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SOUTHERN VALUES - Hudgens - march 2020
An installation view of "Southern Values," on view through April 25 at the Hudgens Center in Duluth. It features artwork by Shanequa Gay, Amanda Greene and Joni Mabe. (Photo by Rebecca Brantley)

Review: In “Southern Values,” three artists find beauty, value and something deeper

Three Georgia artists — all women — take on the ever-slippery concept of the South in Southern Values at the Hudgens Center for Art & Learning through April 25. Curator Mary Stanley’s exhibition celebrates the region’s aesthetics as seen by Shanequa Gay, Amanda Greene and Joni Mabe. “These artists have a special talent for finding beauty and value in the simple pleasures of daily life,” Stanley says. “But they are also looking for more.”

The focus is predominantly rural, filled with vintage Americana and quirky small-town charm. Kitschy tropes abound, often in exaggerated form. Stanley smartly highlights recurrent motifs that join the artists’ disparate modes: marquee signs, cars, grocery carts, food and mounted, taxidermized deer heads — so many deer heads — among them.

A large, rusty marquee announcing “BLESS YOUR HEART” functions like a thesis statement for this often-tongue-in-cheek show. The uncredited object stands next to a sign-in book on a gallery table covered with a blue-and-white tablecloth. A small panel nearby reads: “Use your manners . . . Please do NOT touch anything,” a softer version of the typical museum verbiage.

SOUTHERN VALUES = Hudgens - march 2020
The Amanda Green photograph “Open Fruit” (2019).

Amanda Greene’s commercial and fine-art photography often finds the South’s idiosyncratic allure. Lunch With Sean (2019) documents the quintessential Southern diner lunch — country-fried steak, green beans, mashed potatoes, collard greens, cornbread, a gooey dessert and a Styrofoam cup of iced tea on a red tray. Food appears throughout the Danielsville artist’s work. First Place, for example, uses okra from an Elberton fair as its subject.

Joni Mabe’s Love is like a lizard, in the heart and out the gizard (2020) takes an irreverent approach. Two embroidered wall hangings offer the platitudes “HOME SWEET HOME” and a numerical list of “Southern Values,” which are, in order, “God, Family, Country and Fine Manners.” Pots below hold crushed beer and soda cans and tiny, unlit light bulbs. A small sign reads “SUPPER’S READY.”

Mabe owns the Loudermilk Boarding House & Everything Elvis Museum in Cornelia, a cabinet of Elvis-themed curiosities and art that features a purported Elvis toenail and wart. Though Elvis is absent in Southern Values, Mabe’s shrewd collector’s eye and sardonic wit are here.

Her work ranges from iconlike glitter mosaics Minnie Pearl (1992) and Robert Johnson (2007) to sculptural assemblages featuring flattened found objects such as Model 101 Shopping Cart (1984) and Trash Can Rides Again (2020). In each, the everyday material transcends its function — and a couple of those ubiquitous deer heads show up.

southern values hudgens march 2020
Joni Mabe reimagines objects used for other purposes. This 2020 work, titled “And the Oscar Goes to . . .” seems to comment on the lack of diversity in Hollywood.

More critical works include And the Oscar Goes to . . . (2020), a gold-painted lawn ornament next to an anthropomorphized vase standing on nail polish bottles and covered in buttons and jewelry. The evocation of black identity and cultural femininity suggests, perhaps, the lack of diversity in Hollywood awards (#OscarsSoWhite) as well as the persistence of racial and sexual oppression.

Shanequa Gay’s large mural Sweet Sacrament Divine (2020) is the show’s focal point. It’s rooted in Gay’s memories of growing up in Atlanta and Dallas, Georgia. It features the artist’s invented mythological half-human, half-animal “Devouts” in minty green and emerald silhouettes against a pink wall filled with floral imagery.

An image of cult leader Jim Jones, sporting sunglasses, looms large in the center. He leaps over a Devout driving a 1970s car as he flees another Devout. For Gay, it’s “a kind of satire on the cult-like following of Christian religion in the South and a kind of retribution in terms of how religion has been used to demonize and manipulate women.”

southern values hudgens march 2020
Detail of Shanequa Gay’s large-scale mural “Sweet Sacrament Divine” (2020). She uses the mythological half-human, half-animal Devouts — her creation — and cult leader Jim Jones and other imagery to comment on religion in the South.

The horned, dark-skinned Devouts appear marginalized but ever-present and active, creating a new narrative. Indeed, not only do they chase Jones, they gather like the three graces beneath a representation of Gay’s home church emblazoned with three crosses. They stand in another trio eating watermelon (the inspiration for the pink-and-green palette, perhaps, and another staple Southern food often deployed as a racist trope). In the upper-right corner, the marquee sign reappears, this time reading: “GOD BLESS THE SOUTH.” Tellingly, its arrow points down and beyond the composition’s bounds.

Gay’s watermelon motif echoes Greene photographs titled Open Fruit (2019), Otto Melon (2019) and — best of all — Propane Destiny (2018), which shows a gas tank painted like a giant watermelon. Also in curatorial dialogue with Gay’s mural, Greene’s ice-laden relic Frozen Cross (2016) hangs on the same pink wall as Sweet Sacrament Divine.

Greene’s Directional Sign (2015) may be the most haunting recurrence of the marquee. The void sign points nowhere in a sunny, overgrown field. Both show how Greene transforms the mundane into something spectral and haunting. Her pictures suggest the persistence of 20th-century ruins in the Southern landscape — terrestrial and cultural.

For the careful viewer, Southern Values engages with ideas of race, class and gender. Gay’s active Devouts offer ameliorating alternatives to history. Mabe’s reimagined objects reassign meaning. And Greene’s photographs document a place never quite able to escape its past.