Art rolls up its sleeves: 'Contemporary South 2016' at VAE

"Contemporary South 2016." // Image courtesy of VAE.

How do you track something as fast-moving as the Triangle art world? Visual Art Exchange’s annual “Contemporary South” show makes a good benchmark.

Since 2012, VAE has put out a call for work throughout the southeast, and guest jurors have selected from that pool for the show. “Contemporary South 2016” — featuring 77 works in every possible medium by 74 artists from 12 states, and juried by Kristin Fleischmann of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis — holds its opening reception in the Raleigh gallery tonight.

Last year, the show contained 59 works. In 2014, that number was only 30, with paintings overwhelmingly represented. That’s quite a jump over just two years. And the change in the complexion and quality of the show is almost as dramatic.

“We’re getting a better and wider-spread reputation,” VAE Exhibitions Manager Brandon Cordrey notes. “Our jurors are not as local as they used to be. And artists are becoming more adventurous and creative around here.”

That adventurousness is apparent at first glance of the 2016 version of the show. Entering the main gallery, Amy Anderson’s “The Wedges” looms over you — sculptural forms with an architectural presence, formed from spray foam insulation. The Kernersville artist’s “the lineup,” a wall installation of 2x4s dangling naked light bulbs, anchors the back of the gallery.

Just two years ago, this show came largely from the paint box. This year, Anderson and many other artists draw more upon the hardware store, the curb find, the thrift store, the fabric remnant pile — even the 3D printer.

Cordrey describes the shift as a change of focus from craft toward creativity. Rather than taking their materials as a presumption or a starting point, more and more artists in the region are developing an idea first and then asking themselves “What should this work be made of?”

This year’s exhibit is a portrait of artists with sleeves rolled up, concerned less with developing years of experience with a medium than with expressing their idea through the media most close at hand or most formally appropriate to the expression. Every sculptural work in the show, for instance, is made of a different material: iron, glass, ceramic, piano and furniture parts, as well as the aforementioned foam, wood and 3D-printed plastic.

The show’s abundant with notable photographs. John Gallagher’s altered, disorienting, black-and-white “Portent” could be of a tree or two tectonic plates meeting along a rift. Another Raleigh-based artist, M. Blair Ligon, uses gas-infused pigment on aluminum to make a candy-gloss finish for his cryptic “While My Schoolroom Sleeps.” South Carolina artist Brant Barrett captures a similarly immaculate image of a tobacco field beneath storm clouds in “Rooster Time.” Oregon-based Zel Brook (qualifying because of a Penland residency) collages shots of exposed rafters into an intriguing maelstrom shape.

Barrett’s photograph is of a category that one might call conventional — unaltered shots of landscapes or people — but its formal composition is as much its subject as the landscape. There are similarly straight-shot southern vernacular images throughout the show, but the photographers’ viewpoints are analytical, critical. Micah Cash, a photographer in Charlotte, shoots a billboard, but from the back. An image from Raleigh-based Dana Flynt’s ultra-blurred “Fading Memories” series subverts its subject, a pink building, to its blur. The blur is the subject.

“Contemporary South” has plenty of painting, of course, but much of it is structurally complex or otherwise disrupted so that it’s not straightforwardly representational. The subject of Durham-based Libby O’Daniel’s portrait “The Tearing and the Torn: Them #2,” looks through torn and frayed pink cloth that wraps the entire canvas. Richard Lund, a painter from Columbia, SC, assembles a grid of nine black canvasses to form “Broken Mirror,” an anxious maze of white lines that look as much like a trap as a game.

Ultimately, “Contemporary South 2016” shows artists bringing conceptual concerns into representational and socially conscious work. The signature work might be Renee Cloud’s “You’re Obviously Not a Hood Girl,” which is simply that text in all capital letters on the wall. The recent Appalachian State studio art grad is kind of a feminist Lawrence Weiner, unblinkingly anesthetic in her presentation, but grounded in the race and class concerns of the moment, analytical of those concerns, and clear as hell.

“Contemporary South 2016”
Exhibition dates: January 6 to February 25
Opening reception: January 8, 6 to 10 p.m.
Visual Art Exchange, 309 W. Martin Street, Raleigh

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