Last year when the Jepson Center opened, I made a comment in my review that it would be a challenge to find an art that would not be upstaged by the architecture.
Last weekend I went to the Jepson again. This is what I have to say.
The Steward Gallery is very large, a great space for installations and cohesive, well-curated exhibitions of substance. What is on view, however, appears to be a haphazard selection from a mediocre collection of American 20th Century works, and since these are mostly of a mannerist nature, the show serves to remind us that mannerism has dominated much of what we call Art since about the 1950s.
By “mannerism” I mean the kind of work that seeks to reproduce the superficial appearance of a style, without any of the passion and struggle that went into its first creation. We can see mannerist abstract expressionist and mannerist color field works here, empty vessels.
There is a work by Tom Wesselmann, a brand name artist who is represented in the exhibit by a mannerist reference to his own work in the beginnings of the Pop Art movement. Larry Rivers, another almost forgotten artist from the ‘60s, is included by a very large painting of figures on the subject of the holocaust, overshadowed in my mind by a much better work on the theme by Christian Boltansky: something resembling a snapshot of a woman’s face, enlarged to the point almost of abstraction, showing a half-hidden smile and framed above a shelf holding an open, empty suitcase.
Sylvia Mangold is here represented by one of her 1970s series of minimalist paintings of sections of floor, which are really more interesting for their passionate observation of light on a surface than this simple statement can convey,
I do want to comment on the number of local artists who have donated their own works. It made me wonder if museums are obliged to accept all such donations, and if not, how those they do have were chosen; and if so, how the museum will find adequate storage space for all of them.
If, on the other hand, it is just a service to the artists who can then add inclusion in the museum’s permanent collection to their resume, maybe the town’s viewing public is being shortchanged.
Going into the smaller Kane Gallery, we find an exhibition of African-American painters, some local (Luther Vann, Rudolph Valentino Bostic) and some very well-known artists represented by their prints (Romere Bearden, Jacob Lawrence).
There are some fine examples of sculpture too, one by Vernon Edwards (Harriet Tubman) and John Mitchell (Shotgun Shanty), and a Ulysses Davis wood carving, among others. I remembered it was African-American History Month just as I was becoming annoyed by the segregation of these works from the Steward Gallery show. And although I can see a reason to showcase them separately, it might be more useful and even important not to do so.
But in the end I was grateful that they did choose to show African-American artists separately, as I was easier able to appreciate their evident superiority. Far from the tame and the tedious, the works in this gallery are set in their own real world and have an honest vision. I’ve known many non-artists who saw and felt the general emptiness in the facile, art careerist gesture of so many paintings but believed it was their own lack of knowledge which kept them from their appreciation.
For all those who are unsure of their judgment in an art gallery setting, I say, trust yourself. It is significant too that the works in this gallery have been purchased, not donated. The artists here have enough self-respect not to donate their work.
But some purchases are altogether inexplicable. One in particular, “Bison,” stands out for me. Set in an empty space, it is indeed, a large bison, and looks as if the artist did a quick sketch from a photograph that didn’t include much information, and then chose not to add anything to it. It is a bison in the mists, if you will.
Next to it on the wall is a statement from the artist, one Kate Javens, who tells us that she has done this artwork in honor of Oscar Neebe, one of the self-proclaimed anarchists who were charged with the bombing at Haymarket Square in Chicago in 1886. As a matter of further fact, the eight anarchists convicted of this bombing were all organizing for the eight-hour workday and were framed in order to remove them from their political work.
Oscar Neebe was sentenced with two others to 15 years, and the five remaining were executed (one of these, Louis Lingg, killed himself in prison to cheat the hangman’s noose).
In researching Javens on the internet, I found that this is her forte: each work consists of a simple icon-like reproduction of a form of wildlife “dedicated” to someone or other. The choice of her imagery may make no sense to anyone but herself, however, and I am not enlightened by her explanation of “Bison.”
I quote: “I have chosen the bison to personify Neebe for its archetypal American-ness and for its intense herding instinct.”
Since all of the anarchists were recent German immigrants (not a Native American among them) and since it is offensive to call union organizing a symbol of the “herding instinct,” I can only imagine that our Kate fell into a swoon over a nickel and lost her bearings. This museum could do with someone devoted to “de-acquisitioning.”
However, there is, thankfully, a show of excellent worth and a great deal of intelligence and, yes, charm, on view. I refer to “Telling Tales,” works by Nancy Hooten. She hails from Gainesville, Ga., and now calls Savannah her home.
The brochure tells us that Hooten, a painter and printmaker, art educator and administrator, began an interest in beadwork in 1991, after she discovered a box filled with fabric scraps and exquisite seed beads in the attic of her childhood home, the remnants of her mother’s work as a seamstress. By the following year, Hooten had completed her first beaded works, including one of her mother, made with a photograph on cloth backing and adorned with fabric pieces and the incomparable beads.
These works express better than anything what I was trying to say previously about “mannerism.” There is certainly none here. There is infinite care and attention and individual meaning lavished on all of these moving and beautiful works which qualify them as worth your time.
Wit is not lacking, either. And a bittersweet, dark sensibility, very feminist, very understated, mythical even, can be seen at work here.
I particularly like the one entitled, “The Ex-Wife,” which has a three dimensional, luminously black beaded raven set on a branch outside of and looking into a cosy domestic setting, with its matching arm chairs facing a warm fire. While the brochure tells us the raven expresses the alienation experienced through divorce, I like to think the viewer would be better served by a more complex reading, perhaps something stronger, more active, even sinister.
After all, birds at the window have not been “displaced” and do not want to enter the house. In many familiar tales, they are there to warn.
I’m looking forward to my next visit. With a new director in place I am hoping soon to see international contemporary art of the quality of, say, sculptor and installation artist, Mona Hartoum, a Palestinian born in Beirut; or maybe the fascinating South African, William Kentridge, who uses video, drawings, special techniques of animation and mixed media paintings to express his complicated vision of the past and future of his country.
The artists in town would benefit enormously by a dose of cold water from the world outside, and we would one day see the results.
Art from the Permanent Collection: African-American Art, through March 4; and “Telling Tales, Works by Nancy Hooten,” until July 8 at the Jepson Center for the Arts.
Bertha Husband graduated from the Ruskin School of Fine Art at Oxford University and has an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her art criticism has appeared in Chicago Reader, Art Papers, Third Text and Left Curve.