In Sight: A Preview of Local Exhibitions in 2020

Looking at art is a way of life for me—and a source of great pleasure and excitement. So when WALTER asked if I would snoop around Raleigh and the Triangle to see what was coming up on the art scene this year, I was delighted to accept the invitation.
by Larry Wheeler

It turned into a most interesting adventure.

I’d just spent some time in the fall in Venice for the Biennale and in Oaxaca, Mexico, for Day of the Dead celebrations, so my art gauge was fully charged (and about to be more so with upcoming visits to New York and Art Basel in Miami). So I had big questions at the forefront of my consciousness: How does the art life of Raleigh and environs stack up against the wider world? How important are the exhibitions being planned? Would they be noticed anywhere else? What are our artists up to? Are they being heralded in the “artosphere”? Does our art scene connect with the universal art zeitgeist?

The short answer, I soon found, is that the arts here are as dynamic, diverse in their makers, messages and media, and excellent as what I see in the major art centers of the world.  And just as much fun to discover, too. The Triangle has superb art museums which, in addition to their outstanding permanent (and generally free) art collections, present special exhibitions that showcase the best art of our time—and the past. Here’s what I learned. 

Vista View by Shaun Richards | Image courtesy NCMA

Painting is Alive and Well

Painting is alive and well and, in fact, flourishing in our midst. Inspired by the prominence of painting in recent art fairs, the Whitney Biennial, and New York galleries, local curator and artist Ashlynn Browning has created Front Burner: Highlights in Contemporary NC Painting for NCMA, opening March 7. This major exhibition highlights the work of 25 mid-career and established artists from across the state. For old-timers, it will be refreshing to see art that reminds us of the golden era of Francis Speight, Claude Howell, Maud Gatewood and George Bireline. The new stars may not be so well known—yet—but their talent undeniably connects them to the dominant movements in the genre today. Diverse choices are the underlying strength of the show: the artists range in age from 82 (Gerry Lynch) to 32 (Carmen Neely), there are 13 male and 12 female artists and seven artists of color.

But disregard the pigeonholes. They are all damned good. 

If you went to any prominent art fairs or galleries recently, you undoubtedly heard the voices of the artists. They reminded us of the environmental jeopardy to the world, the dynamics of dislocation and relocation of populations, and the nobility of the individual, particularly the woman. You likely encountered creative palettes incorporating textiles, found objects and paper (handmade and discarded) in the making of paintings. You will find these same ideas and materials brought before us in Browning’s bold look at North Carolina painters in Front Burner.

Shaun Richards, one of the artists featured in the NCMA show and a player in Raleigh’s art scene for a few years, will also have a one-man showcase of recent work—all paintings—at CAM Raleigh beginning in June. It will be good to reconnect with Shaun.

Madame Badiane by Alun Be | Image courtesy the artist

African & African American Creativity

CAM keeps feeding the appetite for the new and provocative—and the important. Several CAM shows over the spring and summer project the expanding energy of African American and African creativity, Afro Futurism and such. Kennedi Carter, a Durham-based photographer, will show work in the spring, as will Corey Pemberton. In the summer, CAM will showcase new work by Maya Freelon, extraordinary Afro-futurist photos by Alun Be, provocative work by Durham photographer Titus Heagins, and the not-to-be-missed Afro-queer performative work by the brilliant Mikael Owunna. Big time stuff. CAM must be a regular stop on your art romps.

Still speaking of Africa, NCMA’s Curator of African Art, Amanda Maples, created Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women, opening April 4 at the museum. Maples takes a look at how Senegalese women have used fashion and ornament to present themselves for more than 100 years. Maples originally created the show for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, where it was acclaimed by critics and the public alike. Holland Cotter, art critic for The New York Times, praised the show. He was particularly taken with the self-presentation (fashion, jewelry, hair) of fashion designer Oumou Sy. “It’s sensational. Fashion as public sculpture, I’d call it,” he wrote.

Don’t miss it.

While cruising the shows indoors at NCMA, don’t forget to step out into the Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park. There, Leonardo Drew, an African-American sculptor from Brooklyn, will install City in the Grass in April, a colorful flying carpet and cityscape exhibited last year in Madison Square Park in New York. It is over 100 feet long and 50 feet wide. 

Lathe V Chair by Sebastian Brajkovic | Courtesy the artist

Metalwork, Music & More

The Gregg Museum of Art and Design features some of the most thoughtfully-curated exhibitions in these parts, and its spring shows promise to be high events for the region. It is so fitting that the gorgeous design work of Mary Ann Scherr, the legendary Raleigh artist and arts advocate, will be celebrated from February until September in Mary Ann Scherr’s Legacy in Metal. Stunning creations in jewelry and object design comprise the heart of the show. At about the same time the Gregg will host Design by Time, beautiful objects inspired by the idea of time and transience, and All That Glitters, objects that sparkle from the Gregg’s collection.

The Nasher at Duke is a major player in the art world. Trevor Schoonmaker, their amazing chief curator, has built an international reputation for discovering and rediscovering some of the great artists of our time, especially from African Americans and those of African descent. Now until March 1, you have the opportunity to see Cosmic Rhythm Vibrations, an exhibition of works drawn from the Nasher collection which are inspired by visual and musical rhythm. Included are a Gee’s Bend quilt, and a feast of works by today’s modern masters such as Nick Cave, Barkley Hendricks, Christian Marclay, Odili Donald Odata, Rob Pruitt, Alma Thomas, Robin Rhode, Nari Ward, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie May Weems, Bob Thompson and Alma Thomas. Whew! This is a special experience. Don’t miss it. From March until July, the Nasher presents the work of Jamaican artist Ebony G. Patterson, who will create an installation environment evoking a night garden.

The Ackland Art Museum at UNC-Chapel Hill will also contribute significant programs to the Triangle’s spring season. Yayoi Kusama: Open the Shape Called Love will feature 20 works by arguably the most famous artist in the world today. Painting, sculpture and multimedia work will be on view (but no Infinity Room; for that you’ll need to head over to NCMA). One of my favorite Ackland events is the annual MFA show in the spring, featuring the work of students about to receive a master of fine arts degree. I always find work to lust after—and to buy.

Superstar experiences are not limited to the art museums in the Triangle. So much creative work is being produced by artists of all stripes and focus. Film, for example: Marsha Gordon and Louis Cherry recently premiered their new short documentary, All the Possibilities…Reflections on a Painting by Vernon Pratt at the Gregg. It is the story of Vernon Pratt making his major opus, a 256-panel room-size painting consisting of 65,536 painted squares painted between 1980-1982. Pratt, a resident of Raleigh and art professor at Duke, died suddenly in 2000. This sensitive film raises awareness of a genius who was in our midst and raises the issue of how to preserve this unwieldy masterpiece. The film is headed to festivals throughout the U.S. Another recent film by Gordon and Cherry, Rendered Small, shown on UNC-TV, is also making the rounds of festivals. It is about 1,200 American folk art buildings collected and curated by Steven Burke and Randy Campbell of Hillsborough.

Grear Patterson (whom I met as a wee lad when I moved to Chapel Hill in 1994) has grown up to be a hot artist in New York, Los Angeles and Europe. His paintings are in museum collections, including NCMA, and he is making feature films, as well. I attended a recent private screening of Giants Being Lonely, which he directed and Olmo Schnabel, the artist Julian Schnabel’s son, produced. It’s making the rounds at international film festivals—recently at Venice and Lisbon—so keep an eye out for it to come to Raleigh.

A group of Patterson’s small paintings were shown recently at the LIGHT Art + Design Gallery in Chapel Hill, along with works by his parents, Ippy and Neil Patterson of Hillsborough.

And some updates on a few well-known local artists: Beverly McIver, art professor at Duke and celebrated painter, won the prestigious Rome Prize, which enabled her to live and paint in Rome this past year. Well-known painter Damian Stamer had a show in Tokyo in November. John Beerman, whose work is in museums and private collections around the world, recently showed new work at Craven Allen Gallery in Durham.

Keeping up with the exciting artists and art events in Raleigh and the Triangle requires awareness and a bit of planning. But to drop by a museum or a gallery can provide an exhilarating surprise. We live in an increasingly more urbane area, with the best of the art world given to us on a regular basis. I merely scratched the surface in this piece, so get up, get out—and get going.