Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art

In her 1960 essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” writer Flannery O’Connor states, “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”[1] Aware of the deeply moralizing labels and qualifiers imposed upon her work and career-long subject of the South, O’Connor underscores a deep-seated awareness and frustration with the silly romanticizations, disturbing realities, and geographical divides that continue to dominate ideologies and interpretations of America below the Mason-Dixon line. The Speed Art Museum’s current exhibition, Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art, takes up the complicated collisions between history and reality at work in Southern culture and national politics. A collaborative institutional effort between Miranda Lash of the Speed Art Museum and Trevor Schoonmaker of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, this unprecedented exhibition presents a dynamic, heterogeneous landscape of artists who depict, refer to, or acknowledge the South within their practice and subsequently change or complicate the fantasies, myths, stereotypes, legacies, and contradictions that structure our understanding of the region today.

Barkley L. Hendricks. Down Home Taste, 1971; oil and linen on acrylic; 48 x 48 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Office of the Dean of Students, Cornell University (Ithaca, NY).

Barkley L. Hendricks. Down Home Taste, 1971; oil and linen on acrylic; 48 x 48 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Office of the Dean of Students, Cornell University (Ithaca, NY).

Caricatures of the South as backwards, unsophisticated, and inherently conservative are dismantled and put to rest by the vast richness and diversity of work on display, with the list of included artists forming a “who’s who” of American contemporary art—from Kara Walker and Amy Sherald to Theaster Gates and Kerry James Marshall. Southern Accent avoids many of the tired and problematic themes that tend to romanticize the South and dilute the heterogeneity of its citizens by including works that expand our visual field of who, what, and where the South actually is.[2] Barkley L. Hendricks’s life-size portrait Down Home Taste (1971)—a confident celebration of the Black urban experience, style, and everyday life—affirms a more fluid, expansive understanding of Southern-ness. Hendricks’s paintings (including this one) are often portraits of the friends and strangers who populated his life in various cities across the 1960s and ’70s. Down Home Taste presents a fashionable man lighting a cigarette with matches from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the North Carolina corporation of Winston-Salem fame. Taste—whether sensory, aesthetic, or nostalgic—is something that defies and crosses borders, mixing and marking people, places, and their histories in overt and subtle ways.

The exhibition does not shy away from the legacies of slavery, segregation, and racism in the South, and their impact on regional and national politics and culture. Commissioned for the bicentennial commemoration of the Louisiana Purchase, Carrie Mae Weems’s photographic series The Louisiana Project (2003) provides a powerful account of the ways in which slavery and racism continue to hide in plain sight across the South, like so many ruins. Clad in a softly patterned white dress, Weems bears witness to the spaces and sites where Black people were made to work, suffer, live, and die—sites that now act as monuments, cleansed of their dark histories, for tourist consumption and pleasure. The image of the cemetery emphasizes this liminal space, where the past, present, and future of racial politics and history live above and below the surface of everyday life.

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Odd Jobs

Odd Jobs: Neha Choksi

Welcome back to Odd Jobs, an exploration of artists’ varied and untraditional career arcs. For this edition, I spoke with Neha Choksi in the Otis College of Art and Design cafeteria. Choksi was born in 1973 in Belleville, New Jersey, raised in Bombay, and currently lives and works in Los Angeles and Bombay. She employs sculpture, video, photography, sound, painting, and performance in her work, which was recently exhibited at Hayward Gallery Project Space in London. Her work has also been shown at the Office of Contemporary Art Norway, the Spencer Museum, Whitechapel Gallery, and the Shanghai Biennale. She is on the editorial board of X-TRA, a quarterly art journal. This coming year she will serve as the Regional Representative for the Annual CAA Conference Committee. Her work is represented by Project 88.

Neha Choksi. The Sun’s Rehearsal, 2016; performance still and installation view (2016) at Carriageworks for the 20th Biennale of Sydney. Courtesy of the artist and Project 88, Mumbai. Photo: Neha Choksi.

Neha Choksi. The Sun’s Rehearsal, 2016; performance still and installation view at Carriageworks for the 20th Biennale of Sydney, 2016. Courtesy of the Artist and Project 88, Mumbai. Photo: Neha Choksi.

Neha Choksi: I guess this is an odd job right now: Otis [Otis College of Art and Design]. I’m an adjunct.

Calder Yates: What do you teach here?

NC: I teach video and I do senior studios. So, odd jobs. After I graduated from undergrad, I had a job at an accounting firm, filing and answering the phones. But I didn’t last very long. I left to go to India for a year. I was wandering with mendicant nuns and staying with my parents.

CY: Mendicant nuns?

NH: People who beg for their food. Within my family’s religion, which is Jainism, mendicant nuns are an order of female ascetics. Also I was DJing and hanging out with a lot of music people.

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To All the Futures We Can Imagine

Today, from our sister publication Art Practical, we bring you Jen Delos Reyes’s article from issue 8.3: Art can’t do anything if we don’t. Delos Reyes ruminates on the power of letter writing and the role letters have played in her personal and professional life. She ends this piece with the letter she would have sent to incoming art students, stating, “We need artists to understand social systems, political and legislative structures, to be skilled in non-violent protest and demonstration, and to understand how to organize creatively in their communities.” This article was originally published March 23, 2017.


I have been spending time recently reading the letters of influential Southern writer and activist Lillian Smith. I am working on a lecture for an upcoming symposium on arts and social change organized in her honor. Smith’s life work was dedicated to ending social and racial injustice. She did not see a division between art and politics and in her own life did not see the role of artist and activist as separate. Most people, she felt, are too quick to separate means and ends. In a letter that she wrote to an editor at the New York Herald Tribune, Lewis Gannett, she reflected on what the role of artists should be in a politically tumultuous, strained, and divisive America. “But of course there are times when we can take no more. We must have something to cheer us, to divert, amuse. But we should not ask our serious artists and novelists to be ‘good therapy’ for us; nor should we ask them to show us the ‘best America’—whatever that is. It isn’t fair to ask an artist to do anything but reveal to us human experience as he knows it; as he has felt it, dreamed it, experienced it.” Smith believed in the power of letters to affect change, and letter writing was part of her activism. Post-election, many of us have also been writing letters, mostly to our local representatives.

In 2015 I attended one of Fred Moten’s lectures at which he read several gorgeous, rich, and vulnerable emails he had written to his friends and colleagues. His words reminded me of how I want to communicate and how I want to reflect on what I encounter in my life. Inspired by his talk, I began a mostly weekly practice of writing letters to beloved friends scattered across the world. Letter writing is a form that I have come to embrace and use often for communication; the form lends itself to intimacy, to a kind of address that feels deep and direct.

From one of Moten’s poems:

the absence of your letter

shines in absent distance.

Read the full article here.


Shotgun Reviews

M/D: Coda at SFMOMA

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Carolina Magis Weinberg reviews M/D: Coda at SFMOMA in San Francisco.

Mickalene Thomas, Sista Sista Lady Blue, 2007; chromogenic print; 40 3/8 x 48 1/2 in. (102.55 x 123.19 cm); Collection SFMOMA, gift of Campari USA; © Mickalene Thomas / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Katherine Du Tiel

Mickalene Thomas. Sista Sista Lady Blue, 2007; chromogenic print; 40 3/8 x 48 1/2 in. © Mickalene Thomas/Artists Rights Society, New York. Courtesy of SFMOMA, San Francisco. Photo: Katherine Du Tiel.

In the current political moment, in which women and people of color struggle (as always, but now even more tangibly) for visibility, Matisse/Diebenkorn at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)—two canonical artists shown in cross-generational conversation—is a bit too pretty, perfect, and White-male-centered. Does Matisse need another show? Is this exhibition, heavily publicized by this major institution, relevant today? It’s a gendered imbalance of male painters of female subjects, again. As a Mexican female critic and artist, I enjoyed Matisse/Diebenkorn the way one enjoys art history that feels distant; like overhearing someone else’s conversation, I had the feeling of being somewhere I did not belong.

Yet, after I passed through the exhibition’s exit, one more room sparked my hope and excitement. Accessible without a surcharged ticket, this exhibition was also curated by Matisse/Diebenkorn curator Janet Bishop, and had its own wall text and title. M/D: Coda operates as a footnote—or even punctuation—to the main show, ending it with an ellipsis, rather than a full stop.

This appendix, which features Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Bechtle, Elizabeth Payton, Amy Sillman, Rachel Harrison, and Mickalene Thomas, brought Matisse and Diebenkorn’s influence into a contemporary dialogue by showing how their lineages extend to other artists across time. Most importantly, this gallery showcases artists of other identities. Whereas women are only subjects of representation in Matisse/Diebenkorn, M/D: Coda presents women as authors of images. Thomas’s Sista Sista Lady Blue (2007) struck me the most in this regard.

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Fan Mail

Fan Mail: Kristin Cammermeyer

Kristin Cammermeyer’s works are tributes to becoming. They render a sense that completion is an arbitrary concept, that anything that ends has more to do with one’s perspective than its inherent finitude. Her installations are constantly in flux, resulting either from her construction and deconstruction of the spaces they inhabit or from the multimedia videos that become both artifacts of the physical pieces and digital worlds all their own. Cammermeyer intertwines time and materiality to ask viewers to consider iterations of a space as an environment for a body and as a psychological and emotional landscape.

Kristin Cammermeyer. Elephant Art Space, 2016; site-specific mixed-media installation at Elephant Art Space, Glassell Park, CA; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist.

Kristin Cammermeyer. Elephant Art Space, 2016; site-specific mixed-media installation at Elephant Art Space, Glassell Park, CA. Courtesy of the Artist.

Many of Cammermeyer’s pieces involve found materials, placed in conversation within their installation sites, which she then documents or records to create accompanying videos. These video pieces extend her invented spaces and allow her to explore the conceptual effects of building and dismantling within a short time frame, collapsing and expanding the assemblage visually and aurally to consider the boundaries of structure and enclosure. At what point does something change from a building to a landscape to an ecology?

In the work 40 Days in 8332 Scenes (Generating a Psychic Ecology with Available Means) (2016), Cammermeyer uses stop-motion animation, shifting one’s sense of perspective with each added layer. The work’s kaleidoscopic symmetries convey affective associations—the gothic, science fiction, the natural world—that pull a viewer through an experience of psychic travel. The video begins with a view of the wall of the gallery, Elephant Art Space, in which Cammermeyer built the initial installation, and defines the viewer’s physical context. Then, emerging from the center of the screen, are a string of images: dark, delicate, almost Edwardian filigrees. From this first column, objects gyrate, whirr, and flash like strobes across the screen; the shifting light evokes passing days and nights, bird songs and animal calls evoke the outdoors. The image seems to breathe and grow, taking a viewer far beyond the immediate surroundings. From the edges of the video frame, feathery green ferns bloom and mix with industrial grating. Soon this chaotic, moving mandala acquires a deep-green hue and the shape of soft fractals. The video seems to have gone beyond the frame of the monitor, beyond physical space.

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New York

Latin American Circle Presents: An Evening of Performances

Fifty years ago, in conversations with Robert Smithson, Allan Kaprow referred to museums as mausoleums, and proposed the Guggenheim be emptied of all of its contents and presented as a sculptural form. [1] Today, we still struggle with bringing life into museums. In particular, performance work can be conceptually fraught in the museum when artists have circumvented the commodification and rarefaction of art by creating ephemeral works designed for the context of the everyday and the accessibility of public space. However, museums can also archive works for future generations to appreciate (as has happened with Kaprow’s documents at the Guggenheim), give artists their due institutional respect, and even disrupt traditional museological models that prioritize stasis and physically disengaged viewers. While the museum context benefited some performances in “Latin American Circle Presents: An Evening of Performances” at the Guggenheim on May 5, it also formalized works that were intended to reverberate off of the social and political life of public space, drawing on larger questions of how major institutions support site-specific performance works and how the museum attempts to engage its public through event-based programming.

Amalia Pica. Asamble, 2015; performance. Courtesy of the Guggenheim. Photos: Enid Alvarez © Sol-omon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2017.

Amalia Pica. Asamble, 2015; performance. Courtesy of the Guggenheim. Photos: Enid Alvarez © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2017.

For Asamble (2015), the first performance of the evening, Amalia Pica’s twenty-nine performers slowly and methodically entered the museum’s rotunda while carrying folding metal, wood, and plastic chairs and stools. As the procession snaked through the rotunda and ramp, they formed almost complete circles with their seated chairs, only to pick them up and begin moving again. The rotunda’s spiral ramp offered viewers a striking, panoramic bird’s-eye view of the mesmerizing piece, which echoed the rotunda’s curves.

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New York

Sophie Calle: Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery

The historic Green-Wood Cemetery is a sprawling, verdant oasis occupying 487 acres of northwest Brooklyn. For centuries, the site has been a sanctuary for mourners as well as a destination for day-trippers—sightseers, birdwatchers, and picnickers who meander landscaped paths and take selfies under blossoming trees. On April 29, 2017, a new memorial was erected on the summit of Grove Hill: a marble obelisk inscribed with the epitaph, “Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery.” So marks a twenty-five-year project created by French artist Sophie Calle in collaboration with the cemetery and Creative Time. Celebrated for her rituals, games, and long cons, Calle’s most unassuming and intimate interactions are often transformed into art. Here Lie the Secrets is a repository—a literal and symbolic final resting place—so that our deepest intimacies may be interred into the ground rather than carried with us to the grave.

Sophie Calle, Here Lie the Secrets of Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery, 2017. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery & Perrotin. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli.

Sophie Calle. Here Lie the Secrets of Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery, 2017. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery & Perrotin. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli.

As I approached the cemetery on foot through the neighborhood of Bay Ridge, I tried to think of a secret meaty enough to divulge. Calle was on site on April 29th and 30th to receive and transcribe secrets in person. Without taking pictures or names, there was a caveat that the artist “might keep a memory of your story, but it will remain anonymous.” Predictably, I came up with nothing—not an unfulfilled desire, taboo belief, or misdeed of any kind, so in lieu of writing something trivial or fabricated, I decided to leave my note card blank. Thus forgoing direct participation, I turned my attention to what appeared to be a number of cathartic confessions imparted to Calle by other Creative Time devotees. Between the two chairs, drama was high; the artist was present. However, for those of us lingering on the margins, the procedure of the piece proved challenging to engage. The marble obelisk is designed with a mail slot to inter secrets into a chamber below the monument for the next twenty-five years. Annually, Calle will return to Green-Wood to oversee the burning of the accumulation. On the heels of Creative Time’s 2016 programs—Duke Riley’s magical Fly By Night and Pedro Reyes’s haunting Doomocracy—Calle’s mediation of public intimacy registered among my fellow observers as a miss.

Calle is not a newcomer to social practice—intimate encounters with others is a hallmark of her oeuvre. In 1979, Calle surveilled a man through the streets of Venice to create her seminal work, Suite Vénitienne. More recently, her project Take Care of Yourself (2007) prompted 107 women to respond to a breakup letter through the media and vocabulary of their choice, resulting in 107 vignettes of dance, music, visual art, and written word. Where Here Lie the Secrets diverges is in the architecture of the open call. Participants were not selected—instead, they showed up. Moreover, only a small selection of secrets will ever be heard or seen by Calle, so by and large, public participation is not fodder for appropriation and fictionalization, as is the case with many of her formative works. With Here Lie the Secrets, Calle shifts the emphasis of the artwork from the story being told (and subsequently hijacked and rewritten into a creative project) to the gesture itself.

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