Exhibition Review - Southern Modern from the Young Art Writers Project

Published March 27th 2024
By Chelsea Barringer

Southern Modern Installation View Courtesy of The Frist

Upon entering the first gallery, viewers are greeted by bright blocks of yellows, greens, and blues surrounding the figures to build the environment of this frontispiece work. The subjects welcome the viewer to step into the life that the artist has depicted with their gaze. Blocks of color build the land on which these two subjects reside and work. William H. Johnson's Evening depicts the quiet part of the African American subjects’ days in the rural South, and in turn, depicts the two as everyday "southerners." This slice of southern life in Dr. Jonathan Stuhlman's traveling exhibition Southern/Modern is currently on display at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville from January 26th through April 28th in the Ingram Gallery.

This exhibition focuses on the South as an overlooked hub of visual arts in the early to mid-twentieth century. To tell this story, art from several artists working in the South as well as art from outside the South that touches on Southern lives and issues is displayed. The exhibit is broken down into eight sections that the viewer is guided through, from depicting the life of southerners, the importance of the land, and roles of religion and beliefs, to the darkness of segregation and Jim Crow, the harsh labor southerners encountered on the terrain, and the move away from agricultural to industrial. The final two sections that the viewer encounters include modern works by leading art colonies in the South and the varying types of modernism that Southern artists are creating.

The Rites of Spring, Romare Bearden, ca. 1941

This vast range of works, such as Carroll Cloar’s A Story Told by My Mother to Romare Bearden’s The Rites of Spring, allows the viewer to get to know the South and the history building up to the modernist abstraction, such as Paul Ninas’ Which is the right Side of the Mirror. Nashville's Frist Art Museum has displayed these compositions in a way that will open dialogues between Nashvillians and create understanding for non-southerners on southern life. The institution is clear that its goal is to open members of their community and non-southerners to new perspectives, and this presentation of works does just that. The display centers around the overlooked visual component of the arts in the south and highlights the Southern stories artists depicted. The Frist is doing this in a city known for its rich musical history but is opening viewers to a new take on Southern life and culture that moves beyond music. However, the Frist has not forgotten the importance of music to the community of Nashville and connects these two histories by having a QR code that links viewers to a playlist curated specifically for the collection of pieces they are seeing. Offering interactivity is an important connection not just for the community’s understanding of these artworks but for outsiders as well. As Nashville has become more of a tourist hub, many non-southern visitors come to know about the history of music in the south. This exhibit opens to tourists the perspective of other arts in the south as well, emphasizing important cultural aspects of the south that are easily overlooked. The Frist has also tied in other art aspects such as quotes from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and commentary from professionals such as William Eiland that enhance the viewer’s artworks and perspectives.

The Rites of Spring, Romare Bearden, ca. 1941

By focusing on the environment in which they are working, the team at the Frist has transformed the atmosphere and used it to elevate the topics they are exploring. This is best seen in the room dedicated to the hard reality of Jim Crow and Segregation in the South is sullen and dark, encouraging viewers to discuss the hard realities they are seeing depicted within the pieces. Bringing discussion to this room was an important aspect of this exhibit for the Frist. In discussion with curator Mark Scala, he emphasized the importance of this room. He explained that the team at the Frist wanted this room to reflect the truth of the history, leading to their decision to change the name of this room from “Social Issues'' to “Jim Crow and Segregation.” Curatorial decisions like this not only lead to discussion about the past relevance of Jim Crow and segregation but also bring forth the last effects this time has had on the south and Black Americans living in the south. To reinforce the importance of this space, a video in this section of the gallery features three Black Nashvillians discussing the importance of this room and the works, with an emphasis on what is being brought to Nashville. Next to this video, the team at the Frist has set up a station for viewers to write down ways this troubling part of southern history has impacted their lives and put it on the wall. This opens discussions between groups of people that may not have been in the exhibit together at the same time, but they are still seeing the thoughts of other viewers. Couches in the center of the room invite viewers to sit down and take some time in this room to further reflect on what they are seeing and reading. These elements take the artworks in this gallery and makes the experience of the viewer move beyond just looking at the pieces. This is an experience about reflecting on these pieces and the circumstances behind their creation.

Another positive aspect of this exhibition is the range of works by women shown. Works by Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Elizabeth Catlett, Margaret Moffet Law, and many other women artists are featured in Southern/Modern. This provides an important overlooked aspect of the life of women in the south, elevating the viewer from the perspective of women simply as mothers' home makers in the early to mid 1900s. The viewer is seeing the perspective of southern women as people who had opinions and aspirations that went further than the nuclear family. These women were depicting their lives and the lives of the people around them in the works they were creating and providing their own views and contexts. As the focus of the exhibit moves into southern abstraction in art, the viewer is still seeing works by women such as Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald and Mary Leath Thomas. It is also important to note that the Frist is doing more than slapping the works of women artists into this grouping. The chatterboxes accompanying many of these works go into a brief detail of the life of these women and the way they were introduced to their art careers. This is an important set of information to further the importance of the contributions these women made to the art  world and the futures of women in the arts.

Red, Gold and Black, Mary Leath Thomas, 1957

The Frist has opened the walls of their building to the stories and perspectives of artists that were depicting the south and changing the course of southern art. The harsh facts and realities of the south are not shied away from in this exhibit and are openly discussed so that the viewer can better understand the impact of the events happening in this time. By bridging gaps in conversations about the arts in the south and the role of Black Southerners and Women Southerners, this exhibit shows that the south was, and continues to be, an important hub for the arts.

Southern/Modern, Curated by Dr. Jonathan Stuhlman and Mark Scala, is currently in the Frist’s Ingram Gallery through April 28, 2024. @fristartmuseum on Instagram has more information.

Chelsea Barranger is an undergraduate student at Middle Tennessee State University, graduating in the Spring of 2024 with a Bachelor of Science in Art History. She received an Associates of Arts in 2020 from Pellissippi State Community College. She has been published in the Spring 2023 issue of Collage and in the Fall 2023 Art Capstone Class Publication “Aggressively Boring.”

@chelsea.r.b on Instagram