The Southern states are heavy with history. However, this existent weight has done nothing to suppress its vibrant and dynamic contemporary art scene. With multiple mediums and messages, the following artists express a Southern sensibility in strikingly original and spectacular ways.
This introduction begins with the caveat that Matt Haffner is not technically from the South, he’s from the Midwest. However, his presence in the Georgia art world, in terms of awards, a teaching career, and numerous solo and group exhibitions, make him an honorary Southern artist. He works across multiple media, using both the street and canvas as a platform for his ideas. Much of his work is large in scale and due to its urban location, temporary in nature. His love of the city and grasp of its voice is undeniable. Matt Haffner transforms and injects each space he works in with the sounds that any city-dweller knows by heart, the constant hum of undiluted energy.
Lonnie Holley claims to have been traded for a bottle of whiskey at the age of four. At 29, he began making art out of discarded industrial mould leftovers. From detritus he created sandstone carvings. Later, his artistic materials expanded to all junk yard findings, from animal bones to long lost shoes, he collected and created immersive art spaces in abandoned lots near his home in Birmingham, Alabama. More recently, in 2012, Lonnie Holley became a recording artist at the ripe age of 62. It is impossible to classify ‘Just Before Music’ other than by saying that it is haunting and impossible to shake. Check out his art and music to get a glimpse into the inventive life of a man who shook up Alabama and made quizzical beauties out of trash.
Born in Charleston, West Virginia, Brian Michael Reed’s artworks draw on multiple cultural influences for inspiration. Exposing a range of experiences including growing up in the South and a time immersed in China, the boundaries between East and West are confronted with colour and local understanding. Working across mediums, his provocative installations and vibrant paintings are both beautiful and full of meanings not explicitly clear. Naked bodies and beautiful colours collide in a provocative and calming manner.
Patterson & Barnes’s paintings sing out in homage to the greats of blues and jazz. Making use of a range of mediums including watercolour, acrylic, collage, and ink, their collaborative and creative style fits accordingly with their subjects. With expressionist colours and abstract forms, it is impossible to place these artists within a labeled box. These paintings are best enjoyed with the corresponding musical influence playing in the background. Gazing at their portrait of Charlie Parker, hints of Birdland swell up intuitively against the scratched white background.
Willie Birch’s art lives and breathes New Orleans. His large-scale black and white drawings depict his native city as both an outsider who spent most of his life in New York City, and as someone with an inherent knowledge of its rhythm and of its beat. He paints his subjects with a wide brush yet whilst knowing them personally; his work seeks to understand and explicate the trajectory of African American heritage in New Orleans. By nature of their distinctive lines, his drawn figures stand prominent, a visual form of jazz that seems at once contrived and spontaneous.
Mary Jane Parker deals expressively with the dimly lit division between nature and art. With her artworks, she explores the closeness in image of human veins, poison ivy, and delicate lace. Her recent works overlay delicate translucent patterns on the luminescent faces of melancholic women. With these meticulous and ornate drawings, using a 2B pencil, she explores the historical concerns of hysteria in the 19th century. The necessarily obsessive nature of the production of these artworks is intended to mimic the domestic arts and crafts of women of a ‘hysteria-prone’ period.
Meg Aubrey confronts the hidden anxieties of the Norman Rockwell American dream. Using clean lines and distinct colours to portray the cold perfection of suburban life, she suggests the loneliness of perceived happiness. With the right clothes, the right lifestyle, and the right car can come unfulfilled passions and an inability to expose the underlying fear. Beautiful yet bleak, Meg Aubrey encourages the viewer to reconsider their preconceived perceptions and reassess what the American dream means today.
Caroline Smith creates Chimeras. With these anthropomorphic creatures, she removes distinguishing features of race and gender, exposing the bone of our hidden and not so hidden anxieties, fears, intentions, and dreams. These structures are intended as a raw output of life, appearing both aggressive with teeth and vulnerable in a series of delicate undulations. Her choice of clay as a medium is due to its chameleonic properties, its human-like ability to superficially mimic others and mask its true nature. Despite their lack of explicitly human features, it is difficult to remain unaffected by the charms and affronts of the Chimeras.
Bo Bartlett constructs worlds that appear simultaneously true and ethereal. Following in the tradition of American realism defined by artists like Thomas Eakins and Andrew Wyeth, Bo populates his American dreams with characters you know and objects that are familiar. With a discerning gaze you can often pick out hints of a Georgian childhood. However, as in The Samaritans, the location is often undefined and the story untold. What holds the gaze of the girl with a conical hat? Where is the girl in the tutu going to dance? These questions can only be answered in your mind’s eye, giving the painting a second occupation and therefore a second life. In this way, Bo Bartlett creates something that lives outside itself and is certainly worth a prolonged gaze.
Reining from Nashville, Tennessee, Amanda Hope Cook’s strikingly photographic-like oil paintings suggest a deep commitment to and connection with the South. Her latest series of urban paintings depict neon signs from Columbus, Nashville, and Asheville. The series is entitled, Looking Up and encourages the viewer to admire the contrast of the blue/black sky against the bold colorful shapes of the signs. These paintings stand not only as a celebration of the signs themselves but also as a means to preserve a form of art that is in rapid decline.