The quality of light in Savannah is definitely the town’s main attraction. Filtered through a canopy of trees, it plays softly on the surfaces of buildings and along the ground among the cast shadows of leaves. Inside, light enters through the slats of blinds and shutters and rests in patches on objects. Is this what slows us down and creates the sweet desire for unproductive idleness? Given a chance, one could sit and watch this play of light for hours. The Telfair’s new Jepson Center for the Arts is a work of art in itself, a kind of kinetic sculpture that uses this Savannah light filtering through its numerous skylights. Natural light of this intensity is however the enemy of any man-made visual art that is not made of impervious stone or steel, so the galleries have to be protected from it. Here then is the challenge: how to find contemporary art that will draw viewers away from the wide open indoor/outdoor experience of the walkways and into the necessarily artificial light of the galleries. An art that will not be upstaged by the architecture. To have chosen Robert Rauschenberg for the main inaugural exhibition makes sense for a number of reasons: he is blue chip brand name artist from the middle of the last century, whose reputation, according to the critic, Robert Hughes “suffered a dip in the 1970s, but now is on the rise again.” Currently, there is a major exhibition showing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York devoted to his Combines from 1953-1964. The Jepson Center is showing recent works, four from the Short Story series (2000-2001), each 7’ x 5’, and ten works from the more recent, Scenario Series, using an even larger format, 7’ x 10’ each. This new work continues Rauschenberg’s method of constructing paintings by piling on transfers of photographic images, often overlapping and duplicating so that they read as flat surfaces or bulletin boards. The result is a mirror image of our image-saturated society. All surface with no illusion of depth, a dizzying effect similar to a familiar style of film editing in which each frame is a disconnected and seemingly unrelated picture. Rauschenberg’s images tend to conform to accessible categories: vehicles of all kinds - trucks, cabs, and bicycles- assorted street and traffic signs, various foods, construction sites, public buildings and monuments. The most recent Scenario series departs from the usual format in that it incorporates large areas of negative space. But the images don’t float freely in that space; they are anchored to the surface through constant cropping by the frame. “Party Line” (Scenarios, 2003) has two image columns, one a two-way street sign, the other a traditional British red telephone box. They are joined together by two telephone wires, and four rectangular images showing a yellow cab door, two street scenes and a stained glass window. A party-line is a telephone line shared by two or more subscribers. Party lines used to be common in Britain, at least until the 1980s, when Thatcher privatized the phone company and phased out the old, red street corner phone booths. The reality of the party line was that you were constantly entering the phone conversations of (usually) complete strangers, providing opportunities for the pranks of children or the amusement of bored office workers. Whatever Rauschenberg’s intention with this work, it may say something about the playful and arbitrary nature of his image assemblages - an apparent meaningless babble created by the seduction of the crossed lines of non-communication. However, the intention may be merely more formalist, his point being to deconstruct the illusionistic space and linear perspective of photography by adhering to the modernist convention of integrity to the picture plane. There is another approach to breaking down the unnatural perspective prison of photographic representation. In fact, we do not see the world from one unmovable position or, as the painter, David Hockney puts it, with our head stuck in a clamp. In reality, our eyes are always moving. If you stand in a room and draw or photograph one corner of a facing wall, then turn your head to do the same with the other corner, the line that joins the two is a curve. Human vision is, in fact, panoramic. In the small Kane Gallery that leads off the larger one that contains the Rauschenbergs, there is an exhibition of works by his photographer son, Christopher Rauschenberg. These photographs have been constructed in three parts, by shooting to the left, then to the center, then to the right of a scene, and assembling the parts seamlessly. The result is a curved panorama in reverse perspective that is close to our visual perception of the world. It is as if we are walking through the scene rather than viewing it voyeuristically from a window. But what is particularly haunting about the experience of these photographs is that whether the view is Milan, Pompeii, Potsdam or Louisiana, in the work of Rauschenberg, the younger, the viewer walks alone. Walking alone is not however what his father has chosen to do in life. From his close association with Jasper Johns in the 1950s, his work with John Cage’s “happenings” and the Merce Cunningham dancers in the 1960s, his Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange in the 1980s and his entourage of devoted helpers, he has always seemed to be an artist in search of collaborators. In the individualist, celebrity atmosphere of the art world, this cannot be easy. At the Jepson he shares the main Steward Gallery, with one of his assistants, Darryl Pottorf, whose photo transfers with their rich accumulation of images and iconography of street signs and monuments reveal a debt to Rauschenberg. But while Rauschenberg’s imagery has a pollyanna Americana feel to it, Pottorf’s obsession with barbed wire and monochrome suggests a darker vision. The best works here however are the collaborative series with the collective title, “Quattro Mani” which means four hands and refers to the musical composition created for two pianos. These collaborations are two-layered works, the first being Rauschenberg’s color photo transfers on paper of fruit and flowers and buildings, which have been then overlaid with Pottorf’s black barbed wire images on lexan (a transparent material). The sunny American optimism is threatened by imminent catastrophe, a little like finding a Robert Mitchum scene from Night of the Hunter inserted into the Sound of Music. It would seem that in creating meaning, four hands are better than two. In his long review of Rauschenberg’s current exhibition at the Met in New York, Robert Hughes suggests that Rauschenberg may be the best American artist of the 20th Century. Hughes claims that he has been underrated (because his work is open and not intimidating), in comparison with Jasper Johns, who is regarded by the majority of critics as more intelligent. “So the notion grew that joyous and woolly Rauschenberg wasn’t really as smart as the retentive and poker-faced Johns,” Hughes says. Apart from the fact that this smart aleck “Which is the best product?” comparison between “brand names” is pretty silly, it also harks back to the “painters have to be stupid” cliche that Duchamp rebelled against. But fortunately at the Jepson we now have an opportunity to develop our own opinions. The two small Levitt and Varnedoe Galleries are now showing a collection of works, predominantly small prints donated to the Telfair by twenty-two artists in memory of Savannah native and Museum of Modern Art curator, the late Kirk Varnedoe. Most of the names of American Pop Art, Minimalism and Conceptualism are here, and some others less classifiable. But of all these works, there are only two I would want to take home with me: a small, untitled photogravure of a spider’s web, 2002, by the Latvian artist, Vija Celmins, an artist whose work I have admired for over a decade; and an untitled intaglio print, 2001, by Jasper Johns. Johns’ print, in two shades of brown, contains five sections, made up of three small squares and a horizontal and a vertical rectangle. The first square contains an image obscured by vertical stripes, the second, a swirling galaxy or maybe the eye of a storm, and the third, a 19th Century photograph of a family group portrait. Below these in the horizontal rectangle is a night sky with a full moon or planet, disappearing at the left, top corner. And at the right side, the vertical rectangle contains a lozenge design and three small stick figures at the very bottom. A rope image loops from the lower left of the print to the top right, as if pinned, with the excess lengths hanging down. This intriguing work does not explain itself, like prose, nor is it arbitrarily constructed to mystify. We may not know the possible personal references of the symbols, but its meaning is communicated through its geometric structure. It is built on the Golden Section and the Fibonacci series, that are the mathematical underpinnings of all nature, from the smallest organism to the cosmos. “There will always be collectors, “ writes Robert Hughes, “who will line up to pay millions for some prissy piece of self-referential boredom by the immortal J. J.” It is hard to see, on the basis of this small, poetic print, what could possibly prompt such lashings of resentment. But with the Jepson Center, we have at last in Savannah the opportunity to see for ourselves what the art world is talking about, ignore the critics and make up our own minds. w
Bertha Husband is a native of Scotland who has studied art at Oxford University and Ruskin School of Fine Art. She has an MFA from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Her art criticism has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Somnambulist, and Left Curve.