While an expansive array of art remains to be seen this winter in New York City – with the weather as cold as it has been – it is definitely advantageous to seek out warmer climes. Winter Notations focuses this season on selections from the Savannah College of Art and Design deFINE ART 2014: SCAD Museum of Art exhibitions.
Sam Nhlengethwa: Life, Jazz and Lots of Other Things, thru June 22nd
To pronounce an African artist’s name – a student once advised me – you need to keep rolling your tongue past the last syllable without hesitation. It’s a musician’s approach to riff that could well be extended to life: roll with the rhythm, trust in the beat, and come out the other side having merged momentarily with another’s composition. South African artist, Sam Nlengethwa, having amassed thousands of vinyls along with a turntable in each room of his home, distributes his canvases throughout so that he keeps in motion, executing various artworks simultaneously, while listening to his jazz favorites (Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, et al.) as he circulates.
This same wandering infiltrates the work itself as the artist builds composite scenes of the city – a painter of contemporary life, Baudelaire might have called him – as Nhlengethwa observes closely the love, conflict, toil, and play that was life in the townships during the artist’s youth and continues as daily routine in an ever-changing Johannesburg. “I am criticized for not making political work during apartheid,” he told me over dinner this week, “but it was more important to me to affirm our lives as human beings.” This, too, is political!
Nlengethwa owes a debt to African American painter Romare Bearden – the discovery of collage as medium, his dislocation of compositional space, and the infusion of indignation within the ordinary – the rapport is inescapably visible in his paintings. But in his tapestries, he finds a medium that suits the playfulness of his vision, its potential for forthright appraisal – akin to Hannah Ryggen’s protest of fascism in the 1930s and 40s – as yet untapped. It is, however, in a series of small black and white works on paper that he sharpens the edge of his critique. Glimpses of the Fifties and Sixties (2002-3) is a suite of 30 collage photographs that blend the harsh realism of the era with endearing portraits culled from his own family album.
“Why now?” he was asked, “now that it’s over?” But is it ever truly over? Through an overlay of street, factory, and domestic scenes, we see both repressive regulation and determined resistance resonating through the bittersweet conversation of life’s struggles. In considering now what was then, Nlengethwa circumnavigates time to suggest that security is never sufficient motivation to relinquish vigilance. Like the riff within the jazz that motivates his creativity, human dignity is his consistent refrain.
Alfredo Jaar: Shadows, thru June 29th
Cruelty always comes as a shock… and Alfredo Jaar – this year’s deFINE honoree – spoke, in his keynote speech, of “signals of distress,” noting the wide range of responses to economic inequity, lack of political representation, and the accumulation and manipulation of information. “To change the order of a reality that is given,” he declared, “artists must create models of thinking.” Before acting, comes understanding and Jaar achieves this most effectively through the power of an essential idea. For his exhibition at the SCAD Museum of Art, he limits himself to two works: Faces from 1982, exhibited for the first time during his Berlin retrospective in 2012, and Shadows, commissioned by the museum to premier during the festival. Both look to what Jaar calls the Golden Age of photojournalism – a postwar, pre-Internet era when photographers worked as investigative reporters, risking their lives in conflict zones to tell a story in the format of black-and-white photo-essays.
In Faces, Jaar pairs newspaper clippings with a single face, extracted from the crowd and enlarged, to “rescue it” – he claims – from anonymity and oblivion. This concept of rescue – a kind of reframing of the content within a new context – also applies to The Sound of Silence (2006), without a doubt Jaar’s most successful work, which is a theater dedicated to a single image about world famine and our relationship to it. In that case, the artist rescued a Pulitzer-prize-winning photograph, by the South African photographer Kevin Carter, from controversy and reclaimed its significance as a signal of distress. Eventually he decided to realize a trilogy of works dedicated to a single image. Shadows (2014) is the second in the series.
The focal point is an image of two young women, overwhelmed by the death of their father, a campesino shot by Somoza’s National Guardsmen. It was taken by Dutch photojournalist, Koen Wessing, in Esteli, Nicaragua in September 1978, while covering the Nicaraguan revolution. Drawing on Wessing’s photo-essay methodology, Jaar fashions an immersive experience different from that of The Sound of Silence, whose blinding flash punctuates a didactic narrative text. Shadows tells its story only through pictures; again with blinding light but coupled with darkness creating an impression of the spectator’s shadow merging with the silhouettes of the two young women.
We follow a corridor lined with three backlit images that open the story; then drawn into a wider space, we see the figures: two women wail in ecstatic grief, their bodies upright but limp, bending into curves evocative of a deposition by Giotto. The background fades to black focusing on the women alone; after 10 seconds the image of the women slowly fades to white until a complex system of LED lights take over from within the screen and the light becomes so intense it can be painful. Then darkness. The viewer inadvertently perceives the shadows of the women dancing throughout the space, perhaps even merging with his/her own shadow, tottering along with the women, a feeling of disequilibrium taking over. As we exit, three final images complete the story, grounding our perception once again with information.
The afterimage effect of the women’s silhouettes is imprinted on the mind’s eye; there is – and will remain for a long time – a visual memory of this dance of death. But, again, who makes the connection between what happened then and what’s happening now? Jaar is trusting: “If people make an effort to look, it will communicate.” But will they care? Information + empathy: both are necessary for an active response.[*]
Tim Rollins and K.O.S: RIVERS, thru June 8th
The work of K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) is imbued with history. Tim Rollins speaks like a spiritualist of “communing with the past” referring to the great literature that is both literal and figurative ground of their painting. Though he has a preference for the New England Pragmatists – Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, and W.E.B. Du Bois – and also the Transendentalists – Henry David Thoreau – he says they select the books that inspire the work through intuition, circumstance, and a desire to go into new territory. For this exhibition, they chose Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for the river and for the character of Jim, creating new work in alliance with the Esther F. Garrison School of Visual and Performing Arts in Savannah, Georgia, based on Duke Ellington’s ballet score for The River and W.E.B. duBois’ Darkwater.
I’ve known rivers.
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than
the flow of human blood in human veins.
“It’s hard to make a painting after 1500 years of tradition,” Rollins attests and then adds, “But it echoes the ethos of our project to make a communal history.” Looking back in adherence to tradition, literary classics, and camaraderie of male voices, the project, nonetheless, adds color to the white canon.
My soul has brown deep like the rivers.
And K.O.S. is forward thinking in its affirmation of the individual’s contribution to collective goals and the belief that development “comes daily, bit by bit, and step by step” from the ground up.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
And though it may launch its raft on the river of history, it does this – as one K.O.S. member, Rick Savignon, so aptly puts it – “So I can speak to people when I’m gone.”
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
History refutes its burial in monuments, archives, and secrets. It aggressively creeps into the present as reverberating echoes of circuitous events. Fortunately, there are those – Sam Nlengethwa, Alfredo Jaar, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. – who embark upon a circumnavigation of time: backward and forward but, also, present in their work here and now.
[*] This excerpt is a preview of a feature-length essay on this work to be included in an upcoming issue of afterimage, November/December 2014.
 This and the following excerpts are from Langston Hughes’ poem: “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1994.
 Excerpt from W.E.B. Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (1920).
N.B. Credit line for the home page lead image for this essay is: Koen Wessing, Estelí, Nicaragua, September 1978. Image courtesy of Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.