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Ambivalence and historical reckoning: Reflecting on art in an uneasy year
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Ambivalence and historical reckoning: Reflecting on art in an uneasy year

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This year began on an ambivalent note, in visual art as in our increasingly fragile-seeming society.

Contemporary art aficionados who’d survived 10 months of a horrendous pandemic and four years of chaotic national politics were ready for a change, like just about everyone else. Art venues had been shuttered for half of 2020, and a vaccine for the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus had yet to be fully vetted and distributed. But by the beginning of the year, things were back up and running on a limited basis, allowing us to visit museums and other cultural institutions again.

Soon after art galleries and museums reopened, a number of them became forums for works about racial identity and social protest — art that addressed the upsurge in racially charged conflicts across many sectors of U.S. society in the post-Obama years.

Credit the trend to a convergence of factors, including a critical mass of contemporary artists responding to these issues in their work, and an unofficial consensus among curators and arts administrators that much of this art merited showcasing.

Owens Daniels has emerged as Winston-Salem’s most highly visible artist working in this vein. He has established a reputation for making socially-themed studio photographs as well as documentary images of life on the street, including visual chronicles of street protests. His photo-based art generally carries a strong message, often involving racial identity and related issues. Powerful examples were featured or showcased in several of the year’s most provocative local exhibitions.

There was Daniels’ turn at Artworks Gallery in March, when he showed a photo mural about local street protests and a separate, large-format image of motorcycle policemen, juxtaposed with red splatter marks and text excerpts from police reports.

Then in the summer he sampled several bodies of photo-based serial work at the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts in a solo show titled “When the Revolution Comes.” It included studio portraiture, street photography and content-charged texts, assisted and enhanced by the digital technology Daniels employs as an essential tool.

Examples of Daniels’ work are on view in a solo show at the Delta Arts Center. Last year, he had a small exhibition at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art.

This year, SECCA presented several exhibitions by other artists whose work emphasizes Black identity and related issues. First on the calendar was local artist Ashley Johnson’s “Mark Yourself Safe,” an installment of the center’s “Southern Idioms” series. Johnson made photographs inspired by a dream of runaway Black boys with bright orange shapes painted on their backs, building a series that encourages critical self-examination about attitudes toward black skin.

Until well into the 20th century, having black skin often put individuals at risk of vigilante violence in much of the United States and especially the rural South. This shamefully horrific history was referenced in another SECCA exhibition, “Hanging Tree Guitars.” On view in the summer, it featured N.C. blues artist Freeman Vines’ ingeniously slapdash, homemade electric guitars alongside blues preservationist Timothy Duffy’s evocative photographs of Vines, his creations and the place where he makes them.

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Vines lives in a part of eastern North Carolina that was controlled by the Ku Klux Klan during much of his life. The show’s title alludes to a nearby tree on which at least one Black victim was reportedly lynched. Vines used wood from this tree to make several pieces in the show.

Most of Duffy’s photographs were formatted as old-fashioned tintypes, lending them a rustic, antique-looking appearance. These informal portraits of Vines and views of his remote, rural house and outdoor working area managed to evoke the past while documenting the present. The layered view permeated the exhibition, rendering it a kind of crossroads, where contemporary viewers encountered a past too long hidden.

And then there’s SECCA’s current show, “Black@Intersection: Contemporary Black Voices in Art,” which opened last month and continues through April 17. Organized by guest curator Duane Cyrus, who teaches choreography, art career strategies and related subjects at UNCG, it samples the work of 25 Black artists who explore aspects of Black identity. The emphasis is on portraits and related works that depict Black figures in a range of roles, most often as heroes, martyrs and/or strugglers against racial and social oppression.

Timely and thought-provoking for different reasons was an innovative exhibition at Reynolda House, “Cross-pollination: Heade, Cole, Church, and Our Contemporary Moment.” On view in the spring, it brought works by three American virtuoso painters of the 19th century (Thomas Cole, Frederic Church and Martin Johnson Heade) together with contemporary art reflecting present-day conceptions of a natural world that humans seem bent on destroying. The combination highlighted changing cultural perceptions of nature over the last two centuries.

Contemporary artists represented in the show were Juan Fontanive, Jeffrey Gibson, Paula Hayes, Patrick Jacobs, Flora C. Mace, Vik Muniz, Lisa Sanditz and Rachel Sussmsan. Four curators from three institutions collaborated to organize this show, and one of those institutions — the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Bentonville, Ark.) — oversaw its national tour.

Also worthy of a special mention at year’s end was the successfully completed restoration of the “Memory Wall of Peace and Love,” a highly visible public sculpture downtown. Commissioned by SECCA and the Winston-Salem Transit Authority, it was created in 1999 by the late Gregory Warmack, aka Mr. Imagination, around a concrete taxi stand on Trade Street, directly behind the Campbell Public Transportation Center.

Employing a technique he had used with other commissioned pieces, the artist covered most of the structure with wet cement in which he embedded keepsakes and artifacts donated by local citizens. He completed the piece by adding figural reliefs on the outward-facing surfaces and in-the-round sculptures along the top.

Over the years, it deteriorated and suffered damage from vandals, until the city’s Public Art Commission opted to support its restoration by the locally-based nonprofit DENT Creative Reuse Center and Art Laboratory. That group’s director David Brown collaborated with local sculptor Duncan Lewis and other local artists to perform the work, the results of which were formally unveiled in early August.

The most stimulating art exhibitions I saw this year were both out of state — in Richmond and Atlanta respectively. In late July, I spent the better part of a day at Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Art, taking in the extraordinary group show “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse.” Bringing together an astonishing array of works by 120 modern and contemporary Black artists, it emphasized Black culture’s pervasive influence on the South and the nation.

And this fall at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, I was wowed by a solo exhibition by the late self-taught visionary artist Nellie Mae Rowe, who spent the last half of her life drawing and making dolls in her small, profusely decorated house on the city’s northern outskirts. Having enthusiastically followed Rowe’s work for 40 years, I was delighted to see this substantial selection, including a scale model of her house.

Titled “Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe,” the show is accompanied by a gorgeous 275-page catalog. It’s still worth a special trip to Atlanta, where it will remain on view through Jan. 9.

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