Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 17, 2021
Valerie Cassel Oliver The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse Exh. cat. Richmond, VA and Durham, NC: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in association with Duke University Press, 2021. 288 pp.; 140 color ills.; 35 b/w ills. Cloth (9781934351192)
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, May 22–September 6, 2021; Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, October 28, 2021–February 6, 2022; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR, March 12–July 25, 2022; Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, September 2022–February 2023
Rodney McMillian, Asterisks in Dockery (Blues for Smoke), 2021, vinyl, thread, wood, paint, lightbulb, installation view, The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2021 (photograph © Sandra Sellars, provided by Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

Throughout the summer of 2021, a white sedan with gold trim, a type affectionately known as a SLAB (acronym for “slow, loud, and banging”), was parked in the main atrium of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond. The SLAB, a customized 1990 Cadillac Brougham d’Elegance, designed by the New Orleans rapper Richard “Fiend” Jones and commissioned by the museum, joyfully and flamboyantly announced the long-anticipated opening of The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse. Curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver, The Dirty South brings together over 100 artists from the past 100 years to celebrate the art and sounds of African American Southern culture.

The exhibition was organized around three general themes: Landscape, Visioning/Spirituality, and the Black body. Rather than indicating clear distinctions in subject matter, material, or geographic origin, these themes provided loose connections among diverse works. What was immediately evident upon entering the space was the richness of overlap among all three sets. Works like Allison Janae Hamilton’s video Wacissa (2019), in which the camera hovers half-submerged and inverted on the line between water, plants, and sky, evoked a spiritual exploration and corporeal precarity that, while bound to a specific place, transcended the single category of landscape. Hamilton filmed Wacissa in a northern Florida river system known as the Slave Canal, named for the enslaved people who were forced to build it. Projected at large scale in a corner of the first gallery, the bobbing surface line, murky water, and bubbling sounds spurred a visceral, embodied feeling of drowning. Kevin Beasley’s Untitled Slab (cotton island) (2018)—a large relief of swirling fabrics, nets, seashells, and stones held together in a thick rectangle of clear resin, casually leaning against a wall in the section on spirituality—elicited a dream of wrestling with oneself (or others) in a tangled bed. At the same time, it conjured images of shrouded bodies and coastal flood debris—an island of waste after a tragic storm. Such images are anchored in a deep sense of place, evoking the many lowlands of the South. The blurring of categories was also encouraged through the range of works on display, as traditional media like painting, sculpture, and photography were interspersed with a variety of objects including mixtapes, musical instruments, bottles, and clothing. The result was a vibrant portrait of a shared sensibility, of what Cassel Oliver describes as the Southern Black aesthetic, one that is grounded in the continuing legacy of place, shared histories, improvisation, and resilience. Cassel Oliver’s elimination of dated cultural binaries—high/low, insider/outsider, art/craft, visual/sonic—revealed them to be both superficial and foundationally unnecessary.

At the core of the exhibition was music, which was wonderfully varying in its relationship to the visual art on display. At times, music appeared as depicted content, as in Radcliffe Bailey’s If Bells Could Talk (2015)—a large assemblage of brass horns atop an oversize wooden table—or in the paint-and-mud portraits of Jimmy Lee Sudduth, in which figures in composite view are posed with their color-coordinated guitars. At other times, sound was simply a part of a work’s cultural context. Many of the artists included are musicians, including Mildred Thompson, whose assemblage Wood Picture (ca. 1965) is composed of small pieces of found lumber, meticulously fitted together to form an abstract painting of wood grain and shadows. Others, such as Arliss Watford, a self-taught sculptor whose small carved works call to mind the votive figures of ancient Mesopotamia, represent a life steeped in the Southern vernacular, in which music plays a crucial role. Perhaps the most exciting and provocative inclusion of music in the exhibition was represented by the sound installations. In Paul Stephen Benjamin’s Summer Breeze (2018), monitors showing Billie Holiday and Jill Scott performing “Strange Fruit,” their voices layered into almost a call-and-response cadence, are encircled by a pyramid of several additional monitors, each showing a small child on a tree swing. The imagery and the sounds were haunting as they cast both a blue glow and a resounding song throughout the adjacent galleries. Coronation Theme: Organon (2008), a sonic artwork by Nadine Robinson, is one of The Dirty South’s many show stoppers: a wall of speakers, arranged as a pipe organ, issues blended sounds of sermons, songs, organ music, and protests. As both an abstracted collage of sound and a minimalist sculpture, Coronation acts as a “non-site,” in Robert Smithson’s sense, simultaneously anchoring the viewer to their body (through its vibrations), and transporting them to a specific location elsewhere.

The carefully laid floor plan, which worked to foster the intermedial connections Cassel Oliver hoped to evoke, ended with Arthur Jafa’s brilliant video montage, Love is the Message, The Message is Death (2016), projected in a large theater before the exit. The nine-minute image-scape of footage from the last sixty years, laid against Kanye West’s track “Ultralight Beam,” served as a necessary and summative punctuation mark to the entire show. After leaving the theater, viewers landed in a somewhat auxiliary space with several large multimedia panels and interactive screens that invited visitors to learn more about the specific musical regions of the Southern United States. These stations allowed participants to view maps, read text, and select tracks. After such a seamless journey through the exhibition, this final element felt somehow disjointed, like an unincorporated ingredient left out of the mix. This is unfortunate, as music—and the distinct sonic qualities of place—is a fundamental element of the exhibition.

In collaboration with Duke University Press, the VMFA has produced a stunning catalogue for the exhibition, in which each object on display is meticulously reproduced on a full-page plate. If art and sound run parallel in this show, the catalogue acts as a third voice, offering the written word in a combination of essays, lyrics, and poetry. Contributors Guthrie Ramsey, Kirsten Pai Buick, Anthony B. Pinn, and Rhea Combs each provide detailed historical synopses of particular elements of the African American experience that, when read in tandem, deliver an exceptional foundation for the exhibition’s historical context. Andrea Barnwell Brownlee and Jennifer Burris’s discussion of Beverly Buchanan, whose Postminimalist sculptures define the “language of tempered legibility,” should be required reading for anyone interested in memorial. Roger Reeves’s contribution, “Changing the Rules, the Practice of Pleasure: The Linguistic Possibilities of Dirt,” is a sensuous meditation on the power of language—specifically, the poetry and prose of Black writers, who are “always troubling beauty” (154). But the stand-out, must-read essay from this catalogue is unequivocally Cassel Oliver’s “What do you know about the Dirty South?” In it, the curator eloquently makes her case for a Southern Black aesthetic. Avoiding restrictive definitions, she discusses the development of Black creative expression, forged against the US backdrop of precarity and violence. Music, she writes, “drew on the southern traditions and tropes that ensured survival and even spaces of joy during the darkest times, insisting that Black bodies cannot and should not be defined only by trauma and instead modeling resilience, perseverance, and the transcendence embedded in creative expression” (20). Indeed, there is a resounding joyfulness—a celebration of life—that runs as a dominant chord throughout both the essay and the exhibition.

Central to its premise, The Dirty South is traveling to three additional locations across the country. Currently, it is making its way to the spot of its ideological conception, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, where Cassel Oliver is the former curator; then to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art; and finally to the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Those elements that seemed custom fit to the VMFA’s particular rooms will no doubt take on local styles and flavors with each upcoming installation, especially as they occur in quite disparate parts of the country. Impressive programming that complemented the exhibition throughout its time in Virginia, including a Virtual Speaker Series, is now accessible through the VMFA’s YouTube channel. The Virtual Speaker Series, which involved many of the contributors to the catalogue, will serve to complement and enhance each iteration of the exhibition as it moves through the country.

There is a lingering desire for the roster of artists to be longer—to see the through lines behind this collection extending to more and more contemporary artists working within the African American experience. This recognition is not one of lack, however, but rather of success: in as much as one exhibition can, this show reveals the deep connectivities and cross-fertilizations of what Combs simply calls the “Southern aesthetic” (148). In this way, The Dirty South acts as a sample—a small section of a broad, undulating, and ongoing creative pulse.

Tracy Stonestreet
Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art and Performance, Department of Art History, Virginia Commonwealth University Qatar