Milan Kundera once defined nostalgia as “the suffering caused by the unappeased yearning to return.” This sentiment echoes Thomas Wolfe’s famous dictum, you can never return home. Returning to my native North Carolina during the fifth year living in New York, I rediscovered in Raleigh, the state’s capitol, a city whose geography and culture is in unending transition. Downtown Raleigh, once deserted at night, is now unrecognizable as a district of bars, upscale restaurants and condominiums. Warehouses have been converted into sleek, cavernous spaces of nightlife, recalling Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Construction cranes punctuate the skyline, not unlike the waterfront of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Raleigh is equidistant to its neighbors of the “triangle” area—a thirty-minute drive to downtown Durham or Chapel Hill lends a larger metropolitan feel. In North Carolina, however, art communities have yet to reach a critical mass. Any studio spaces are scattered and spread out, lacking the density of such communities as Brooklyn’s Bushwick. Paradoxically, one developer, Greg Hatem of Empire properties, has engineered much of the downtown’s culture, renovating more than 40 historic buildings while preserving their original character. He has generously given gallery space to the College of Design’s student organization and temporary shop window display to local artists.
Contemporary art thrives in familiar downtown locations that have been established for over a decade. Artspace, housing artist studios, residency programs and exhibition space, recently featured the paintings of recent resident Casey Porn. Witty and exquisitely crafted, Porn juxtaposes canine portraits with a glimmering Baroque background, recalling the bling of Kehinde Wiley’s oeuvre and wild-style of Ryan McGinness. Lump Gallery, an artist-run not-for-profit space in its thirteenth season, is now located amid a construction site of mixed-use developments. Known for showing such artists as Barry McGee, Swoon and David Ellis before being known, Lump continues to adopt risky and ambitious projects, while refusing to subscribe to a commercial gallery economic structure. Without this pressure, they enjoy more creative freedom in their programming. An installation of origami and woven candy wrappers by Philadelphia-based artist Amy Kauffman gave sparse, reverent presence to Lump’s long, narrow space during my visit. A dense, rectangular carpet of Trident chewing gum wrappers led to the rear of the gallery where woven Tootsie Roll wrappers comprised framed mandala-like forms.
The Contemporary Art Museum (CAM), which recently merged with NC State University’s College of Design, is a non-collecting exhibition space, whose 20,000 square-foot warehouse space presently awaits a renovation expected by 2010 which is also when the light commuter rail is expected to be finished, connecting Raleigh to Durham and Chapel Hill. In Raleigh at large, Susan Toplikar’s horse paintings at Meredith College, evoked the atmospheric quality of abstract shapes in the work of Milton Avery and Fairfield Porter. Filmmaker Tim Kiernan drove me to the future site in 2009 of a collaborative installation at the abandoned Bain Water Purification Facility. Built in 1940, this momento mori to the waning Industrial Revolution will be given new potential and purpose with reinvented décor before being put on the market for a single tenant by Empire Properties. Kiernan, taken by the cavernous acoustics, envisions a series of performances by local indie bands such as Mount Weather, the Rosebuds, and the Bowerbirds. This project seems to follow the artist-as-pioneer tendency, also cleverly giving exposure to the building as real estate.
Downtown Durham, home of Duke University, closely follows its neighbor’s urban revitalization with such projects as the renovation of the American Tobacco campus into restaurants and office space. In addition to such artist/exhibition space complexes as Goldenbelt (a similar program to Raleigh’s Artspace), in Durham many artists, like Harrison Haynes for instance, are acquiring warehouse workspaces ahead of the real estate curve. Haynes has a new body of collages scheduled for show at Branch Gallery that is generated by his extensive archives of 35 mm photographs. With a scalpel, he cuts people and objects from everyday scenes to engage with ideas of absence and memory.
Haynes co-founded Branch Gallery with Chloe Seymore in Carrboro, a town adjacent to Chapel Hill in 2004 after the couple relocated from New York. The gallery is now co-directed by Teka Selman, formerly of Sikemma Jenkins Gallery, New York. The current exhibition by Stacy-Lynn Waddell and Kambui Olujimi explore the historic tensions of the south. Waddell’s scorched canvas and muslin piece “Make Me A Sanctuary” (2008) is an arresting mixed-media waterscape, at once calling to mind Hurricane Katrina and the transatlantic slave trade. Olujimi’s sly, witty and humorous paintings on vellum become subtly sinister through the omission and mirror imaging of letters in phrases such as “Convicted Prostitute,” “Child Porn,” and “Wanted for Arson.”
The largest construction site for the arts, however, is the North Carolina Museum of Art’s (NCMA) new 127,000 square foot addition. Housing the permanent collection, it will open in Spring 2010, leaving the existing building as a center for special exhibitions, collections management, education and administration. 2010 has become a significant date for Raleigh arts: In addition to NCMA’s addition, CAM is expected to open and Artspace will have expanded, annexing its adjacent space. The NCMA has also continued to expand its educational space by expanding its site-specific sculptures on the 164-acre park. Adjacent to Thomas Sayre’s 1999 earthen cast Gyre is Mike Cindric and Vincent Petrarca’s art as shelter structure. Assembled with prefabricated parts, the shelter’s walls are overlapping layers of perforated aluminum, which in shifting atmospheres of light, create captivating moiré patterns that also change as you move around and inside the structure.
During NCMA’s construction, a portion of the permanent contemporary collection has been loaned to the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington. I realized while visiting the Cameron it is the first time this North Carolina town has seen such works by Elizabeth Murray, Yvonne Jacquette, Neil Welliver and Franz Kline in the flesh. Newly appointed contemporary curator Kinsey Katchka has brought the traveling exhibition Julie Mehretu: City Sitings from her former institution, the Detroit Institute of Arts.
An exhibition of Mehretu’s mural-scaled paintings appropriately reflects the shifts of Raleigh’s culture and development. Highlighting the urban inspirations of Mehretu’s highly abstracted geometric and linear landscape elements and forms, the exhibition aims to introduce North Carolina to a broader definition of contemporary art. Attempting to avoid a provincial conservatism that has long haunted the region, the show responds to perceived concerns of the general public that contemporary art may be “inaccessible” or too “abstract.” Katchka ambitiously casts a wide conceptual net, stating the work explores “timely issues of migration, globalization, conflict and social action.” The theme is similarly echoed in the museum’s didactic use of wall text and illustrations that ground the urban elements of inspiration (overpasses, architecture, historic events) to specific appearances of these reference images.
But this curatorial tactic, while bringing an apt context for the revitalization of the urban fabric in Raleigh, risks an oversimplification by literalizing Mehretu’s anonymous forms. Her paintings remain identifiable as landscapes not by their urban-inspired elements (which are abstracted beyond specific recognition) but rather spatially by their jarring one-point Renaissance perspective. Can an institution ever accommodate an entire public? While the art-educated complain the rich visual ambiguity is compromised by over-explanation, those without a foundation in contemporary art still may not connect the work to their transforming city surroundings as the exhibition intends.
One interesting overarching trend I noticed is a shift of curators, artists, writers and gallerists migrating from larger cities, such as New York. In addition to Katchka at the NCMA and Haynes, Seymore and Selman of Branch Gallery, Trevor Schoomaker, a curator from New York, has joined Duke’s Nasher Museum and Cary Levine, an art historian also from New York, is teaching his first semester as professor of contemporary art at UNC-Chapel Hill. The one development yet to be seen is North Carolina’s need for arts writing. An on-going critical assessment of the arts in North Carolina may help unify various burgeoning segments of creative effort that seem dependent on urban revitalization.print