For many years, I have vacationed in the North Carolina mountains. A stay in the southern Appalachians is a wonderful way to beat some of the summer heat – last weekend, for example, the temperature there was nearly 20 degrees below what it was in Aiken. Besides the challenging hiking trails and splendid scenery, the area between Highlands and Cashiers abounds in colorful shops and good restaurants.
Add to the mix a new art museum on a six-acre plateau on the outskirts of Highlands. Dubbed The Bascom, after principal donors Watson and Louise Bascom Barrett, the art center is situated on land that was once a horse farm. The complex retains its pastoral setting. All of the structures from the entrance – a 53-ton, 19th-century covered bridge transported from Warner, N.H. – to the main building and its adjacent studios are made of unpainted wood and surrounded by green space.
Designed by a team of local and Atlanta-based architects, the main building is a mix of the old and the new. The post-and-beam framework made of hand hewn white oak comes from an 1838 barn; the floors are old growth white pine planks salvaged from other indigenous agricultural structures. The interior space is reconfigured for its present purpose, subdivided into three levels with galleries on each floor and plenty of room for workshops and other community events.
During my recent visit, I was impressed not only by the uniqueness of the facilities but also by the high quality of the current shows. The first-floor gallery featured an exhibition entitled “Landscape Photography in a Changing World.” Some of the biggest names in classic and contemporary photography are represented – Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier Bresson, David Hilliard, and Sally Mann – and one individual who is no stranger to area residents, William Christenberry. An Alabama native whose work has been exhibited a number of times at the Morris in Augusta, Christenberry has carved out a significant niche as an interpreter of the Southern landscape from the moment he came under the spell of the 1941 Walker Evans-James Agee volume “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Over time, he revisited the locations in Hale County, Ala., immortalized in that important book, documenting the lives of farming families and the disappearance of their way of life.
A number of the photos in the exhibition are on loan from the Sir Elton John Collection; I remember well seeing the one and only exhibit of pieces from John’s astounding photography collection at the High Museum in Atlanta in 2001. The show featured a recreation of one of the rooms in his lavish Atlanta apartment with some of the pieces displayed in their domestic context.
One level above, in what is called the Balcony Gallery, is a small show of works by folk artist Linda Anderson. Labeled a “memory painter,” Anderson feels that her art is divinely inspired, that her images are the result of prayerful meditation. Most depict scenes of her rural childhood in northern Georgia; in these images, diminutive human figures are dwarfed by their natural surroundings.
Among her most recent work, I was most struck by a piece inspired by a Frida Kahlo self-portrait. Anderson’s knowledge of Kahlo was presumably sparked by seeing a photograph of the iconic Mexican artist in a beauty shop. Nearly half of Kahlo’s known works are self-portraits emphasizing physical trauma – she underwent numerous surgeries due to a combination of childhood polio and injuries sustained in a traffic accident – and psychological pain – her tempestuous relationship with painter Diego Rivera is the stuff of legend. Anderson may be drawn to Kahlo because she herself took up painting in part as therapy for the loss of a child; she may see in Kahlo a kindred spirit.
Certainly the most curious show currently on view at the Bascom is “ReDress: Uncycled Style by Nancy Judd.” These “couture creations” – all are actually wearable pieces made of unusual materials – read like fanciful sculptures. “Crime Scene,” for example, is a floor-length gown made up of tape from police crime scenes over an undergarment made of torn tablecloths; the Carmen Miranda-inspired outfit called “Recycling Fiesta” boasts a skirt, armbands, and top made from a Target employee’s old shirt and accented by plastic Target bags. Visitors to the Bascom will enjoy trying to figure out what materials were used for each creation by this innovative artist whose present career trajectory was determined when she served as the Recycling Coordinator for the City of Santa Fe, N.M.
Local residents may already be familiar with Judd’s work, especially if they took any international trips in 2011-2012. Her fanciful fashion designs were on display in Concourse E at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport during that period.
For more information on the Bascom, visit the art center on the web at www.thebascom.org. The landscape photography show runs until June 16; the Anderson exhibition is on view until July 28; the Judd show can be seen in the Loft Gallery until Aug. 18.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack currently holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. For his 23 years as a cultural affairs columnist, the Greater Augusta Arts Council will present him with its 2013 Media Award later this month.