Perhaps no other region in the United States mythologizes its past with the reverence found in the South. Central to the veneration are natives’ “sense of place,” which permeates their art and worldview.
That same feeling runs through the trio of new exhibits at the Mobile Museum of Art, installed specifically to commemorate Alabama 200, the state’s bicentennial celebration. Each carries its own piece of a larger sentiment but remains unique and accessible all the same.
At Southern identity’s core is a relationship to its natural world. Rene Culler’s glass installation spawned by the Mobile-Tensaw Delta cuts right to that bond. It lines an upstairs gallery dominated by a window of translucent glass 40 feet long and 16 feet high. The window itself serves as a canvas, a backdrop where Culler hung numerous sheets depicting the abundant variety of delta fauna drawn, painted and printed in vitreous enamel.
At the window’s base, slumped glass symbolizing the Delta’s ubiquitous waters ribbon through the installation’s most breathtaking element. Culler’s tall blown pieces representing the delta’s grasses are exquisite fluid and bent forms that seem to supplely wave in some undetected breeze.
The year Culler spent in research and creation is apparent. What’s amazing is that she turned out something this extensive within the constraints of that time frame. Good thing it will be in place for a year.
The largest of the new shows is “Christenberry: In Alabama,” a look at the work and life of one of the state’s most iconic visual artists. Comprising more than 90 pieces, the exhibit takes up much of the first floor, and for good reason. It was assembled from collections at Auburn University, the University of Alabama and the University of South Alabama in addition to museums in Birmingham, Huntsville and Montgomery.
A native of the Alabama Black Belt, William Christenberry spent his formative years in Tuscaloosa and Hale counties and its impression embedded deeply in his psyche. He earned a bachelor’s degree at The University of Alabama in the 1950s, developed his reputation in New York City, then began teaching at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C.
Initially an abstract expressionist, his background pushed forward into his artistic consciousness. Before long, he began regular visits to his ancestral home to recharge his creative batteries, drawing more and more from the inner and outer landscape of his youth.
All of that is here. His lineage and relations stand watch in cross-stitch and embroidery on the walls, a collection of calendars marked with dates of personal significance, homemade family trees and other heirlooms. There are tales of his ancestors’ creativity, obvious genetic traits that flowered in him.
Also recreated is the artist’s noted collection of signs plucked from rural environs, the ephemera of a bygone world. Gourds, church signs, feed signs, soft drink and snuff brands, some bearing the obligatory rusted pockmarks of long-ago gunshot. In a creative yet symbolic move, viewers are kept at a respectable distance by a barrier filled with red soil common to the region Christenberry cherished.
The vast display of his photography is familiar. All the iconography, the decaying buildings, the kudzu, the forlorn past are there in abundance. What this viewer found most intriguing are his more personal interpretations — the dream buildings, a lantern, a tornado table, the paintings — where the information available to all is digested, then reshaped by his singular vision.
The show departs in June.
While Christenberry’s exhibit is more anchored in the past, “Contemporary Alabama Photography” takes some of the same elements and examines them through fresh eyes. Richard McCabe, the curator of photography at New Orleans’ Ogden Museum of Southern Art, assembled the show and achieved a good smattering of tones and voices in a show that will remain through August.
Of the 11 artists represented, Pinky M/M Bass’ installation seems most closely related to Christenberry’s exhibit, chiefly for its obvious look backward. Born of her fears of age’s frailties, it blends sewn garments with historical photos and books printed in years long past.
Other artists such as April Dobbins, Celestia Morgan, Patrick Owen and Jared Ragland focus on subject matter tangential to Christenberry’s but with variations. There’s the same sense of place, of rural connection or time’s passage, but with fresher sensibilities.
Jenny Fine’s dioramas stand out in their boldness and — combined with her essay on that staple of the Southern holiday table, the Jell-O mold — convey a wry perspective that buoys the overall show.
Refreshing are the nebulous and abstract entries in Zach McCauley’s group, which reach mostly because they reach beyond expectation. The departure from the rustic is a nice counterbalance.
The continuum from the ancient through the future is a full arc perfect for the momentous year. It’s another sure sign the museum’s outlook remains as bright as its glass foyer.