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It’s impossible to think of Savannah, Georgia, without the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), the city’s second largest employer—after Gulfstream, the naming sponsor of the school’s industrial design program. SCAD is as integral to the local scene as Spanish moss. About 8,000 students study things like fabrics, graphic design, photography, and painting there; for the past five years, the deep-pocketed institution has hosted the deFINE Art Festival for their benefit.
This year’s iteration featured a suite of world-class exhibitions at the SCAD Museum of Art from the likes of Jack Whitten, Angel Otero, Jennifer Rubell, organized by curator and Brooklyn transplant Isolde Brielmaier; a site-specific wall painting by Odili Donald Odita; and a film screening and keynote address from the 2013 deFINE honoree, Shirin Neshat.
Whitten was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the entire festival, kicking things off with an inspired autobiographical lecture that touched on his ‘60s predeliction for New York hedonism (“The drugs were so pervasive that it about took all of us”); how he used to follow Willem de Kooning around “like a little puppy”; and the ways in which using an afro comb to manipulate paint let his practice mature. Whitten described turning his studio into a “laboratory” for paint: “I learned that I could cut, sand, grind, fold it, compress it with clamps, freeze it…” Some of those medium-bending experiments from the ‘70s are on view in the SCAD Museum of Art’s main galleries—mostly black and white works on paper and canvas rife with depth and optical effects. (San Diego residents—take note. Whitten will have a major retrospective at the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2014.)
Whitten described how he learned to create collage using skins of acrylic paint, so it makes sense that relative newcomer Angel Otero’s work is in an adjacent gallery: Large-scale canvases bursting with raw color, all texture and rich materiality. Also of note: a process-based wall-drawing by Ingrid Calame, and a 5-day long project by Jennifer Rubell. The latter, entitled “Free,” invited visitors and students into a darkened wooden structure. Biscuits—cooked by Starfish Cafe—were lined up on a ledge; these were to be drenched beneath a constant stream of dripping honey, donated from the Savannah Bee Company.
Elsewhere, at satellite galleries run by SCAD, one of the highlights was an exhibition of black-and-white photography by alumni (and Savannah resident) Marcus Kenney. Though he studied photography at the school, Kenney had largely abandoned the medium in favor of sculpture, painting, and mixed media work; these alternately poetic and humorous portraits of his children, wife, and neighbors—plus a few cats and sheep—are a welcome return to his roots. And as part of deFine’s programming, M.F.A. candidate Will Penny showed an exhibition of abstract dimensional paintings of acrylic on wood or molded plastic structures. Penny—a Canadian who plans to stay in the city, where he shares an immense and affordable studio with friends—seems likely to join the ranks of other SCAD alums who broke through to wider recognition, like Wendy White and Michael Scoggins.
For more from Savannah, including interviews with Jack Whitten, Jennifer Rubell, Odili Donald Odita, and others, see the summer 2013 Design issue of Whitewall.