As a small-town hardware store owner in Georgia, Paul Kwilecki was perhaps an unlikely candidate for a fine-art photographer. But as the photographs in One Place demonstrate, Kwilecki's position as an artist is one of extended intimacy with his subject. Also on display this month: paintings by New Orleans artist Rolland Golden. NoDef's Liz Davas visits two current exhibitions at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and looks at how culture, race, and history shape the region's contemporary image of itself.
Paul Kwilecki: One Place
On the surface, photographer Paul Kwilecki’s life story is simple. He owned and operated a hardware store in Bainbridge, Georgia and spent 40 years photographing Decatur County, his corner of the Deep South. But in the Odgen’s collection of his work, One Place, it is evident that Kwilecki not only captured the reality of his home, but the social, racial and political complexities of the South itself.
“Kwilecki identified with and was attracted to the photographing the rural, humble, working class residents of the county,” writes editor Tom Rankin. Inspired by other documentary photographers, he captured both white and black citizens, focusing on the vast inequalities between the two. His work also captured the unique cultural practice of both societies, from baptisms to dances. It is also a body of work that represents the slow fluidity of time within the South. The lingering presence of the past is evidenced in a pair of photographs depicting a Confederate statue and remembrance ceremony, first in the late 1960s and again in the early 1990s. It is also an eye-opener to the the slow path to racial equality throughout the rural South.
The Odgen’s collection, on loan mainly from Duke University, is a fascinating look at one man and his world through photography and letters. Kwilecki strived to improve his skills and wrote endlessly about his concepts; he also wrote to editors at Life Magazine and to Ansel Adams for advice. These letters and more are on display.
Rolland Golden: An Alternative Vision
Stand before painter Rolland Golden’s work Cranky Corners and the landscape is instantly recognizable. It’s a scene found on thousands of backroads across the South—a curve in a two lane highway, lined on either side by tall pines and the iconic flashing arrow sign with its plastic letters. But in the stylized depiction of Golden’s painting, something seems slightly off, as if the scene isn’t real but a simple reimagining of countless vistas found somewhere along Highway 11 in Mississippi, Highway 90 in Louisiana, or at the Odgen Museum’s retrospective of his work, An Alternative Vision.
A New Orleans native, Golden spent his youth moving throughout the Deep South including the Mississippi Delta and South Louisiana. He studied with the Regionalist painter John McCrady for two years in the 1950s, going on to establish a studio and gallery in the French Quarter. After numerous accolades and awards, including exhibitions in Soviet Russia, Golden still continues to paint from his homes in Folsom and Natchez, LA.
Golden describes his work as “borderline surrealism,” explaining that his landscapes are “not entirely impossible but highly unlikely.” In this seventy-piece collection, the Odgen aims to present Golden’s work through the lens of “Magic Realism.” Through his realist style of familiar Southern sites, the artist “reveals unseen relationships and the essence of objects through a careful revelation of pattern, congruity and relationship.”
Highlights of the exhibit include the painting Fall at Vicksburg, where the light that falls behind a Civil War historical marker marks a checkerboard pattern on the forest floor and a pattern of leaves blends into the words of the marker itself. Golden paints a specific Southern scene through rose colored glasses, illustrating both memory and reality.
Continuing on the theme of recollection, another highlight is one of the few Golden portraits on offer in this show. Bidding Farewell illustrates members of a social club second lining, but the image is incomplete. The figures in the front of the group are fully fleshed out, but those at the rear fade into line work, as if the memory of the event isn’t completely intact—only a few pieces from here and there remain.
“One Place: Paul Kwilecki and Four Decades of Photographs from Decatur County, Georgia” is on display until September 21st and “An Alternative Vision” runs until September 28th at the Odgen Museum of Southern Art. Admission $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, $5 for children. The museum is open Wednesday through Monday 10 to 5, and closed on Tuesday and is located at 925 Camp Street.