Friday, July 27, 2018

Surprises at the Greenville County Museum of Art

Andrew Wyeth Concert Grand (1994)
Pam and I entered the Greenville County Museum of Art (GCMA) with little in the way of expectations. What a wonderful surprise awaited us!

We headed straightaway to the Andrew Wyeth exhibit. GCMA has the largest public collection of Wyeth watercolors. Wyeth has said the medium was his favorite due to its expressiveness.

Personally, I found the exhibit a bit underwhelming. Compared to his wonderful Christina's World, the watercolors seemed a bit drab. But we were intrigued by a couple of surrealistic paintings from his later life. Concert Grand was one such work. The hands that eerily rise from the snow are a replica of a bronze cast of Wyeth's own hands given to him by a friend.

Pottery by Dave Drake (1840 and 1857)
Next up was an exhibit of Art and Artists from South Carolina: David Drake, Jasper Johns, William H. Johnson and Grainger McKoy. The exhibit contained a wide variety of work. The most fascinating story was that of potter David Drake.

Dave, as he was known, was a slave in Edgefield, a town known for the production of utilitarian stoneware. Dave's last name came from his first known owner, Harvey Drake, who is thought to have trained him as a turner.

At the approximate age of 35 (recordkeeping for the birth of slaves not being a priority), Dave was hit by a train and one of his legs was severed. The injury left him incapable of working the foot treadle to turn the pottery wheel. Dave partnered with a slave named Henry (whose arms were crippled) to make his work. The pottery created by these two disabled men was some of the finest in the Edgefield region.

But Dave's story doesn't end there. Despite laws prohibiting slaves from learning to read and write, Dave was quite literate. He made no effort to hide his abilities. In fact, he even inscribed his pottery. The pot to the right reads: "Lm Aug 1857 Dave/I wonder where is all my relation/Friendship to all and every nation."
William Henry Johnson's
Lift Up Thy Voice and Sing (1942) 
We were also intrigued by the story of African-American artist William Henry Johnson.

In 1918, Johnson moved from his home in Florence, South Carolina to New York City. There he studied at the National Academy of Design under the tutelage of Impressionist painter Charles Hawthorne. (Johnson supported himself during this period by working as a hotel porter, cook and stevedore.)

In 1926, Hawthorne helped finance Johnson's trip to Paris, where he worked in the style of artists such as Van Gogh and Soutine. He met and married Holcha Krake, a Danish artist. They made their home in Denmark, where Johnson's work was well-received.

In 1938, the couple moved to New York to escape the rise of Hitler. Although the inter-racial couple suffered some racism and discrimination, they were welcomed into the Harlem community. Johnson developed his own style, combining linear design and African tribal art in his representation of African-American subjects. I loved the folk art-feel of his work.

Detail from Sidney Dickinson's
Maggie the Octoroon (1917)
Then there was an exhibit celebrating the gorgeous art of Sidney Dickinson.  Dickinson's aunt, Charlotte Thorn, was co-founder of the Calhoun Colored School in Calhoun, Alabama.  The school was created in partnership with Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute to educate rural black students in a time of segregation. (To read more about this impressive project, click here.)

Like Johnson, Dickinson studied at the National Academy of Design in New York. He also studied at the Art Students League of New York. But in 1917, he made his way back to Alabama and lived at the Calhoun School for a year. While there, Dickinson painted evocative portraits of some of the students, including Maggie the Octoroon. (In case you're wondering, "octoroon" means a person of one-eighth black ancestry. Webster's Dictionary states that it is an outdated term now considered offensive.)  His work totally blew me away.

Matthew Rolston's 
Harry born 1955 (2010-2014)
We ended with Matthew Rolston's Talking Heads: The Vent Haven Portraits. Rolston was discovered by Andy Warhol, who commissioned him to photograph subjects for Interview magazine.

In this series, Rolston photographed ventriloquist dolls dating from 1820 to 1980 from the collection of the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. They were a bit unsettling, but I liked them.

Rolston has said that the series "examines the notion of human projection in relation to human simulacra -- the ways in which we the viewer project life into the lifeless."  I admit to doing a bit of that while taking in the exhibit, as I "recognized" current celebrities in the faces of the dummies. Am I alone in thinking that "Harry" looks an awful lot like Timothy Hutton?

With our visual adventure completed, Pam and I headed out to enjoy the rest of downtown Greenville's offerings. I am eager to return.

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