When Bonnie Clearwater took the reins as director and chief curator at the NSU Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale last fall, the Broward art world knew it was in for a treat and a big change. Clearwater came to her new position after 18 years at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, where she gained international cred for curating and arts education programming. But museumgoers in Broward would have to wait a year to see any shows brought in from the new director; the NSU museum's exhibition calendar was already set through the following season.
Now, finally, the anticipation is over. The museum's next exhibition, "When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South," opening Saturday, August 2, is the first show introduced by the green-eyed Clearwater. Organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem, where it first showed last spring, and curated by Thomas J. Lax (who was recently appointed associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City), the exhibit presents contemporary works by 35 artists of African descent who explore the theme of the American South as a sense of place, both imaginary and real.
In addition, spirituality, mental illness, and incarcerated artists served as inspirations.
The pieces were made from 1964 through 2014 and consist of paintings, drawings, sculptures, collages, and performance art in which myths and graphic subjects emerge from the fantastical worlds or from folksy, homey lifestyles in the Deep South.
This show was an obvious choice for Clearwater. "I was trained as an artist and an anthropologist," she says, "so my approach to art is: What does art tell us about being human? This exhibition raises questions like What is authentic culture? Is it outside artists working with outside influences, or is it artists like Kara Walker and their techniques?"
Outsider, or visionary, art involves the self-taught artist, and this show combines that with formally trained "non-outsider" artists.
Curator Lax explains: "The category for outsider art has been a stand-in for many practices. What's important about this show is it considers outsider art but doesn't put it front and center."
One of the exhibit's artists, Ralph Lemon, is trained in writing and literature, dance and choreography, and video. He often pursues critical questions around place. His contribution to the exhibit features new photographs in which he collaborated with an extended family in Mississippi who posed in rabbit, dog, and goat costumes in their homes — a nod to folk narrative and performance art.
Trenton Doyle Hancock, an artist from Houston, Texas, took a fantastical approach with his piece Vegan Arm.
"It's a sculpture I came up with when, once upon a time, there were these evil little creatures — the vegans," he says. "And they were running around and could get inside your body and possess you so you don't want any more meat. These little vegan creatures hate these other characters called mounds. So the vegans make terrorist attacks on these mounds and drain them of all their pink visceral meat."
For Hancock, veganism mirrors organized religion, a subject he consistently criticizes in his works. He grew up in a strict Texan Baptist and Pentecostal family. His installation comes from a story, "Saint Sesom" ("Moses" spelled backward), that he began writing and illustrating at age 5, and to this day, he continues working with the narrative.
Lauren Kelley responds by saying Hancock must have gone on some seriously bad dates with vegans. Perhaps.
Kelley's work takes a political stance and is based on incarcerated Texas artist Frank Jones.
"He made work in the '50s and late '70s [and] died in jail," she says. "He made these phenomenal drawings while in jail. He was a natural recluse, known to make these benign and whimsical smiley-faced winged creatures."
She took images she found on eBay and turned them into animation.
"I animate toys," she says. "I gravitate to quirky photographs... This is in response to prison labor. In the last 20 years, there has been an increase in using prisoners for sweatshop labor."
To Kelley, prison labor affects us all. "The economic implications of giving jobs away for slave labor should bother everybody," she observes. "My work is, yes, a response to the meta-narrative of Frank Jones and how he produces a commodity in jail and received very little compensation for it."