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Artforum Mention: “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse”

~ Natilee Harren

“The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse,” a sprawling survey that features the work of ninety artists, investigates what the exhibition’s curator, Valerie Cassel Oliver, calls the “philosophical landscape” of the Black American South through an intergenerational roster of figures working across art, music, and various other forms. The show debuted at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond before arriving in Houston (its current iteration was coordinated by the Contemporary Arts Museum’s Patricia Restrepo) and is organized under three themes, indicated by the walls’ shifting hues: “Landscape” (earthy rust), “Religion” (an apotropaic “haint” blue), and the “Black Body” (taupe). These frameworks argue for a constellation of essential artistic and philosophical concerns among artists in and of this cultural-spatial geography, while the works on view offer neophytes a primer on the aesthetic modalities of Black life in the South. If Cassel Oliver’s title references the 1990s Southern hip-hop of Goodie Mob and Outkast, who popularized the idea of the “dirty South,” her exhibition and catalogue—chock-full of research-based texts from scholars, poets, and musicians—deliver a robust cultural history that canonizes the term.

As part of the show’s argument that the culture of the Black South is central to understanding American culture in general, the presentation recovers the Southern origins of artists, such as Emma Amos, Sam Gilliam, Joe Overstreet, Alma Thomas, and Jack Whitten, whose reputations have transcended their natal roots. Intermixed with works by well-known, academically trained artists are engrossingly detailed creations by a number of self-taught makers, including Minnie Evans and Sister Gertrude Morgan. Standout contributions from an emerging generation include El Franco Lee II’s sublime canvas DJ Screw in Heaven 2, 2016, an update on medieval figure painting, and Bethany Collins’s “In Mississippi,” 2019, a series of intimately scaled pieces of black paper blind-embossed with nineteenth-century newspaper ads taken out by formerly enslaved people looking for missing kin. The aquatic soundscape of Allison Janae Hamilton’s hypnotizing video Wacissa, 2019, pulls viewers toward Nadine Robinson’s Coronation Theme: Organon, 2008, installed in an adjacent section. This work features an altar-like wall of speakers playing a “sonic portrait” that references the racist violence perpetrated against protesters who participated in the 1963 Birmingham Campaign. Elsewhere, a “Wonder Cabinet” showcases material artifacts and audiovisuals from Black music history, bringing the likes of Ornette Coleman and Bo Diddley together with CeeLo Green and Sun Ra.

Eventually one moves downstairs, past a series of somber works by Terry Adkins, Radcliffe Bailey, Robert Hodge, Deborah Roberts, and Felandus Thames, before encountering Arthur Jafa’s widely seen film Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death, 2016. The crypt-like atmosphere evokes writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’s notion of “durable hope”: a mindset (or in this case, an aesthetic) that chooses optimism and joy without repressing or letting go of trauma or negativity. This is the chief dialectic that subsumes the show’s other binarisms—among them migration and rootedness, envisioning and embodiment, sacred and secular, and degradation and regeneration. (READ MORE)


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