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‘Complex Uncertainties’ exhibit signals changing tide at Jepson 

Perhaps most exciting is the fact that several of the artists whose work is up for exhibition are still living today

click to enlarge Baseball Players by Elaine de Kooning
  • Baseball Players by Elaine de Kooning

TELFAIR Museums’ Jepson Center for the Arts is about to open one of its most important contemporary art exhibitions ever this month.

Complex Uncertainties: Artists in Postwar America, an exhibition of contemporary art from the Jepson Center’s permanent collection, will be on view starting September 30. The show will remain up for at least the next five years.

Featuring artwork spanning the gulf of history from 1945 to the present, Complex Uncertainties presents viewers with a vision of a uniquely American approach to artmaking as well as a portrait of the Jepson Center’s collecting history.

“It’s been a huge beast to wrangle together,” Rachel Reese, associate curator of modern and contemporary art, says. At the end of its years-long run, Complex Uncertainties will feature approximately 200 artworks from the Telfair’s modern and contemporary art collection, many of which haven’t been on view in at least a decade.

Those 200 artworks will be displayed through a series of rotations taking place every six months or so. Visitors can expect to see something new almost every time they return to the museum.

Currently, there are 35 artworks by 31 artists on display, including pieces by some real heavy-hitters like Ed Ruscha, Elaine De Kooning, Nick Cave, and Louise Nevelson. Sculpture, photography, printmaking, painting, and installation art are all represented.

For Reese and her team, representation in all its forms was at the forefront while selecting artworks for inclusion in the show. Of the 31 artists exhibited in the opening rotation, 11 are women, four are African-American and two are Asian.

Calculated decisions like the choice to represent the abstract expressionist movement through a huge Ethel Schwabacher painting or the inclusion of African-American artist Willie Cole’s “Five Stances for Domestic Defense” to explore experimental mark-making speak to the Jepson’s investment in prioritizing diverse perspectives. It’s refreshing to see within the confines of the Telfair institution.

Inside the space, works are given room to breathe but are arranged to cleverly instigate conversation among themselves.

For example, Frank Stella’s enormous “Bene come il sale” print (pulled from the museum’s Kirk Varnedoe Collection) is exhibited beside Louise Nevelson’s huge black assemblage sculpture “Mirror Shadow XXIII”.

Both artists were members of the abstract expressionist movement and exhibited their work together (alongside 14 other American artists) at MoMA’s seminal Sixteen Americans exhibit in 1959. Nevelson was the only woman artist included.

click to enlarge America Her Best Product from Kent Bicentennial Portfolio Spirit of Independence - by Edward Ruscha
  • America Her Best Product from Kent Bicentennial Portfolio Spirit of Independence by Edward Ruscha

Historical, thematic and aesthetic connections abound in Complex Uncertainties, though the overall unifier remains simply the artwork’s power within the context of history and within the Telfair collection. After all, as Reese says, “There’s no tidy way to talk about the past or to wrap it all up.”

Perhaps most exciting is the fact that several of the artists whose work is up for exhibition are still living today. This affords the museum the opportunity to tie in lectures and events.

“We’ll be able to bring [artists] to Savannah not only to speak about the works in our collection but just to hear them speak. Contemporary artists are living and working through the same things that we are,” Reese explains.

Plans are currently in the works to bring some of the featured artists in to give lectures.

Using the exhibit’s overall thematic exploration of American history as a jumping off point, the museum will show acclaimed director Werner Herzog’s new documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, on October 6.

Complex Uncertainties seems to mark a shift in the rules of order at the Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center.

The tides have been changing for a while–look to the museum’s renewed commitment to exhibiting local artists, investment in showing contemporary art and the work of living artists, and interest in community investment via events and partnerships with local arts orgs for examples.

That investment in living artists continues with Shake Out Your Cloth, an exhibit by contemporary artist Jennifer Levonian, presented in tandem with the Textile Society of America’s symposium in Savannah in late October of this year.

The Jepson Center will display a series of Levonian’s beautiful, irreverent quilts and present “Xylophone”, a hand-painted auto-biographical animation short by Levonian, in its auditorium. The film will run continuously during museum hours in a conscious effort, Reese says, to further activate the museum space.

These new initiatives leave me hopeful about the Jepson Center’s future as the community art touchstone Savannah desperately needs. With Complex Uncertainties, the Telfair Museums reassure us that it is unequivocally committed to creating a responsive, culturally-engaged space.

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Kayla Goggin

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