Local Histories in Chapel Hill

Regional energy and narratives have a dynamic presence in Local Histories: The Ground We Walk On, beginning with the exhibition building itself. Curator and artist elin o’Hara slavick noted the Chapel Hill Museum (previously the Chapel Hill Public Library and once a day care center) had closed and started the process of gaining permission to use and restore it for this exhibition. The undertaking was funded on a shoestring with slavick and many of the participating artists acting as cleaners and painters.

Although grassroots activity may account for part of the vitality, the exhibit’s mainstay is exuberant and thoughtful art. In one gallery, Drift, a huge, formally arresting installation by Lee Delegard and Ashley Florence, does not disappoint. Its unpretentious materials—flattened cardboard boxes—flow out from a corner in commemoration of a 1996 snowstorm that dramatically affected North Carolinians.

Drift is installed near two other impressive works, also in earth shades, that convey a palpable sense of North Carolina. Cici Stevens, in her elementally and environmentally connected Grounded, installed unmistakable North Carolina red clay in the existing fireplace. She also unearthed discarded glass bottles, filled them with local creek water, and placed them in a small niche near the hearth. Grounded is occasionally veiled by a smoky haze, and viewers may also notice a faintly familiar aroma in the room. It is the result of Travis Donovan’s visually quiet, conceptually reverberant Smolder in which mist passes through a stack of leaves—tobacco leaves—a profound and poetic reminder of the history and controversy of this once important North Carolina crop.

Other artists who delved into North Carolina’s recent and past histories are Joshua Bienko and John Powers, who placed a miniature model of Michael Jordan’s Wilmington, NC, family home against a mesmerizing altered video loop of the public Jordan in basketball action. Jeff Waites presented pieces relating to North Carolina’s slave history and Susan Alta Martin created a 3-D model, Main Streets, by combining photographs of four Western North Carolina small towns.

Local Histories is not bound by North Carolina parameters. The approximately 50 artists from far and near investigate the uniqueness of various literal and metaphorical places around the world. Paul Valdez, who lives in a Texas border town, has filled an entire wall with fun, quick paintings on pages from Spanish books. Paper Border marks the quality of each day with one of three images of local flora/fauna: regular day—palm tree, good day—flower, and bad day—rat. Erik Benjamins’ Tasting Station for Dubbel Zoute Drop deals with a taste preference unique to Holland. Benjamins invites the viewer/participant to eat a particularly pungent and salty licorice that has become a Dutch national obsession. Gallery visitors unanimously rejected the licorice (according to the exhibition staff), providing evidence for an emphatic US-Dutch taste bud disagreement.

Conveying a more serious cultural tension, Susanne Slavick has painted images in the style of Persian miniatures on two current photos of sites in the Middle East. Regenerate II (Gardening the Robber Hole) superimposes a gardener in an archeological ruin. The work resonates with metaphors for healing wounds that are the result of past and present barbarisms. Jessica Almy Pagán of Puerto Rico confronts a tragic place, My Lai, Viet Nam, by way of language in her subdued but stunning video A Sound Learning. Pagán appears to be without limbs as she crawls slowly forward in a dimly lit nonspecific space. This grievous activity is emphasized by a soundtrack in which the name of each murdered My Lai villager is repeated many times—by a Vietnamese speaker who says each name and by Pagán who repeats it until correctly pronounced.

Local Histories is a haven for expression not deadened by over refinement, self-conscious cleverness, or truth stifling attempts to please. elin o’Hara slavick and her co-curator Carol Magee have included so much conceptually and visually refreshing work in this unpretentious effort that one looks forward to their next project and to seeing other work by the exhibiting artists. In the meantime, Local Histories uplifts and satisfies with small smiles, relevant ideas, and deepened awareness.

Local Histories: The Ground We Walk On was on view in the former Chapel Hill Museum, Chapel Hill, NC, January 28-April 29, 2011.
Images courtesy of elin o’Hara slavick.

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