There’s something slippery going on at 301 Conti Street. A new exhibition, “Temper and Conduct,” at Alabama Contemporary Art Center (ACAC) tries to peer into the collective unconscious and get its hands around the sinuous.
Think “legless reptiles” and “banners on poles.” Both can appear to writhe and are ancient symbols representing more than the obvious.
The show is ACAC’s latest featuring relatively young regional artists in venues new to their talent. The spotlight this go-round belongs to Kate Hargrave and Melissa Vandenberg, Midwest natives now transplanted to the traditional South.
Vandenberg is from Detroit and now teaches at Eastern Kentucky University. Her work has been exhibited across the U.S., Canada, Germany, Iceland and Luxembourg.
Hargrave hails from Illinois and has taught at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga for the last seven years. Her experience down South has been surprising in the best ways.
“My friends were nervous for me, but it’s been a pretty great place to be. My students are really open and eager to learn,” Hargrave said.
She quickly cited the southern Appalachians’ natural beauty. More specifically, she lauded Chattanooga’s central location.
“It’s easy to get in a car and drive to Nashville, Knoxville, Atlanta, Birmingham, all in a couple of hours. It’s a lot different than the Midwest where everything is so spread out,” Hargrave said.
A quick glance at both artists’ portfolios reveals a fascination with the serpentine. Vandenberg’s tend to be cuddlier than those in reality, fashioned from quilts, old gloves and other fabric. Some star-spangled pieces are obviously crafted from U.S. flags.
Hargrave utilizes serpents and similar forms, too. In conversation, she continually referenced the Gadsden flag, a rattlesnake-bedecked banner sporting the “Don’t Tread On Me” slogan. The viper was included for its dangerous tone and American home.
That inspiration sparked a Hargrave series of flags picturing endangered plants easily trampled under livestock hooves. That put her in the mindset of the invasive versus the indigenous, where earthworms in the northern reaches of the U.S. came over with Europeans and enriched the land.
“So, thinking about things not native to the U.S. that do improve the landscape, improve the soil like the earthworm does, just to kind of challenge the idea that everything native is inherently good,” Hargrave said.
Married with the role flags play, these twisting forms seemed somehow linked to the artists.
“When people are trying to come together, one of the first things that they do to communicate their power is create a flag. Design standards reinforce nationalist narratives, which, for me, conflicts with some of their early American flexibility,” Hargrave said.
More ties emerged from Mobile history, namely from the inked body of founder Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville. A French admiral’s 1720 logbook described Bienville’s snake tattoos, copied from the native inhabitants as a sign of adaptability and respect.
Hargrave’s local history mentor — Serpents of Bienville proprietor and tattoo artist Sean Herman — ties in with another of the show’s elements. Local tattoo artists Rachael Ellzey Black, Suzette Callahan, Tyler Johnson, A.J. Ludlow and Grace Schuessler will supply flash paintings exploring intersections between the needle’s prick and viper’s bite.
“We turned those into temporary tattoos folks can pick up at the gallery and also into small flags displayed in the exhibition,” Hargrave said.
A Ben Franklin quote weighing the validity of the rattlesnake as an American symbol has proven central. The Founding Father noted the serpent’s fangs as “necessary” to nourishment yet “certain destruction” to enemies.
“This may be understood to intimate that those things which are destructive to our enemies, may be to us, not only harmless but absolutely necessary to our existence,” Franklin is quoted.
Hargrave utilized the statement in her largest piece, a 20-by-20-foot installation that will “take over two walls in the gallery” and employs the Franklin quotation. That’s in addition to a video installation and six flags.
She estimated Vandenberg has six pieces.
The exhibit opens April 9 and runs through June 26.
Gallery hours are Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Though entrance is normally $5, visitors are only asked to pay what they can during the pandemic.
Face coverings are required and capacity is limited to 100 people.
For more information, call 251-208-5671 or go to alabamacontemporary.org.
Embrace Alabama Kids will paint a mural in Cathedral Square, 4-8 p.m., during the April 9 ArtWalk. The nonprofit raises awareness of Alabama’s vulnerable kids and families. Hopeful volunteer painters can sign up for one-hour slots by calling 251-510-2736 or going to embraceALKids.org.
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