"The most fascinating element of Savage’s Antithesis are the cast iron eggs that rest atop colorful pillow mounds. The piece reckons with the ongoing discussion about black women and the myth of invulnerability
January 2009/Issue 11
Phoenix Savage: Black Like Me
Norma Clark: Transformation
Arthello Beck Gallery, Dallas, TX
December 8 - January 3, 2009
The newly renovated South Dallas Cultural Center's; Arthello Beck Gallery continues to offer the Dallas community contemporary art with its current exhibition of mixed media sculptures by Atlanta artist Phoenix Savage and Texas abstract landscape painter Norma Clark.
Savage a transplant to Atlanta works in a similar vein of the "Ethnographic Sculptor" Charles Cordier (1827-1905). While Cordier was a figurative sculptor working in bronze and polychrome marble, both he and Savage share the profession of anthropology, using this discipline as source material for their sculptures. Cordier agitated the Parisian bourgeoisie; with his exquisite statuesque busts of Africans, proclaiming, "The most beautiful Negro is not the one who looks most like us." Cordier's NeÌƒgre du Soudan( Negro of Sudan) and VeÌƒnus africaine (African Venus) were exhibited in direct contrast to the circus-style exhibitions that continued to dominate the arts and sciences during post-Saartjie Baartman, France.
Savage, on the other hand, pulls from historical events, visually narrating the nuances of the African experience in America. Using iconographic imagery to trigger understanding and thought in the viewer's mind, Savage employs metal casting, assemblage, still photography, ceramic and forged mental as mediums for her methods that provoke the viewer into a new recognition of the other. With John Henry's Legs, welded iron railroad spikes stacked one upon the other are embedded in cast bronze feet, Savage guides the viewer into the history of one of America's most popular folk songs, albeit partial truth and partial myth about a man who challenges a steam engine. The welded iron spikes call into view the strength required of enslaved workers as America forged its way through the industrial age. However, the precarious image of the spikes stacked one on top of the other creates an understanding of the fragility of human strength. John Henry, a convict leased to a railroad company won the battle but lost the war, he died shortly after beating the steam engine as they raced to drill a hole in a mountain to plant dynamite.
Savage offers a re-telling of the Jim Crow South with Picnic. The black monochromatic picnic basket with its contents of an oversized metal fork and spoon, wine bottle, glass, napkin and hang men's noose harkens back to surrealist scenes of strange fruit hanging from trees while families dine on culinary delicacies appropriate for a picnic.
The depth to which Savage applies subtle relations to history and bigotry are seen in They All Look A Like. Nearly 40 six to seven-foot tall bamboo polls stand erect with black porcelain heads mounted atop, seemingly of the same face. Closer examination reveals the slight differences in facial gestures distinguishing one from the other. The sculpture touches upon both the ubiquitous cultural idiom "they all look a like," often repeated when one ethnic group applies benign bigotry towards another. At the same time, these hand-sculpted figures are reminiscent of severed heads planted on fence posts along River Road after the Louisiana Slave Revolt of 1811. With all of Savage's sculptures, there is a history lesson embedded in the artisanship and beauty of her art. Each sculpture offers the viewer an opportunity to question who, what, when, where and why? In many cases, the clues to the question's answers are in the sculpture's titles. Savage; like Cordier, employs anthropology with a dose of artistic desire, to offer beauty to the world as exemplified in the experiences of persons of African descent.
Norma Clark creates painterly investigations of her "mark making process" across, under, through, over, besides, juxtaposed to, and in conjunction with motion. Clark's abstract paintings are a journey with form and hue. Branches, a large size oil painting is an intertwined web of morphed branches set upon a grid ghosting their way back and forth, as if the wind is to blame for their ebb and flow of shape, color, and line. Branches employ black and white in highly strategic manners, so much so that it takes the viewer a while to realize that Clark is working with a very limited palette of red, orange and green that she deftly applies achieving all that each color has to yield across its spectrum.
Clark paints without preconceived thoughts of the sum gain of her painterly explorations, she describes her process as "beautiful chaos." Her interest rest with where the paintbrush lands in relation to the next brush stroke. In its truest Zen state, Clark releases conscience control in order to allow the language of mark making its fullest achievement of beautiful chaos.
An infectious laugh bubbles up continuously from deep inside Campti sculptor Phoenix Savage when she talks about her life, whether during a telephone or face-to-face interview.
When she discusses her family in Philadelphia.
Her travels in Africa and how she challenged a great fear there.
Her 10 moves across the United States.
Her decision to move to Mississippi and study the burning of churches.
Her location in Campti and her studies at Northwestern State University.
And how it all affected her art.
Savage and five other contemporary working Louisiana artists will be featured in "Focus Gallery: Louisiana Artists at the Crossroads," opening today at Meadows Museum of Centenary College.
During the show's run, there will be Artists' Circle events to bring artists and locals together.
"They will explore the perspectives on career paths, creative methods/techniques and the community impact of the visual arts," said Leia A. Lewis, Meadows Museum educator.
Kara Olidge, a Ph.D. candidate at the State University of New York-Buffalo, is exhibition curator. Lewis and Olidge organized the initial series of "Crossroads Exhibitions" in New Orleans from 1996 to 1998.
"These are Louisiana artists on the verge of breaking through and achieving national recognition," said Meadows Director Diane Dufilho.
At 46, Savage comes late to pursuing art as a full-time career.
"As a young child, I was always interested in art. My family encouraged me, but not much. They really wanted me to do something practical, to get a job," she said.
She was developing anthropology into a career, a move that brought her from New Mexico to Mississippi and eventually to Louisiana.
She ended up in Natchitoches two years ago on another research project, hoping to land opportunities to work as an anthropologist.
That didn't work out, but she purchased a home in Campti anyway.
"I needed to settle down, so why not here," said Phoenix. "It is a most charming old home on a beautiful plot in a tranquil settlement."
And she signed up for NSU's master's program in studio/sculpture. She has only a thesis class to go to receive her degree.
The thesis: "Black Artist and the Negotiation of Niggerism."
Summed up: How black artists negotiate for space to exhibit their work.
She describes her own work as "very contemporary, highly contemporary."
"She speaks to the African-American experience through the lens of her family and her community. She uses sculpture to do that," Lewis said.
Matt DeFord, Savage's major professor, appreciates the artist's work on a lot of different scales.
"Her work references a lot of personal racial history. She really chronicles the idea of what it is to be black in America and in the South," DeFord said.
"It speaks to something that affects us and has affected all of us," he added.
To tell her stories, Savage selects materials that range from hard steel to soft, pliable raffia and, in varied ways, combines them with porcelain, photography and found objects.
Among the pieces she'll show at Meadows is "Gilded Slave in a Box." Using Aunt Jemima salt-and-pepper shakers, the artist cast a mold of black porcelain and brushed the shakers with gold leaf, encased them in gold nails and arranged them in a long and narrow wooden box accented with raffia.
The point of the piece? "We should set Aunt Jemima free. She is the most overworked woman on earth," Savage answered.
The piece is DeFord's favorite Savage work. "In the South, a lot of children were raised by a black nanny. That same person cooked the food and was almost a source of comfort," he said.
"She took an antique image and reproduced it in ceramics and gold leaf and placed it in packing and glorified and repackaged it."
Instead of sketching her ideas, Savage writes them. "I make crazy notes about a sculpture to do. I write ideas and thoughts. I finally ask myself, 'What would that look like?' Then I envision what it would look like."
Her pieces, already being purchased by collectors, range from around $2,000 and up.
Although she is settled now, she grew up in Philadelphia, the product of a father who was a jazz musician and mother who was an educator.
"I originally came to the South 10 years ago, searching for an understanding of how African-American communities redeveloped themselves after the experiences of the burning of their churches in the 1990s. I was wanting to understand how people were coping with that," said Savage.
During seven years of life in Mississippi, she learned that there are really some good-hearted people in the world and that people who are already marginalized still are resilient about their faith.
In between home and Campti, Savage traveled to Africa where she walked on top of a rain forest via slings of rope, resembling a ladder that swings back and forth as you walk.
"I am afraid of heights. It was very scary and once you started you had to continue. There was no going back," Savage said.
And so she moved forward across the tree tops.
It sounds a lot like Savage's life.
She moves forward one home and one career at a time.
Today, she is an artist at the crossroads.
Meadows Museum announced in January that six contemporary working Louisiana artists will be featured in "Focus Gallery: Louisiana Artists at the Crossroads" at the Meadows Museum of Art at Centenary College. The exhibit will be featured at the Museum until April 14. The six artists of the exhibit, representing diverse perceptions and experiences of African American culture, include painter Marcus Akinlana, photographer Gus Bennett, Jr., sculptor Sheleen Jones-Adenle, painter Frank Kelley, Jr., painter Jamar Pierre, and sculptor Phoenix Savage.
If you go to the exhibit, proceed to the second floor of Meadows to the Focus gallery. You can start your experience with any piece in the gallery. Because there are various artists represented, the collection is held together by its theme: community and culture.
The first thing one will notice in the middle of the gallery is a pair of "legs" created by bronze railroad spikes with a pair of bronze feet at the base. This is Phoenix Savage's mixed media sculpture "John Henry's Legs." John Henry is an American folk hero, most notable for outlasting a steam power hammer laying railroad tracks. The power and dedication of John Henry is memorialized in the spikes. The spikes, vertically connected one to the other, create a powerful and moving image. Phoenix creates more memorable images with her piece "Gilded Slave in a Box." This piece can best be described as a longer vertical shelf with approximately twelve small boxes with little bronze figures. These figures have no faces or clear shape. They are lumpy and surrounded by grass straw. Taken separately, these items are plain. But combined, I got the sense of what it may have felt like to be a slave - a faceless, shapeless nothingness of a life captured in a confined space surrounded by trash.
Gus Bennett, Jr. depicts the everyday person within the context of a community with his digital photography combined with organic material from the subject's environment: leaves, stone, mud, etc. His sessions usually occur on the subject's porch. Bennett's ability to capture the essence of person is particularly remarkable. His photo "Tyari" depicts a young African-American male all dolled up in a monogrammed suit holding a remembrance notice of a family member. The uncertainty, youthfulness, and naivety are clearly captured on Tyari's face and in his body language.