THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
By Peter Chametzky
A Black man stands offering his broad back to the viewer. Clad in camo pants and capped in the stars and stripes he contemplates the Pledge of Allegiance, embossed onto a glowing gold leaf ground. All-American and strong, but vulnerable in his Hanes. Such is the image and effect of Clarence Heyward’s painting, PTSD a timely stand-out in this year’s “ArtFields” in Lake City, SC, the eighth edition since 2013. The Clayton NC artist’s statement in the TRAX Visual Art Center asked: “What happens when you are Black and grow up to realize that the allegiance that you have to America isn’t reciprocated...When you ‘fit the description’.”
From April 23 to May 1 ArtFields 2021 showed 330 artists in forty-one venues ranging from small shops to large spaces like TRAX and others created in former agricultural markets and processing sheds, including the cavernous “R.O.B.” (“Ragsdale [Tobacco] Old Building”). Billionaire businesswoman and local native and resident Darla Moore’s vision of art building community and jump-starting the economy of this whistle-stop in the rural, central inland Pee Dee region seems, at least on the street-level, to have paid off. An expanding program of permanent public murals and sculptures provides art year-round. And a volunteer work force assisting the paid staff brings diverse ages and races together. Upscale boutiques, coffee shops, wine bars, and even a downtown hotel now rub elbows with stalwarts such as ArtFields venues Joe’s Barbershop, Pirate’s T-Shirts Plus, and Bold and Sassy Boutique. Owners and organizers curate the works to match the business’s sensibilities and ambiences. In Joe McGee’s barbershop, for instance, a grooming and gathering spot for African American men, figurative works tend to focus on heads while probing souls, such as this year’s Merit Prize winning Reinvention by Atlanta’s Levon Parrish.
Lake City, South Carolina, April 23, 2021. L: Joe’s Barbershop, R: Herman A. Keith Jr. From This Moment Forward, 2016. Mural inspired by Gee’s Bend Quilters, 100 W. Main St. Photo by Peter Chametzky.
With a top prize of $50,000, ArtFields bears comparison with Grand Rapids’ more lucrative “ArtPrize.” With the caveat that I have only toured ArtPrize once, my impression is that ArtFields is closer to documenta in the range, quality and contemporaneity of the work on display than to the more populist ArtPrize. Asked, then, why ArtFields limits entries to artists working in twelve southern states, Executive Director Jamison Kerr, a cosmopolitan native of the region, states: “these artists need to tell their stories.”
ArtFields’ works are juried into the show by outside experts, and prizes are awarded by a separate jury. This year’s jury included rising artworld star Jacolby Satterwhite, who spoke at the awards ceremony about coming home to South Carolina and recalling how art had empowered him to tell his story as a young Black and gay man. Satterwhite was in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in the "About Face: Stonewall, Revolt and New Queer Art” in 2019 at the Wrightwood 659 gallery in Chicago. Many of the stories ArtField’s artists told in 2021 related to their identities and that of our country. Numerous White male artists ruminated on their feelings of both privilege and privation. (Q)quilt by Chris Lawson of New Orleans recalled at first glance folk art or Rauschenberg’s Bed riffing on it. Lawson’s statement started: “As a white male born and raised in the South I’ve thought a lot about ways to address my complex and abject ancestry,” and went on to reveal in words and pictures his familial history and his debt to horror movies and queer cinema.
Overt references to Trump were largely absent, but were present in two critical pieces: Ashley Tayler’s Destroyer/Disgrace and Cherie Bosela’s Verbatim. Only one or two pieces made explicit references to COVID. Racial justice and injustice, as well as resilience and reading, seemed more to the fore, as in Heyward’s painting and the first prize winning work by Charles Eady of Ocala, FL. The painting Anna portrays a character from Eady’s book, Hidden Freedom: The South Before Racism. The eponymous, folded arm heroine of the frontal portrait pledges to “read myself free.”
The town that tried to bar Ronald McNair from borrowing books from the public library now honors the MIT Ph.D., who became our second African American astronaut and who tragically died in the January 1986 Challenger explosion. He is remembered with a monumental memorial and a learning center that tells his story and serves as an ArtFields venue. This year its dominant piece was Church Mothers by Zaire McPhearson of Durham, NC, five steles celebrating the Sunday hats crowning African American women and the multiple, difficult journeys they traverse, represented by the stacks of warped and rotatable books supporting the busts.
Zaire McPhearson, Church Mothers, 2020, plaster, books, wood, paint. 60.5 x 14 x 14 inches.
Ronald E. McNair Center, Lake City, SC. Photo by Zaire McPhearson.
New Histories: the Gadsden Farm Project, a social practice piece displayed in a new and atmospheric venue, The House on Church Street, by Michael Austin Diaz and Holly Hanessian of Asheville, N.C., was an installation similar to Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party on the history of Gadsden County, Florida, “once a thriving agricultural center...now the poorest in the state...and the only...with a majority African American population.” Featuring live produce and ceramic plates dedicated to farming families and crafted by Hanessian, and redolent of the alfalfa hay beneath the table, the installation also included recorded interviews with residents softly wafting through the wainscoted dining room.
Micheal Austin Diaz and Holly Hanessian, New Histories: The Gadsden Farm Project, 2021, multimedia installation. 36 x 36 x 120 inches. Photo by Susan Felleman.
In Bold and Sassy Boutique, Teddy Pruett of Lake City, FL, showed Whatever Happened to Baby an assemblage of children’s clothes with witty, Ringgold-like story lines stitched into them, such as: “Lattie Amelia loved to sing but no one wanted to listen so she sang to the chickens. They were okay with it.” In Pirate’s T-Shirts Plus a simply sophisticated interactive political piece by Cody Gatlin of Johnson City, TN invited people to begin Paying for America’s Sins by (illegally) stamping likenesses of Harriet Tubman or Chief Joseph onto U.S. legal tender.
Sisavanh Phouthavong Houghton, who won the top prize in the painting category in the 2019 Artfields, for Clustered Debris: Secret War on Laos, a large-scale geometric acrylic abstraction inspired by the brutal American bombing of Indochina. Born in Laos, Houghton’s earliest years were spent in refugee camps before the family finally found refuge in the United States. Now a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, her 2021 Transparent Voices consisted of hundreds of rice bag sections loosely stitched together with gold thread and hung tentlike in the R.O.B., with each panel photo-printed to bear the ghostly likeness of a fellow refugee with name and number emblazoned across the chest. The floor was strewn with artificial marigolds while the form and sway of the piece movingly evoked movement, migration, and temporary shelter. Another hanging piece in the same space, Proletariat by Masela Nkolo of Duluth GA, consisted of dozens of recycled and deconstructed lanterns reconstructed into small animal-like creatures. They commemorate the abused Congolese children who mine the cobalt that powers our devices and the neo-colonial extractive economy.
Video, sound, and light installations were also present among the many paintings, textiles (abstract, representational, metaphoric), sculptures and installations, as was the impressive thirty-five minute dance film, Birth of Pleasure by Anicka Austin and Lev Omelchenko of Riverdale, GA., inspired by the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche and by Audre Lourde. The multiracial company enacted bodily movements and group rituals “which teetered between episodes of violence, humor and joy.”
Through the high quality, sophistication, and diversity of their work, ArtFields’ 2021 artists engagingly allowed us to see, to read, and to listen to their stories, as we all dance on the volcano that is these United States.
Peter Chametzky is Professor of Art History at the University of South Carolina. MIT Press will publish his new book, Turks, Jews, and Other Germans in Contemporary Art, in September 2021.
Sisavanh Phouthavong Houghton, Transparent Voices, 2021, fabric, gold thread, sticky rice, fake marigold flowers, metal rods. 240 x 180 x 180 inches. Photo by Sisavanh Phouthavong Houghton.
Clarence Heyward, PTSD, 2020. Acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 61.5 x 49.5 inches. Photo by Susan Felleman.
Levon Parrish, Reinvention, oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches. Photo courtesy of Lake City Artfields Collective.
Chris Lawson, (Q) Quilt, original photographs and mixed media on fabric. 78 x 64”. Photo by Susan Felleman.
Teddy Pruett, “Whatever Happened to Baby?”, 2020. Textiles. 75 x 75 inches. Photo by Susan Felleman.
Charles Eady, Anna, oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.
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