LOUISVILLE

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.

Carrie Mae Weems. Untitled (Woman Standing in Cemetery) from The Louisiana Project, 2003; gelatin silver print; 20 ¾ x 20 ¾ in framed. Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery (New York City, NY).

Carrie Mae Weems. Untitled (Woman Standing in Cemetery) from The Louisiana Project, 2003; gelatin silver print; 20 ¾ x 20 ¾ in framed. Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery (New York City, NY).

In addition, the exhibition includes work dedicated to exploring and recognizing more recent changes to urban and rural demographics due to growing populations of Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, and other immigrant communities, while creating space for Native American, LGBTQ+, and women artists. Diego Camposeco’s Tabaco (Tabacco), from the 2015 series Diego Saves the World, articulates the ethical spectrum of human rights, environmental, and labor issues in the growing communities working in agricultural industries across the region, specifically in the tobacco fields of his hometown of North Carolina.[3] Overwhelmed and surrounded by green tobacco plants, the male figure of a worker stands in the landscape with his face masked by the children’s cartoon animal-rescuer, Diego, as a way to articulate the emancipatory power and growing presence of this marginalized community under attack by the current political administration.

Diego Camposeco. Tabaco (Tobacco), from the series Diego Saves the World, 2015 (printed 2016); inkjet print. Courtesy of the Artist.

Diego Camposeco. Tabaco (Tobacco), from the series Diego Saves the World, 2015 (printed 2016); inkjet print. Courtesy of the Artist.

Our notions of how we think about the region, its culture, and American identity overall are put to the test in this exhibition—timely in the wake of one of the nastiest presidential elections in recent American history, and one that was shaped in part by a long-term rift between urban and rural regions. As the removal of monuments to the Confederacy across the South unearths deep-seated rage on both sides of the political spectrum, violence toward Black bodies continues to rage on, and attacks on immigrant communities escalate, how will we begin to address these issues in an era of national division? Leaving the exhibition, I realized that Southern Accent is not just a presentation of the long-ignored complexity of the South and its culture, but a resistance to a long history of geographical stereotypes that reproduce social divisions in American culture. The South is many things, and it is in “the many” that its richness is to be found.

Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art is on view at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, through October 14, 2017.


 

[1] See Flannery O’Connor, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” (1960), in Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works (New York: The Library of America), 1988, 814–815.

[2] The Historic New Orleans Collection’s current presentation of rare guidebooks to houses of prostitution and directories for sex workers operating in the bayous of southern Louisiana, Storyville: Madams and Music, articulates the ways in which images of the Deep South have been mishandled by institutions of art and culture, often romanticizing and/or domesticating racial, gender, and class-based inequalities rather than critique them. See Pamela D. Arceneaux and Emily Epstein Landau’s accompanying text for this exhibition, Guidebooks to Sin: The Blue Books of Storyville, New Orleans (New Orleans: The Historic New Orleans Collection), 2017.

[3] Diego Camposeco was featured in Jose Antonio Vargas’s article on testifying on behalf of undocumented immigrant rights in “My Family’s Papers” for the New York Times, February 12, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/13/opinion/my-familys-papers.html

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