Lighting a fire: Photography exhibition on view at Laney Contemporary

BEFORE WE GET into the good stuff, I’d like to announce that this is my final Art Beat.

I’ve resigned both of my positions at Connect Savannah, and by the time you read these words, my six-year tenure with this paper will have come to an end.

I want to thank all of you for reading my writing over the past three years. I’m so proud of our art scene and the talent we have here. It has been such a joy to learn more about the artists, gallerists and art lovers of all kinds in Savannah.

I’ve been honored to write this column for you all, and I’m grateful to anyone who has ever read it. Because of you, I feel fulfilled.

For my final column, I didn’t have to think hard about what I wanted to feature: the Steve Schapiro and Sheila Pree Bright photography exhibition now on view at Laney Contemporary.

click to enlarge Lighting a fire
"Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, and Other Activists March on Washington" by Steve Schapiro, 1963. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Laney Contemporary, Savannah, and Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta.

Our country is in a dark place right now. We’re experiencing civil unrest that rivals the environment of the 1960s. In many ways, it feels like our country has gotten relatively nowhere in the last fifty years.

This exhibition, “The Fire Next Time” by Schapiro and “#1960Now” by Pree Bright, is an artistic representation of that feeling. Schapiro and Pree Bright, both photographic powerhouses in their own right, document similar subject matter occurring fifty years apart.

Working in the 1960s, Schapiro documented the civil rights movement, including its leaders John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, and many more. The body of work on display is from Taschen’s recent publication, “The Fire Next Time,” which is an illustrated volume of Baldwin’s classic text.

Pree Bright has photographed the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly in Ferguson and Baltimore. Her photographs are included in the exhibition, as well as a short film entitled “#1960Now: Art and Intersections.”

click to enlarge Lighting a fire
"#1960 Now (#ATLisReady and Black Lives Matter Atlanta Chapter Protest Shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, Atlanta, GA)" by Sheila Pree Bright, 2016. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Laney Contemporary, Savannah, and Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta.

These bodies of work exist together in the space, creating a conversation that bridges generations.

“These two shows have similar subject matter but were 50 years apart,” explains Susan Laney. “I think the audio for the film really connects the entire show so beautifully.”

Laney Contemporary worked with Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta to present this exhibition, which will be on display through Nov. 7.

Back in the summer, Laney hosted in the gallery Jackson Fine Art’s owner Anna Walker Skillman, who loved the space and brought up the Schapiro and Pree Bright exhibition.

click to enlarge Lighting a fire
"VOTE, Selma March" by Steve Schapiro, 1965. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Laney Contemporary, Savannah, and Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta.

“She said, ‘Oh, we have an amazing exhibition right now that would be really great to have up during the election,’” recalls Laney, “and when I saw the exhibition, we made it work.”

This exhibition is beautifully powerful and fits well in the space, which allows for enough room to take in the moving work. It’s the beginning of a relationship with Jackson Fine Art, a gallery with which Laney is excited to work.

“Jackson Fine Art has been around for 30 years,” she says. “I’ve had so much respect for Jackson Fine Art since Jane Jackson owned it. She is brilliant, Anna is brilliant; they have such a great program.”

But this relationship is also indicative of one of the goals Laney has for Laney Contemporary, which recently—and quietly—celebrated its third anniversary of operation.

click to enlarge Lighting a fire
"John Lewis, Clarksdale Miss" by Steve Schapiro, 1963. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Laney Contemporary, Savannah, and Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta.

“When I started this gallery, I wanted to really connect in a way that was very celebratory of the talent we have in the region, but also in a way that was a little broader of a view,” she says. “It’s been fun having some of the bigger galleries and people that are connected in the art world come and visit, like Raster Gallery from Warsaw, Poland, came to The Grey and met us one night. Paul Kopeikin [from Kopeikin Gallery] is going to come visit in January. These people always come to Savannah and fall in love with it, because there’s so much character here. To be able to be a part of a cultural art scene here and be bringing other people in, making things expand in certain ways, it was really good.”

When Laney brings in artists and gallerists from around the world, it makes a big difference on our art scene. Savannah is wonderful, but we tend to be a little insular, and it’s refreshing to open up our home to artists from other places. As Laney points out, Atlanta and Savannah are not that far apart, yet there’s not much connectivity between the two scenes.

“I really am super interested in what goes on there and letting people know what’s going on here,” says Laney.

Ultimately, one factor that sets Laney Contemporary apart is Laney’s willingness to look outside the city limits for talent and bring in folks from a variety of different places. Before she opened this gallery, she worked in art fairs, which helped broaden her horizons beyond Savannah.

click to enlarge Lighting a fire
"James Baldwin, Colored Entrance Only, Durham, North Carolina" by Steve Shapiro, 1963. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Laney Contemporary, Savannah, and Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta.

Laney, however, is humble about her success with the gallery.

“I’m just happy we’re doing well,” she says. “I’m glad we’re doing regular programming and providing a wonderful place that is not a crowded place for people to have the opportunity to reflect and see artwork. I think artwork and the impact it can have on your being is super powerful. To be able to have all kinds of different people come in here on a regular basis, but it’s never crowded, we’re finding that it’s really working out so far.”

In its three years of existence, Laney Contemporary has done wonderful things for our art scene, and this exhibition may be the most important one yet. Schapiro and Pree Bright’s photographs feel relevant and important, reflective and almost prescient.