Reckoning and Resilience: North Carolina Art Now | Thursday, Jan. 13–Sunday, Jul. 10 |

Nasher Museum of Art, Durham | 

Once every few years, Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art turns its attention away from its world-class contemporary art collection and throws open its pavilions to the abundance of noteworthy talent right here in North Carolina.

The last time this happened, in the 2018 exhibit Across County Lines, the focus was squarely on photography. But Reckoning and Resilience: North Carolina Art Now, which opens Thursday, January 13, brims with the diverse mediums that, in 2015, also enlivened the museum’s first survey of local art, Area 919. Augmented by greatly increased diversity among the contributors, who are working in extraordinary times, it’s the most thorough and timely showing that local artists have ever had at The Nasher.

Assembled by a hefty curatorial team led by Marshall N. Price, Reckoning and Resilience features about 100 pieces on loan from 30 artists who work in drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, textiles, video, and mixed media. Some of them will be instantly familiar to area museumgoers, perhaps none more so than Beverly McIver, a Duke professor and internationally noted portraitist whose inimitably sculptural brushwork, seen but once, is forever recognizable at a distant glance.

Another welcome regular is Saba Taj, whose distinctive vision has carved a uniquely queer, Muslim, Southern intersection against the grain of the professional art world; here, Taj power-clashes different kinds of paint, gold leaf, thread, rhinestones, and other bits of grace and glam in a pair of dazzlingly colored pieces that flow on the threshold of portraiture and fantasy.

There are also plentiful surprises from unsuspected quarters. Bishop Ortega, though born in Arizona and based in New Mexico, created “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” for his master’s thesis at Duke, where he researched the cultural genocide effected by the university’s Industrial Indian Boarding School, and other boarding schools like it, in the late 19th century, back when Duke was Trinity College.

Given ample floor and wall space, the piece’s several components include a headless mannequin dressed in the school’s bland martial uniform, which stands before a frieze of pressed tobacco leaves—a haunted absence backlit by the golden glow of stolen wealth. Meanwhile, Asheville’s Jessica Clark balances absence with presence, documenting life today among the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina in lovingly realistic paintings.

It says something about the spirit of exigency and clarity that has arisen since COVID-19 tore the bandages from our society’s long-bleeding wounds that, while most of the works here use abstraction or conceptual overlays as ways of seeing, little of it is purely abstract. Befitting a time when “representation” is the art world’s hottest flashpoint, these artists insistently represent the human face and figure with freehanded eloquence and the vitality of resistance.

Chapel Hill’s Lien Truong refashions the exotic stereotypes of historical Orientalist painting as an intricately beautiful palimpsest of personal and family memory in “My mother, she fell from the sky,” a softly glowing mixed-media painting that whispers with silk and oil.

Durham’s Steven M. Cozart draws charcoal portraits of his family members holding brown paper bags on brown paper bags. More than a clever mise en abyme effect, this device refers to the “brown-bag test” for skin tone that informally ruled the Jim Crow era, as is explained in the hand-lettered captions below the excellent photorealist illustrations.

Greensboro’s Antoine Williams, one of the founders of North Carolina Black Artists for Liberation, located his Depression-era figures in the archives of the Farm Security Administration and cast them in two long rows of spiky collages. And Durham’s William Paul Thomas continues his always memorable, intensely psychological series Cyanosis with nine close-up paintings of Black men’s faces isolated in stark fields of color and streaked with a melancholy blue that spills through the grid and out into the gallery as if magnetized by Ayla Gizlice’s huge cyanotype map of ecological trauma in the Jordan Lake watershed.

If Reckoning and Resilience includes a wide range of artistic practices, it also includes a wide view of life, resisting the modern temptation to continually dramatize nothing but struggle.

Observe the contrasting photographic offerings of Jade Wilson (formerly the INDY’s staff photographer), who translated their deeply invested vantage on the 2020 protest movement into an unforgettable series of prints, and Kennedi Carter (the young breakout Raleigh star that photographed Beyoncé for British Vogue and Simone Biles for Glamour), who traveled across the country to celebrate young Black equestrians horsing around in their streetwear.

The exhibit wasn’t completely installed when we saw it, but we’d venture to say that the showstopper is “PTSD,” a large acrylic painting by Raleigh’s Clarence Heyward. A figure rendered in broad, smooth expanses of color stands with his back to the viewer, regarding the Pledge of Allegiance where it’s picked out in block capitals on a wall of gold leaf.

He wears a baseball cap emblazoned with the stars and stripes. He’s shirtless, and his dark back is offset by his white hands, which, clasped loosely behind his back, blend into the camouflage pattern of his shorts. One end of a pair of handcuffs is fastened around his wrist, but the other, unlocked, hangs loose.

Just opened, or about to close? The ambiguity of the image and the power of the rendering capture something unsayable about the last two years, with their uncertain balance of hard-won gains and stupendous losses. It also exemplifies an exhibit that marks how far the glib and aloof codes of the old art world have fallen in that time. Long may they plummet.

Reckoning and Resilience runs through Sunday, July 10, with a meet-the-artist event with Julia Gartrell, who runs her Radical Repair Workshop from a vintage camper trailer, on Saturday, February 12. The Nasher is also preparing a podcast series in which eight contributing artists converse with community members ranging from Ngozi Design’s Andrea Carter to a local high school teacher; keep an eye on for details.

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