Under the Dome
By Pamela S. Wall
When the Gibbes Museum of Art reopened our doors on May 28 following an 18 month renovation, we hit the ground running with two stellar special exhibitions; they were “Beyond Catfish Row: The Art of Porgy and Bess” and “The Things We Carry: Contemporary Art in the South.” If you missed the opening celebrations, not to worry. Both exhibitions are on view through October 9, allowing plenty of time to plan a visit.
Presented in partnership with Spoleto Festival USA, “Beyond Catfish Row: The Art of Porgy and Bess” draws from the Gibbes collection and important public and private loans to explore the visual art related to George Gershwin’s famed opera. When Porgy and Bess debuted on Broadway in 1935, the production left an indelible impression on our country with its portrayal of life and race relations in Charleston in the 1920s. The story of Porgy, Bess, Crown, Maria, Sportin’ Life and the other residents of Catfish Row has been communicated primarily through the arts of literature, music and performance. However, the visual arts have also played a crucial role in disseminating the story of Porgy and of African American life in Charleston, to a wide audience.
“Beyond Catfish Row” examines interpretations of the opera created by visual artists through the years, along with the important role this artwork has played in shaping public perception. The exhibition includes a number of paintings from the 1930s era, including works by American realist George Biddle, who illustrated the original Porgy and Bess libretto in 1935. “Beyond Catfish Row” also includes paintings by Gershwin himself and works by American modernist Henry Botkin, Gershwin’s cousin who accompanied the composer to Charleston while he wrote the opera.
The 1930s works are paired with more recent interpretations by contemporary artists Kara Walker and Jonathan Green. One of the foremost artists addressing issues of race, class and gender in America, Walker created a suite of 20 lithographs as illustrations for the Porgy and Bess libretto published in 2013. Green served as the visual designer contributing to costume and set design for the 2016 Spoleto production of Porgy and Bess. The Gibbes exhibition includes a selection of Green’s costume sketches that depict Bess, Porgy, Serena, Clara and others dressed in boldly-colored, flowing fabric inspired by West African culture. Together, these works of art capture the 80-year history of Porgy and Bess, an enduring masterpiece of American art.
“The Things We Carry: Contemporary Art in the South” features paintings, sculpture, photography and mixed media works by a diverse group of contemporary artists. Organized in response to the tragic shooting of nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015, “The Things We Carry” addresses the troubled history of the American South and the many ways that contemporary artists represent that history. The exhibition provides a venue for dialogue and reflection where the Charleston community and visitors alike can come together in the spirit of understanding and unity, inspired by the art on view.
The artists whose works appear in “The Things We Carry” were selected from past winners and finalists of the 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art. Awarded annually by the Gibbes, the 1858 Prize celebrates artists whose work contributes to a new understanding of art in the South. The extraordinary artists in “The Things We Carry” include Bo Bartlett, William Christenberry, Sonya Clark, Andréa Keys Connell, Lonnie Holley, Deborah Luster, Sally Mann, Stephen Marc, Mike Smith, Damian Stamer and Stacy Lynn Waddell. The artists in “The Things We Carry” show us that the history of the South is complex and that the legacies and modern effects of racism and violence are real. In the face of that reality, the artists also show us the power of contemporary art to interpret the world around us, to raise awareness of social issues and hopefully, to enact positive change.
Both “The Things We Carry” and “Beyond Catfish Row” explore subject matter directly relevant to the Charleston community and we hope to see you in the museum soon. The Gibbes is now open late on Wednesday nights (until 8 p.m.), so invite a friend, enjoy a glass of wine and take in the special exhibitions — what a perfect way to spend an evening!
Pamela S. Wall is the curator of Exhibitions at the Gibbes Museum of Art, where she manages the museum’s special exhibitions and develops interpretive programming that supports the museum’s education and outreach initiatives. Prior to her tenure at the Gibbes, she worked at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. She holds a B.A. in art history from Washington and Lee University and an M.A. in art history from the University of South Carolina.