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southern art

Contemporary Art in the South:

Is The Southern Open Really “Southern”?

Does being born—or simply located—in the South make one, along with one’s art, Southern? Is making this distinction even of importance anymore? As the people of our planet increasingly move toward a shared global culture, it would seem that distinctions between individual cultures and their art are being erased. Many a critic over the past decade has bemoaned the homogenizing effect of international biennials, art fairs, auctions and/or secondary art education on the state of contemporary art. In the New York magazine article “Generation Blank,” which he wrote after returning from the 2011 Venice Biennale, the ubiquitous Jerry Saltz opined, “A feedback loop has formed; art is turned into a fixed shell game, moving the same pieces around a limited board.”  

One could fly around the globe all year long just to see and consume the same artists’ work. For instance, Dahn Vo and Amalia Pica’s contributions to the New Museum’s recent triennial, The Ungovernables, were shown previously in other biennials even though Vo and Pica are both somewhat new to the market. Also, the sun never set on the mildly nauseating contagion of “spot paintings” by the “King of Business Art,” Damien Hirst, as super-gallerist Larry Gagosian installed them in all eleven of his galleries across the globe earlier this year.

damien hirst

In the art world of the past, business took a backseat to the aesthetics and cultural specificity of art—at least in the wider discussion. In a recent article for Artnet magazine titled “Speed! Money and the Global Art Market,” critic/curator Piroschka Dossi notes that the discussion and emphasis of art has changed:

Art and money used to be incompatible notions. Today they are mentioned in the same breath: Art & Finance” is a new business sector, art funds move larger sums of money, curators gather with fund managers at Art & Finance conferences and, perhaps most dramatic of all, the criteria for evaluating art shift from artistic standards towards quantitative economic parameters.

Dossi goes on to assess that this shift in emphasis to financial capital has created a “global aesthetic” that is easily consumable across disparate cultures in order to maximize an artist’s salability around the world. Dossi continues, citing Sotheby’s star auctioneer Tobias Meyer who describes “the new esthetics of successful art in three words: nice, creative, friendly.” The works of Takashi Murakami or Jeff Koons come to mind. 

When one looks beyond the dollar signs, pop references, regurgitated conceptualism, and the academic rigor mortis of contemporary art, regional sensibilities and/or new cultural perspectives emerge. In the past, Regionalism, the Depression-era movement concerned with portraying local American history/concerns and elevating them to high art, was derided by the Modernist avant-garde for its supposed lack of sophistication in terms of form, style, and subject matter. Many Regionalist artists galvanized their careers within the American government’s Works Progress Administration, and because of this the Modernists associated the movement with the nationalistic kitsch favored by totalitarian regimes for use as propaganda. What the Modernists neglected to realize was that they were creating their own propagandistic program as well. The fruit of their triumph is today’s global art market—a rush of interchangeable identities caught up in a seemingly endless flow of cash.

Because of the dominance of the “global aesthetic” on current art practices, Regionalism is being touted as a necessary bridge to a more balanced and heterogeneous approach—though it is being revived with a different emphasis. The rubric of Critical Regionalism is ascending. Originally proposed as an advance in architecture which emphasized a conscious introduction of localized aesthetics and materials into the hegemony of Postmoderist discourse by architect and critic Kenneth Frampton in the 1980s, Critical Regionalism has expanded its scope to include the rest of the arts, along with other disciplines such as political science, sociology, and philosophy.

Within the Visual Arts, Critical Regionalism has come to be associated with a progressive localism that embraces activism and the power of the individual within and/or against the larger global political/aesthetic machine through art projects that empower individuals or localized organizations to maintain links to traditions while addressing pressing global imperatives.

In an interview in the Summer 2012 issue of Artforum with Michelle Kuo, the activist/cultural critic David Graeber states,

As an activist it strikes me that some of the most radical, most revolutionary movements today base themselves in indigenous communities, which are communities that see themselves as traditionalists but think of tradition itself as a potentially radical thing. So the deeper the roots you have, the more challenging things you can do with them.

What is one to make then of the Southern Open?

The Open is a regional juried exhibition featuring artists of all media (except performance) from the Gulf South that takes place yearly at the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette, Louisiana. For the past two years, the jurors were from New York City. This year’s iteration was juried by a Southerner: Rene Paul Barilleaux, a native of Lafayette and Chief Curator of the McNay Art Museum of San Antonio, Texas. By definition, this exhibition should be the most Southern of art events and a clarion call for regional revolution and distinction. The reality of the exhibition is actually more nuanced. Some of the art in the exhibition screams Dixie; some whisper it; others speak to the audience without any accent at all.

southern art southern open

The Grand Prize winner of this year’s exhibition is the New Orleans artist Lee Deigaard. Her multi-media installation, “Steady Star,” could have come from just about anywhere, not to its denigration. It is a Romantic piece, exuding a sense of dream and longing. Deigaard situates a daybed, draped with a horseracing blanket, in a room filled with hay and other equine accoutrements in front of a looping animation of a horse galloping in perpetuity. The animation was derived from a photograph of a child’s plastic horse. An audio track of a horse snoring travels through the room and reverberates across the entire exhibition.

Deigaard’s art routinely deals with humanity’s relationship with animals. “Steady Star,” in particular, concerns itself with the love many young girls have for horses—and the idea that true love never diminishes, it only grows more ardent, despite the harsh realities of life. (As the rake propped against the bed suggests, love merely needs diligent tending.)

For her effort, Deigaard received one thousand dollars and the opportunity to have a solo exhibition coinciding with the Southern Open 2013.

See more work by Lee Deigaard.

The second-tier winners were also New Orleanians. Alex Podesta’s sculpture, “Sleepers,” is the love baby of an affair between Surrealism and Pop Art. The artist fashioned a pair of twin mannequins in his own image. The mannequins hold hands and carry stuffed rabbit toys while confronting the viewer with vacant stares. In this sculpture, the disillusionment of adulthood is tempered by childish touches but is far from eradicated. Podesta seems to be saying that no matter how old we think we are, we’re never old enough to understand the complexities of life. In essence, we will always be eternal children in search of answers we’ll never really find (and even if we did find them, we would be completely unprepared to handle the consequences.

southern art alex podesta

See more work by Alex Podesta.

David Sullivan, the other second-tier winner, offers three pieces that also touch on childhood. He creates semi-abstract, cloud-shaped, 3D paintings by printing palimpsestic, digital graphics that are culled from cartoons, video games, and pop references onto cut aluminum and cardboard. The content of Sullivan’s pieces revolves around the BP oil spill of 2010. In such works as “Well Connected,” “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” and “Pump Me Up,” Sullivan explores the sinister labyrinth that connects the Gulf South to oil and gas production. The pieces are the fine-art equivalent of BP’s new commercial advising tourists to return to the Gulf Coast: cheerfully ominous.

southern art david sullivan

See more work by David Sullivan.

There were other standout artists in the exhibition. The Lafayette, Louisiana, artist Stephanie Patton delivers a deft body of Post-Minimalist wall sculptures made from various mattress quilting and stuffing that recalls pills or spell out the phrase “Friends Forever.” Patton also offers two conceptual videos concerned with the concepts of loss and healing from trauma.

southern art stephanie patton

See more work by Stephanie Patton.

The New Orleans artist Cynthia Scott offers two sculptures mimicking chandeliers which are composed of recovered plastics and metal wire respectively. Both pieces comment on the environmental problems of South Louisiana after the disasters of Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill.

The Lafayette, Louisiana, artist Troy Dugas, one of The Oxford American’s “New Superstars of Southern Art,” featured in Issue 76 (The Visual South) presented two large collages of product labels which take Pop materials in a wholly new direction—a zone of spiritual patternation akin to mandalas and stained glass windows.

southern art troy dugas

See more work by Troy Dugas.

The New Orleans artist David Armentor showed a tight group of adumbrative photographs of sugar mills and sugar industry workers, and the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, artist M R Barry came up with three abstract paintings on raw canvas that also operate as post-minimalist sculpture. One of Barry’s paintings sags ever so slightly off the wall, one seems to be severed with the bottom half creating a puddle of canvas on the floor, and yet another is pinned “face” to the wall with only a portion of this “face” falling into view.

southern art david armentor

See more work by David Armentor.

southern art m.r. barry

See more work by M R Barry.

Last year’s Grand Prize Winner, Luba Zygarewicz, presented her solo exhibition Thread in the ACA’s Side Gallery. Zygarewicz is a busy mother and wife, and she makes art from the detritus of her day to day existence, infusing a sense of Zen poetics into her materials. Inside the Side Gallery, the artist created a transparent room within a room. The “walls” are composed of the leftover tea bags from her nightly cups of tea (three hundred and sixty-five, to be exact) hanging from thread stretched taut between the ceiling and the floor. Salt lines the floor where the threads connect. A hanging sculpture composed of waxed tea bags arranged in a honeycomb pattern defines the fourth “wall” of the room. Within the sculpture one can faintly make out the word “life” written within it. Underneath the sculpture lay the piles of used tea that were extracted from the bags, arranged in descending order according to size. The installation is breathtaking. Through it, viewers come into contact with what a year in service to an ideal and a ritual can bring forth.

southern art luba zygarewicz

See more work by Luba Zygarewicz.

With all of these riches from the Gulf South, is the Southern Open 2012 merely regional?

Only a handful of works in the exhibition point in this direction. Most of the best art in the exhibition exudes a more universal tone. Out of thirty-three artists, just nine of them broach an overtly Southern discourse. 

What will remain after the exhibition are the questions: Is this how it should be? Should we be exploring what makes art “Southern” at all? If so, is merely pointing in that general direction enough, or should the exhibition include performances and projects which engage the audience in a more explicit dialogue of cultural specificity and activism against the tide of global homogeneity? Meanwhile, questions in the air, art continues its journey into the future, and one way or another, it is business as usual.       

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