This anything-but-normal year began normally enough on the local and regional art scene.
The beginning of the year is traditionally a slower time for visual art in North Carolina, and January was true to form in that respect. For review in my column, I saw a benefit exhibition at Artworks Gallery and a traveling show of Allison Saar’s prints at UNCG's Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro.
Late in the January, as is my custom, I spent a few days in New York attending the annual Outsider Art Fair, although I didn’t write about it in my column. Little did any of us know what a troubled place New York would be only two months later.
In February, I was thinking about collages. A few days after writing a column about Robert Motherwell’s collage prints on view at Wake Forest University’s Hanes Art Gallery, I received the sad news that contemporary collage artist Irwin Kremen had died in Durham. He was an emeritus professor of psychology at Duke University. It was a sad milestone for American art and a personal loss, as Kremen had been a friend since the late 1970s. Still, there’s nothing terribly unusual about an artist dying at 94.
Medical experts had begun issuing cautionary advice about COVID-19 by early March, when I attended the opening of Julian Semilian’s small show of “digital kinetic paintings” at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. While writing about that exhibition for my March 22 column, I found out that SECCA and other state-affiliated museums had been closed until further notice, to help slow the virus’ spread.
There followed an unprecedented interim of two seasons during which art museums and most other art venues around the world were closed to the public.
I was disappointed to miss Weatherspoon's exhibition “To the Hoop: Basketball and Contemporary Art,” which promised to be a highlight of the year. It opened in February and was set to run into early June, but the shutdown rendered it inaccessible before I was able to see it. Fortunately, the museum provided free online access to the accompanying 80-page catalog, which at least gave us a sense of what we were missing.
Mark Bradford, David Hammons, Jeff Koons, Joyce J. Scott, Lorna Simpson and Hank Willis Thomas were among the artists represented in the show, as were N.C. artists Bill Bamberger and André Leon Gray. In-house curator Emily Stamey assembled the stellar line-up, chose the work and timed the show to coincide with the ACC and first-round NCAA tournaments, originally scheduled to be played in Greensboro in March.
Meanwhile, the Weatherspoon hired a new director, Juliette Bianco, to succeed Nancy Doll, who retired on July 31 after holding the position for 22 years. This transition wasn’t directly affected by the COVID-19 shutdown, but it was major news, and it took place as art venues everywhere were on indefinite hiatus. Bianco began her tenure at the Weatherspoon on Sept. 1, when the museum was still closed to the public.
Also during this peculiar experience of art-world limbo, Winston-Salem native Trevor Schoonmaker was promoted to the directorship of Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art in May. Schoonmaker, 49, became the Nasher’s founding curator of contemporary art in 2006 and its chief curator in 2013. Starting in 2018, he also served as deputy director of curatorial affairs. He succeeded former director Sarah Schroth, who retired after 25 years in the post.
During the spring and summer while most art venues were shuttered, I look at art where I could find it — mostly online. Like many other regular art-viewers, I used the time to virtually tour art museums and other art sites around the world, several of which I recommended in my columns. And I tried to keep up with the activities of artists addressing the pandemic in their work.
Prominent among local artists in the latter category was photographer Owens Daniels. He launched a project titled “Dear-WS, One City. One Love.” that documented something of the city’s early response to the pandemic. During the brief period before mask-wearing was politicized, he photographed local citizens wearing masks while holding personal, handwritten messages of hope and love, in each case addressed to the city.
By late April, Daniels had photographed more than 100 people for the project. He posted all of these images on Facebook and Instagram, and he collaborated with documentary filmmaker Chad Nance and musician/composer Doug Davis to create a brief video incorporating several of the images. See the video at tinyurl.com/y89wayr9.
In June Delurk Gallery became Winston-Salem’s first visual art venue to reopen on a limited basis — during weekends only, with medical masks required and no more than six visitors allowed in the gallery. While other galleries and art museums remained closed, Delurk showed work by its member artists and a few invited guests through the summer.
The Delta Arts Center also underwent a limited reopening during the summer, allowing pre-arranged, by-appointment visits. On view for most of the season was a small benefit sales show of works by N.C.-born painter and muralist John Biggers (1924-2001), along with a drawing by his nephew and student, James Biggers.
As a state-affiliated institution, SECCA remained closed all summer, although staff members continued working. The public downtime was used to make long-needed repairs and renovations to the building, according to SECCA’s executive director William Carpenter.
A powerful show
The area’s most powerful art exhibition in this truncated year is SECCA’s “DRAWN: Concept & Craft,” which was installed in August and finally went on public view in late September. Continuing through Feb. 15, it’s a huge, intensely engaging show that includes works by more than 65 artists and spans more than 50 years.
With sensible masking and social-distancing guidelines in place, the exhibition fills SECCA’s two largest galleries. Artist Tomas Vu curated the first version in 2014. More recently, SECCA curator Wendy Earle worked with New York artist and curator Brian Novatny to augment the show with works by regional artists.
Although it emphasizes drawing, the exhibition also includes works in other mediums — painting, printmaking, video animation, sculpture, collage and cut paper. Much of the work responds to cultural and political issues that in some cases have remained controversial for decades.
Artists represented include LeRoy Neiman, William Kentridge, Kiki Smith, Kara Walker, and Fab 5 Freddy (aka Fred Brathwaite), along with local and regional artists Elizabeth Alexander, Paul Bright, Frank Campion, Leigh Ann Hallberg and Kyle Webster.