Contemporary Art, Southern Style

The Savannah College of Art and Design's museum-quality fine art exhibits are a regional jewel

Installation view of Chiharu Shiota’s “Infinity Lines.” Courtesy SCAD

Many associate the Savannah College of Art and Design first with design, despite the name.

The school’s prestigious programs are known for producing creative professionals with real world aspirations and applications more than lofty pie in the sky conceptualists. But this image forgets the fine art shows—even world city-museum level shows—at the museum that SCAD operates. Indeed, a bounty of international artists’ work is shown at SCAD Museum of Art, making Savannah an arts capital of the American south.

Last month, SCAD’s annual deFINE ART event kicked off SCAD Museum of Art’s exhibits for the spring. No one was disappointed. Here are our favorites.

Chiharu Shiota

The Berlin-based artist’s “Infinity Lines,” a string sculpture encompassing an entire room, is a melange of light and shapes through which you can walk. It also presented a significant logistical undertaking.

The work took weeks of 10 hour days for a team of art handlers, who strung the estimated 56 miles of red thread across and around a grouping of chairs at the center of the large room. Installation was further complicated by a need to make the exhibit ADA-compliant, curator Aaron Levi Garvey told an assembled crowd during the deFINE ART event.

Shiota—a prolific artist with 25 shows around the world this year—also faces the challenge that she can’t exactly sell the installation, or much of her thread work, if any, due to the logistical constraints inherent in her work.

Her work has appeared at MoMA PS1 and in the 2015 Venice Biennale.

“Infinity Lines” is on view at the SCAD Museum of Art until August 6.

Glen Fogel at SCAD Museum of Art. Courtesy SCAD

Glen Fogel

The title of the New York-based artist’s show, “Without You … Us,” was inspired by a t-shirt worn by a Japanese child in a documentary about internet addiction, Fogel explained. That sounds about right for Fogel, an artist known for site-specific, immersive works, but who eschews any self-seriousness about his work.

The new installation features high resolution video of family jewels (not the perverted sort). Women’s rings, some of which have lost their stones, gleam in lavish contrast to break up letters that Fogel has received, the text of which is projected on the opposing walls, excerpted from his text works called Letter Paintings and Man Quilt.

“I like the idea of being slightly confused by the work,” said Humberto Moro, SCAD’s curator of exhibitions, who put together the show.

After the rings sequence concludes, another immersive video piece begins, this one shot via drone in Fogel’s childhood home. 

Mediation and where it takes him and what it means, are themes for Fogel, who also works by having pieces fabricated in China for the lowest possible cost, he said. The idea of watching your childhood home from the unique drone view perspective creates an alienation that contrasts with the feeling of a quaint suburban home.

The work then concludes abruptly, and the lights come up. The jewels are gone and you’re left to wonder why they were so hypnotic.

“Without You … Us” is on view at the SCAD Museum of Art until May 28.

Hank Willis Thomas at SCADMOA. Courtesy SCAD

Hank Willis Thomas

Art star Hank Willis Thomas’ work often looks at African-American identity and the imagery, historical and current, surrounding African-American life. Assorted works, though most were made in the last five years, populate the largest room at SCAD Museum of Art and show off Thomas’ range beautifully.

Even if you’re already familiar with many of the works, they bear seeing again and in this grouping. Willis Thomas, on top of being a provocative and prolific artist, is also an articulate and engaging speaker who explains his work in a mode that is simultaneously intellectual, accessible, entertaining and moving.

A thruline when he discussed works in “Freedom Isn’t Always Beautiful,” was how audiences often perceived totally different meaning—in fact, meaning that had never occurred to him—in his pieces that center on race.

Take his early work, Priceless #1, which takes the trope of the oft-intoned Visa commercials of the early aughts. Willis Thomas made the photography collage work after the shooting death of his cousin. The casket was paid for on credit—a common occurrence. In a photo he took at the funeral he points to various objects in the scene, pieces of clothing, etc. with the price listed next to it, in the theme of the print and tv ads by Visa that were ubiquitous at the time. Atop the casket are the words “picking the perfect casket for your son: priceless.”

The idea was to point to how, as the artist said, you can end up “paying interest on the debt of your own pain.” The piece was met with criticism, some of which called Willis Thomas, who is black, racist. “I stopped being a photographer in earnest after taking this photo,” he said.

Another, later work, also on view at the SCAD Museum of Art, is a sculpture in bronze based on a photograph taken in 1990 in South Africa. It shows black men who work in the diamond mines forced to endure a cavity search at the end of their shift. He cast the nude men with their hands above their heads from the picture in bronze, but in the exact poses in which they appear. The fact that the work was revealed shortly after the Ferguson protests and the attendant increased attention to shootings of black men by police in the U.S., however, cause many to assume the idea of the work was “hands up, don’t shoot.” In the photo, the men are in an industrial-feeling shower area, not utterly removed from a concentration camp, in terms of mood. But his sculptures took this away, leaving only the most recent humiliation of black men in people’s minds.

However people interpret his work, it becomes a jumping off point for conversation for Willis Thomas, which is (at least part of) the point.

“When you call something art, you’re allowed to look at it and talk about it and think about it more deeply,” he said. That would seem like the animating factor that made Willis Thomas become an artist.

“Freedom Isn’t Always Beautiful,” is on view at the SCAD Museum of Art until August 20.

Contemporary Art, Southern Style