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reggie rodrigue contemporary art in the south

Contemporary Art in the South:

An Introduction

If ever there were a region of the world made to exemplify the postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida’s term hauntology, it is the contemporary South. Our collective history, the good and the bad, seems to hang in the air, trapped between all of the humidity and the scents of honeysuckle, mold, and motor oil. This is the essence of Derrida’s philosophical entity: Hauntology shows us the past as it exists and is perceived from inside the present.

In the South, we generally keep our skeletons, ghosts, and weird uncles and aunts close-by. These shadowy reminders of days gone by can hold the keys to our hearts and minds in the present. Because the present in the South is touched or even hounded by the past, and not just the recent past (i.e., Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, and the violent, super cell of tornadoes that ripped across seven Southern states in 2011). Consequently, it is only natural that much of Southern contemporary art looks back on all of the grandeur, tradition, triumph, tragedy, evil, and decay embedded in a history that we still sense or try not to.

However, this is nothing new. In the mid-twentieth century, New Orleans–based photographer Clarence John Laughlin created a wide swath of hauntological work that fused Antebellum and Gothic aesthetics with the then-concurrent aesthetics of Modernism. Since then, hauntology (even though the term wasn’t coined until 1993), in one form or another, has been a near constant companion to Southern art. It has become the de facto weapon of choice to address issues of regional and personal identity, memory, and history in the contemporary Southern artist’s arsenal.

Some of the most exciting and alert Southern contemporary artists have their visions firmly rooted in both the past and the present, and their work points to unresolved issues along with a possible trajectory into the future. While we all hurtle toward the virtual/digital singularity that seems inevitable and chaotic, these artists remain tethered to a tradition, thereby preserving their, as well as our, connection to what makes us all Southern and, more importantly, essentially human.

One such artist is Shaun Richards. Since 2006, he has resided in Raleigh, North Carolina. Richards is currently working in a more universal/pop-conceptual vein, but over the years, he has completed a number of paintings that explore the persistence of Southern memory and how it haunts us today. (Richards’s work also appears in The OA issue 76, The Visual South, as one of the New Superstars of Southern Art.)

“Southern States” is a prime example of such a work. It is a painting that is as contemporary as it is riddled with nostalgia and decay. A self-absorbed, veiled woman in white sits incongruously like a relic in the foreground of a shadowy Southern manse. The silhouette of a chandelier projects through the darkened home, exposing a collage of pages from Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, which operates as a support for the layers of images in the work. 

shaun richards

See more work by Shaun Richards.

In the 1957 novel, Rand writes about a number of professionals living in a dystopian future who abandon society to send it a message about personal liberty. In Richards’s work, the pages allude to the fallout of such abandonment: Children walk around aimlessly and gaze into the distance from the front lawn of the home while birds circle overhead in a cloudless blue sky. A serialized pin-up is also exposed under the layers of the piece. Each of these images within the painting reeks of nostalgia and a loss of innocence. However, the pictorial arrangement and the presence of an irregular grid of squares mimicking digital pixelation, which infiltrates the work from the sides of the canvas, snap viewers emphatically back into the present.

“Southern States” is a visual treatise on the status of the South today as it tries to come to terms with existing between a tragic past and a digitized, abstract, and possibly indifferent future.

Oviedo, Florida, artist Ke Francis’s woodcut print “Rabbit Trap, Tar Baby and Flood Waters” delves into the intersection between racism and ecological disaster. In the knotty image, a naked African-American child is stranded in rising flood waters while a car burns beside him, someone is trying to cut his way out of a building, and a woman’s body floats by. Associations with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans cannot be escaped. Despite having obtained full civil rights, African Americans in the South still must deal with the social racism that continues to issue from the wound that slavery and Jim Crow laws left on the region. Today, racism typically operates insidiously. It is only exposed in the aftermath of a trauma such as the way that the mostly black, poverty-stricken residents of New Orleans were trapped in the city once the flood waters of Katrina began to rise. Francis’s vivid print is a reminder and a warning that we still have to go further with our efforts to care for one another and to progress as a cohesive society. 

ke francis

See more work by Ke Francis.

Aside from its human toll, the architectural devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was also extensive. Entire neighborhoods were gutted and left for dead. It is New Orleans artist Hannah Chalew’s chosen path to document this. Her drawings, paintings, and sculptures of decrepit and abandoned buildings on overgrown, vacant lots act as a documentary of trauma, an elegy, and a neo-Romantic view of nature and its resilience in the absence of human intervention. These works have the air of ruins about them, yet Chalew consistently manages to rest them into our present moment through a brash use of gestural strokes and ingenious craftwork. A work such as “Threshold” is a testament to that. (Chalew’s work also appears in The OA issue 77, Best of the South 2012.)

hannah chalew

See more work by Hannah Chalew.

Nashville artist Vesna Pavlovic’s “Display, Desire” mines similar territory as Chalew’s work in that it invites viewers to visually explore vacant architecture, although Pavlovic’s homes have never been occupied. “Display, Desire” is a slideshow of black and white photographs of new model homes. In this sculptural installation, Pavlovic uses an anachronistic piece of equipment—a slide projector—and the associations we have with black and white photography, along with the color red, to cast a pall over contemporary Southern materialism. The viewer is left to move between the projections and live between the clicks of the slide carousel in a seemingly eternal cycle of death and rebirth that exists in furnished, but metaphorically empty, luxury.

vesna pavlovic

See more work by Vesna Pavlovic.

One can feel a similar sort of existential frisson while viewing the spare, silhouette drawings of the Atlanta artist Matt Haffner. In these works, Haffner offers reductive black and white images of Southerners living amongst old buildings, streetlights, telephone poles, gas stations, and helicopters. The silhouettes are ghosts haunting Haffner’s scenes. These are urban images, yet they seem frozen in a denatured expanse of opaque gray.

matt haffner

See more work by Matt Haffner.

The mood is that of an alienated, film noir from the 1950s, but many of the visual cues within the images tell a different, more contemporary story. Works such as “Street Corner Preacher” seem to announce the dawning of a dark age of digital anonymity for the South, as his cutouts stand in for our own highly mediated avatars today. They announce our own withdrawn presence in society. Somehow Haffner manages to create works that seems both dynamic and inert or vapid and loaded with import.

It is in works of art like the ones mentioned above that we can find our daily truths and begin to understand where we come from, where we are, and where we may be going as Southerners. They aid in bringing our present moment into focus and raise one’s thinking through the blood, guts, pain, and anxiety of life. This level of existential awareness is rarely accomplished with comedy or kitsch, although this column will occasionally alight on those steps as well. However, for now, we are in the domain of tragedy and shadow. It is the domain of true art and the collective consciousness. From it, a stairway to redemption rises if one is willing to climb and learn from the experience.

Here, in this column, we will climb, and fall, and climb again together.    

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