Treacherous. Idiot. Hunchback. essay for The Nasher Magazine, Fall 2016
My studio in North Carolina is flanked by a pine grove that seems to vault out of nowhere. The building is made of corrugated steel that I imagine a tornado could strip bare in a single turn. On the sun bleached facade, a dark oval footprint is all that remains of a fiberglass Rhinoceros head that used to hang there and keep watch. The building sits at the edge of a numbered, two-lane blacktop that, according to the old map stuffed in my car door, was originally called Jefferson Davis Highway. The name underscores the history of violence and unruffled beauty that permeates the South. It’s a welcome spiritual collision, one that charges my studio with unsettling and invigorating kinetics. I like it here. For me, this is the place, intangibly out of place and pitch perfect in its singularity.
What troubles me is that perceptions from outside the region make it obvious that the myth of the South is out of step with its artists’ creative output. A few years back, a friend of mine asked a New York curator if she would come down to Chapel Hill to get a feel for its spark. It bears mentioning that the city and its neighboring burgs, Durham and Raleigh, have long been a major hub of technology and higher learning. “Do planes fly there?” the curator asked, unflinching.
This is the attitude that Southern artists are up against. So, in sly appeasement, many of them put forth highly personal versions of what viewers expect to see. Gothic deformities. Venomous rednecks. Landscapes suffocated by kudzu. Every once in a while a klansman’s robe pops up in the form of an eerie sculpture. After all, these items do exist, and aside from kudzu, they are not even exclusive to the South.
But the best artists of the South provide their offerings with an unexpected finish. When, for instance, in William Eggleston’s documentary video, Stranded In Canton, his fevered subjects geek the heads off live chickens, then sit somber, in close up, at a Krystal burger joint, their behavior cuts two ways. They are abruptly and unexpectedly contemplative. Their freakishness is imbued with vulnerabilities of people who breathe just as deeply as anyone from anywhere, and in order to fully absorb the spectacle, one must also acknowledge the irrepressible humanity of these perpetrators.