'Spinning Yarn' at Crealde celebrates the visceral appeal of traditional Southern art

"Do Not Write On This”
"Do Not Write On This” Assemblage by Lonnie Holley

Through Jan. 14, 2017

Alice and William Jenkins Gallery, Crealdé School of Art, 600 St. Andrews Blvd., Winter Park, 407-671-1886, crealde.org

Hannibal Square Heritage Center, 642 New England Ave., Winter Park, 407-539-2680, hannibalsquareheritagecenter.org, free

Southern art breaks the art world's preconception of the preciousness of an object, as viewers immediately understand that conceptualism and minimalism are out. The Southern art currently exhibited by Crealdé in two locations is visceral and textured – sensual, even. At the main Crealdé campus just off Aloma and in the Hannibal Square Heritage Center, the art is only there to look at, but don't be surprised if you come away wishing you could touch it.

Twenty artists from 10 Southern states, from North Carolina to Louisiana, participated in the Spinning Yarn: Storytelling Through Southern Art exhibit. At Hannibal Square, Joe Tsambras' black-and-white etchings "Children of Alice 1 and 2" are flat, yet have depth in their fine surfaces. This playground is full of somber children who aren't playing due to dark, Dalí-esque interventions – legs converted into table leg parts, long poles penetrating eye sockets. These kids are not having fun.

Jon Eric Riis is a tapestry artist from Atlanta with an international reputation, and his bias-tape compositions are woven with horsehair and metallic thread, bristling with energy and color.

The (almost) all-white "William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Graphic Novel Version, 2014-2015" is a large quilt by Cathy Fussell. Set off the wall slightly, its soft surface is rich in deep, organic patterns, suggesting Faulkner's own eloquence.

Across Winter Park, over at Crealdé's main campus, the stories continue. Intense color greets the viewer with "Back Country Sunset" by Mary Ann Snead Carroll, the only woman in Florida's legendary Highwaymen troupe.

click to enlarge "William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Graphic Novel Version" - Quilt by Cathy Fussell
Quilt by Cathy Fussell
"William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Graphic Novel Version"

Complementing her work are the intense fabric and tile compositions of Lillian Blades. Hailing from Africa, by way of the Bahamas, Blades combines bright Caribbean colors with a soulful hand in an immersive sculptural environment.

Lonnie Holley combines old pallet wood with found elements, a photo and a ripped hunk of cardboard on which is printed "Do Not Write On This." Beside this assemblage, he placed a poignant reference to his youth: a seated figure of an African-American boy in a birdcage. The patina of age on his wood pieces softens their message, but makes them no less powerful.

In one corner stands Darryl Montana's "First Year Indian Chief Suit." It's a suit worn by the revelers known as Mardi Gras Indians, who march in tribal formation in Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans, competing with each other in a ritualistic display of costume, chanting and dance. The wall text explains that Montana's father quelled infighting among the Mardi Gras Indians by creating a suit design competition for the tribal Big Chiefs. This suit is magnificent: bright yellow, standing at least seven feet tall, resplendent in feather plumes, beads, embroidery and sequins. Wearing it would be an unforgettable experience, though none save a Chief will ever get to.

The link among all the different pieces of art is that they all revel in the delight of storytelling. The artists delight in immersing viewers' senses in color, texture and form, with an exuberance and passion for narrative and drama. If this is Southern art, then it is a great tradition underpinning the American visual art world, one that more art could learn a lesson from.

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