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Spirits in the wood: Exhibition at SECCA highlights home-built guitars and other works by a self-taught artist from rural eastern North Carolina
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Spirits in the wood: Exhibition at SECCA highlights home-built guitars and other works by a self-taught artist from rural eastern North Carolina

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Timothy Duffy’s work as a folklorist and musicologist has long been familiar to traditional-music enthusiasts in and well beyond the North Carolina Piedmont.

In 1994, Duffy co-founded the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides basic assistance to neglected Southern musical innovators, especially blues musicians, whom it also presents in live performances.

Duffy also turns out to be a sensitive, skilled photographer, and one of his more recent musical discoveries, Freeman Vines, is a luthier and visual artist. Their work makes for an effective pairing in an idiosyncratic exhibition at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. Like their recently published book with a text by Zoe Van Buren, it’s provocatively titled “Hanging Tree Guitars.”

The exhibition centers on and consists largely of Vines’ homemade guitars, mostly electric instruments cobbled together from scrap wood and spare parts, sometimes with foreboding imagery carved or incised into their surfaces. I counted 26 of them that appear to be playable.

Also included are a number of Vines’ hand-carved guitar bodies and related sculptural pieces, as well as working sketches on scrap paper.

As documented in the exhibition and the book, the guitars represent a 50-year obsession with an elusive sound Vines claims to have heard only once from another player’s guitar.

Although he was never able to replicate that sound, Vines devoted his creative life to the effort, according to the evidence gathered here. In the process, he learned the nuances of working with wood, all manner of electronics and other materials, as well as the sounds these materials were capable of making.

Among the other skills Vines developed were those of a sculptor. In the book and some of the exhibition wall texts he is quoted talking about spiritual entities and messages he feels are inherent in the wood he uses — and, by implication, in his other recycled materials.

Vines lives in a part of eastern North Carolina that was still patrolled and 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 during the early 20th century. Vines used wood from this tree to make several pieces in the show — a project he undertook on his own initiative after Duffy began regularly visiting him and photographing his guitars in 2015.

Paralleling these creative efforts, Vines and Duffy began researching the last recorded lynching in this part of the state. Some of their research is documented in the form of exhibition wall texts. The research inspired several pieces Vines made from the alleged hanging-tree wood, including a few that incorporate skull imagery and grimacing faces.

The most curious piece Vines made from the hanging-tree wood takes the form of a small shoe on a narrow-stemmed pedestal. Vines said it was inspired by the shape of the wood fragment he used to make it. Only after carving the piece did he learn that Oliver Moore — the lynching victim — had earned his living shining shoes.

In keeping with the exhibition’s theme, nine of Vines’ guitars are suspended from the gallery’s ceiling along with leafless limbs from an old tree. Other guitars are mounted on the walls, and additional sculptural pieces are displayed on pedestals and in vitrines.

Augmenting and complementing the guitars and other 3-D wood forms are Duffy’s rustic-looking photographs, most of which are presented as old-fashioned tintypes and treated to lend them an antique appearance.

Viewing these images is akin to perceiving two layers of history in superimposition. One layer is the present — informal portraits of Vines and documentary photos of his remote, rural house and outdoor working area — and the other is the past — which still haunts this environment today.

This same layered view of a place permeates the exhibition, so that it becomes a kind of crossroads, where contemporary viewers encounter a past that’s been too long hidden.

Underneath the skin

Will Willner’s small solo show elsewhere at SECCA is a more formally conventional exhibition of informal photo portraits titled “71 Men.” On the cusp of his 71st birthday — which coincides with his 50th year as a photographer — Willner set out to make 71 portraits of his male friends and acquaintances.

It’s an ongoing project that he will presumably complete before he turns 72.

What sets the project apart from other portrait-photo series is Willner’s exclusive use of infrared film, routinely employed in medical imaging but far less often in art or documentary photography. As evidenced here, it yields a distinctive kind of black-and-white image, to my eye reminiscent of photo-realist drawing.

In a brief printed statement that accompanies his show, Willner attributes the effect to infrared film’s ability “to penetrate the skin to a depth of about three millimeters, allowing a view literally underneath the skin.”

The result is somewhat unsettling, simultaneously unreal-looking and hyper-real — in a word, trippy. Very different from ordinary black-and-white film.

Were it not for this effect, though, the photographs would look rather ordinary, like the people in them and the everyday settings where Willner shot them. Standing alone in their yards, sitting on stair steps or gathered in small groups around food or drinks. They’re mostly if not all white and getting on in years, like Willner (and me).

Revealing something of the inner life of any portrait subject is a tall order. Three millimeters is a start but literally only a scratch in the surface.

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