You know this kid. It's the first day of school, and your summer assignment—a personal essay about how you've spent the last three months—is due. Everyone is clutching a page of hastily penciled prose, written while wolfing cereal that morning, about making leather bracelets at YMCA camp and visiting the grandparents in St. Petersburg. Except the kid next to you.
This kid has boxes and dossiers on her desk. She has the bottle cap from every soda she drank all summer. She has the nail that she helped her dad pull out of a flat tire on a road trip, mounted on a map in the exact location where the flat occurred. She has an oral history from her grandmother, who lived next door to Lee Harvey Oswald, scrawled on a bedsheet from a Dallas hotel he stayed in with a vintage ballpoint pen from the Texas School Book Depository.
Two such kids have curated the new exhibit Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art at the Nasher. Trevor Schoonmaker, the museum's contemporary curator, and Miranda Lash of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, have gathered 125 works by sixty artists—most of them contemporary and many of them local—in two of the museum's pavilions, adding an extensive music library and an inch-thick catalog that serves as a literary anthology unto itself. Taken together, Southern Accent is less an exhibition than a speculative and critical archive of Southern identity.
It's impossible to tag Southern Accent with an overarching theme, which speaks to the curators' ultimate point: Southern identity is profoundly multiple and very complicated. Slavery, the Civil War, racism, and their complex inheritances? Much of the work in the show explores and interrogates that. Connections to place so deep that land and body become the same thing? Many artists unravel the warp and weft of that. The dissonance of the past's intrusion into the present? Most of the exhibition shimmers with that temporal disorientation.
Instead of packaging the experience into thematically organized galleries that fire the bullet points of a thesis at the visitor, Schoonmaker and Lash offer a highly informed and engaged onslaught of artists' approaches to these ideas, histories, traumas, and hauntings.
Tendencies, necessities, and obsessions emerge as you walk this show. Visionary aesthetics is one: a tendency to infest every inch of an artwork with such intense detail that it can't be apprehended as a whole. Work by notable visionary artists such as Howard Finster and Minnie Jones Evans, whose mandala-like drawings seem to hide arcane, figural secrets in their symmetries, sets the stage for massive tours de force by Ralph Fasanella and Deborah Grant. Fasanella's painting "American Tragedy" crashes together JFK's assassination and funeral in order to represent the complex causality list springing from that devastating moment. Grant's multi-panel, multimedia work "In the Land of the Blind the Blue Eye Man Is King" contains so many highly charged racial, religious, and nationalistic details, at so many different levels of pictorial scale, that a viewer cannot possibly see them all. The implication is that extreme mania is necessary for human experience. Otherwise you're willfully avoiding your responsibility as a witness to your times and are therefore complicit in the resulting abominations.
Many works feature, or simply are, architecture. "Family Tree House" and "Moonshine Man's House," Beverly Buchanan's small, descriptively titled wooden sculptures, force you to deal with the nasty Southern habit of aestheticizing the ramshackle and dilapidated. Bill Thelen, cofounder of Lump gallery in Raleigh, collaborated with Carrboro-based artist Jerstin Crosby on a dollhouse-size replica of Durham's former Biscuit King restaurant—recently razed to make way for a faceless block of luxury condos—that captures, in unromanticized detail, its idiosyncratic iconography (longtime Bull City residents can recite the window text: "Seafood Ham Chicken") as well as its grungy façade and boarded-up windows.
Four photographs of the same subject by William Christenberry in "Building with False Brick Siding, Warsaw, Alabama"—taken in 1974, 1984, 1991, and 1994—show the abandoned structure's gradual consumption by the landscape. A functional house on a dirt road becomes a patch of wild forest that barely reveals a rotted roofline in its foliage. These works show how quickly time, in the South, conspires with the landscape and the economy to mess with one's memory and sense of belonging.
Many artists flip that coin to show history's persistence in time and place, rising to an obsessive level. Four photographs from Jessica Ingram's series "Road Through Midnight: A Civil Rights Memorial" look like mundane shots of a mountaintop, a swamp, a front door, and an overgrown backyard, but they document the sites of racially motivated crimes and murders. Sally Mann's dim image of Antietam trenches, from her "Battlefields" series, seems to be a window in time that makes the ghosts around us visible.
Dario Robleto goes further in his installation "A Defeated Soldier Wishes to Walk His Daughter Down the Wedding Aisle," which appears to be a pair of boots leaving footsteps through sand. The boots, however, are sculpted from melted-down records of Skeeter Davis's "The End of the World," and the sand is a fine ballistic gelatin that, when mixed with water, forms a substance with the consistency of a human body, which militaries use to test ammunition. Southerners know that history marks and shapes each place, but we have to tune our attention to that elegiac frequency.
The epicenter of Southern Accent is a room containing work by some of the biggest names in contemporary art as well as one by a local artist placed very fittingly among them. The red-glitter glitz of Ebony G. Patterson's "Strange Fruitz" draws you in until you see the black legs hanging down from above, enacting the chilling song about lynching made famous by Billie Holiday. One wall shows four photographs from Carrie Mae Weems's "The Louisiana Project," in which the artist adopts artificially lyrical "historical" poses around a plantation and a cemetery to implicate the stories that racist power tells itself so it can sleep at night.
Pointing out the connection between slave labor and the rise of the American economy, the opposite wall pairs "belle"—in which Chapel Hill's Stacy Lynn Waddell has used a branded-paper technique to produce the image of a Southern belle with a slave ship's bell over her head—with Kara Walker's cut-paper work "Cottonhead, a Mouthful of Teeth and Spitting Seeds," in which racist stereotypes are simultaneously outed and cartoonishly subverted. The wall opens to a theater showing Walker's absolutely terrifying psychosexual fable "8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker." This is powerful artwork by supremely capable artists, and the intensity of their proximity is life-changing.
Although Southern Accent is not without its humorous notes—George Jenne's video "Spooky Understands" elicits deliciously uneasy laughter—the exhibition has an overall gravity on par with a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. It demands an emotional commitment, which you likely want to give because, after all, you are a Southerner. Whatever that means.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Luck of the Drawl"