-taught Black folk artist from the Cane River region of Louisiana who lived and worked on Melrose Plantation, also known as Yucca Plantation, a National Historic Landmark in Natchitoches Parish in north central Louisiana; it’s one of the largest plantations in the United States built by and for free Blacks.

Sister Gertrude Morgan’s “Rose Hill Memorial Baptist Church” (1965), an 11″ by 14″ acrylic, tempera and crayon on paper painting that resides in New Orleans’ Ogden Museum of Southern Art, is accompanied by a recording of the artist singing in the gallery space where it’s displayed.

“Man with Woman, Woman with Man” (1996) is by Jimmy Lee Sudduth, a folk artist from Fayette, Ala., known for using mud mixed with sugar, molasses, or Pepsi and other natural products in his painting.

Sanford Biggers’ “Khemistry” (2017), antique quilt patches stretched into an angular star shape on a three-dimensional birch frame, embodies the concept of capturing expression within a static form. “What I want to do is code-switch,” Biggers told an interviewer from The New Yorker in 2018.

My absolute favorite is “She Kept Her Conjuring Table Very Neat” (1990), a work by Renee Stout consisting of found and manufactured objects consisting of a low table–reminiscent of an altar–laid with items from West African religious rituals that are intended to activate forces that communicate with the souls of the dead. It’s eerie and delightful and hard to forget.

The exhibit continues through July 25. Admission is $12; free for members, SNAP participants, veterans, and those ages 18 and under.

While you’re nearby, visit The Momentary’s exhibit “Rashawn Griffin: We no longer recognize the backs of our hands,” through Sept. 25.

After spending several weeks in residence at the Momentary in 2021, Kansas City-based artist Rashawn Griffin was inspired by the possibilities posed by the space’s unique architecture, prompting the question: “How can I paint this room without actually painting it?”

The result is hard to describe, but entrancing to experience: an immersive installation that uses mirrors, wooden frames, bed sheets, tassels, food, and flora in ways that emulate painting and sculpture.

Although the Momentary galleries will be largely empty between March 29 and early May, visitors can view the Griffin exhibit, tucked into a small, tall and challenging space in the rear of the gallery, through Sept. 25.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.



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