This is Not: Aldwyth in Retrospect | The Gregg Museum of Art & Design, Raleigh | On display through Oct. 7

Aldwyth wishes that her shadowboxes weren’t behind glass.

At 87, the South Carolina artist—who goes by only her last name—sees most of her work as dynamic material to puzzle over and form a relationship with.

Mark Sloan, curator of the exhibition This is Not: Aldwyth in Retrospect now on display at the Gregg Museum of Art & Design, explains this as we observe an encased piece called “Rolodex: History, Condition, and Prospects”—a small, weathered box on wheels. Inside it, spliced by a key, is a Rolodex of intricate photos.

Aldwyth’s pieces tend to have esoteric titles like this, though it’s also clear that the artist—whose prolific, enchanting body of work gives a middle finger to the art world—also wants to give audiences a chance to engage with it. To wit, most pieces are accompanied by detailed indexes identifying each aspect of the art.

But from a curator’s perspective, of course, the delicate boxes need at least a modicum of protection—so, behind glass they go.

This is Not: Aldwyth in Retrospect spans nearly 70 years of Aldwyth’s work, featuring pieces from 1953 onward across numerous mediums. On March 2, the Gregg will also screen the documentary Aldwyth: Fully Assembled by the Chapel Hill-based filmmaker Olympia Stone. 

“We were thrilled to be able to have this work because I feel like it’s very accessible,” Gregg Museum director Roger Manley says. “This is a great example of a woman who’s working by herself, following her own nose, so to speak—just really doing what she wanted to do without too much regard for what other people would think about it.”

This is Not: Aldwyth in Retrospect is the most comprehensive Aldwyth exhibition to date and much-deserved recognition of a brilliant artist of the Carolinas.

This is Not contains dozens upon dozens of shadowboxes, still lives (including a series of egg paintings with the emphatic Magritte reference “Ceci n’est pas an egg” and a series of eighty-some watermelon paintings), and collages that are, at once, sprawling and surgically precise.

Repetition and references are abundant throughout Aldwyth’s work and there is always more than meets the eye: In the same square of a frame, a collage may contain both a cutout from a Sargent painting and a cutout of Jennifer Lopez in the famous green Versace dress. Even the watermelon paintings, which replicate a slice of the fruit in the same dimensions over and over again, are working at a “color problem,” Sloan says.

As is evident by the retrospective’s title, Aldwyth likes to put her work in relief against what it’s not. Nowhere is this more evident than in “re-su-mé/re-sume,” the piece that, in 1999, first introduced Sloan to Aldwyth’s work.

“I’m sitting in my office and I get a call from my colleague and friend at the South Carolina Arts Commission,” Sloan says. “She says, ‘We received a fellowship application for the South Carolina fellowship, but the artist didn’t follow the rules. We asked for a work sample and a résumé. This person sent a work sample that was a résumé.’”

The résumé-slash-work-sample is a box that unfolds to show glass shelves with 48 boxes. Inside each box is a piece of paper with a word on it, all accolades that might otherwise belong on a typically “accomplished” résumé of the art world: “NEA Grant,” “Art in America review,” “M.F.A.,” “Manhattan art dealer.” Each box has a declarative X over it, designating it as something Aldwyth doesn’t have—and maybe, from the defiance of the gesture, doesn’t want. 

 Only one box has a checkmark: inside, written on a piece of paper, is the word “work.”

“Re-su-mé/re-sume” by Aldwyth. Photo courtesy the Gregg Museum of Art and Design.

If Aldwyth’s style is defined by playful engagement with the world, her own life has been tertiary, at times, to that world. 

She lives in a small octagonal house on the edge of a South Carolina salt marsh with an interior decoration style that could accurately be described as spare: no real kitchen (just a hot plate, refrigerator, microwave, and coffeemaker) and no bed (just a foam pad). 

Until 1999, when Sloan encountered her work and tracked Aldwyth down—while her application to the South Carolina Arts Commission hadn’t included a phone number, it did contain an address—she’d lived as a near recluse for almost two decades, encountering few people outside of visits from her grown children (Aldwyth also declined an interview for this piece).

If these hermetic tendencies seem contradictory to the energetic, omnivorous cultural appetite on display in her work—so omnivorous as to feel social—that’s just another tick mark in Aldwyth’s catalog of contradictions; another “this is not.”

Aldwyth was born in California in 1936; her father was in the Marines and the family moved around frequently. When she was 18, believing that she was pregnant, Aldwyth married; then came art school and three sons, then years of inactivity as her husband forbade her to practice art on her own time.

By 1973, she’d had enough and left him, working a series of odd jobs, including as a meter maid, housecleaner, and realtor. In 1980, when her sons had left home for college, Aldwyth moved into her octagonal home and began an art practice that quickly became all-consuming.

“I walked into this 900-square-foot house and it was like walking inside a Joseph Cornell box—every surface was exquisite and just perfectly worked,” says Sloan, recollecting that fateful 1999 first meeting. “There were little drawers marked ‘eyeballs’ that you pull out and with all these cutout eyeballs and nude figures facing left and nude figures facing right and, you know, dogs, and cows—this whole world all cut out of magazines.”

Between 1980 and 1999, Aldwyth did begin to submit her work. Her style of assembled work was atypical to the art world market, though, and she found it difficult to make inroads. In 1989, when she exhibited a mirrored box that contained a bottle of cadmium red paint, a male critic glibly interpreted it as a commentary on menstrual blood. From then on, Aldwyth would go only by a mononym

This is Not: Aldwyth in Retrospect is the most comprehensive Aldwyth exhibition to date and a much-deserved recognition of a brilliant artist of the Carolinas. 

You could attend it multiple times with a different mission for each visit—to locate her muse, the “zombie ant,” which makes its way into almost all of her work; to trace a critical history of the art world that she weaves between pieces—and have a different experience. 

And while the shadowboxes are mesmerizing, Aldwyth isn’t only interested in scenes of enclosure: the collages, with references as infinite as the internet, sprawl and delight. Visitors to This is Not can expect to have their expectations contradicted, curiosity nurtured, and creative boundaries expanded.

“There’s so much art, and so many different ways to do it,” Aldwyth says in the Fully Assembled documentary “I’m just one little twinkle in that sky. I’m not Duchamp—but then, Duchamp is not me.”

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