Water Valley artist Adrienne Brown-David sent her husband’s youngest sibling a picture of the portrait she had done—one among a series exploring the growth, development and identities of those closest in her orbit. “Sometimes I’m taken aback by my own beauty,” came the assessment from her brother-in-law.
Brown-David chuckled anew with appreciation, recalling that declaration, the direction it took and her own response: “You just titled this entire body of work!’” Three of those striking portraits hang at the very start of the 2023 Mississippi Invitational at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, Miss. The invitational, on view at the museum through Sept. 17, 2023, is a biennial survey of recent works from contemporary artists living and working across the state.
Guest curator Katie Pfohl (pronounced “Foal”), associate curator of contemporary art at the Detroit Institute of Arts and formerly a curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art, selected Brown-David and 14 other artists to participate.
The invitational’s theme, “Gulfs among Us,” threads through the show, resonating on multiple levels: in artwork centered in this region, and as a response to rifts of all types—social, political, cultural, environmental and internal. An initial pool of 105 artists from across the state submitted applications. Those were whittled down to about 40 for studio visits or virtual meetings, then narrowed down to the show’s final 15.
“We’re really just overwhelmed by the incredible talent of the artists that we got to meet,” Pfohl said. “We could have done the show three times over.”
Space That ‘Becomes Possibility’
The faces in Brown-David’s portraits glow against rosy blank backgrounds in “Taken Aback by My Own Beauty” Nos. 1, 2 and 3. The mother of four—she has three daughters and her youngest child is nonbinary—has heavily focused on her children while creating art over the last 10 years. Through her pieces, she reflects on their childhoods, development, identities and environment, and she contrasts them with her own, she said.
“My art has grown as my kids have grown,” Brown-David explained. Settings that were once specific such as fields and other outdoor scenery in her art became more abstract as her children hit their teenage years. “That space, instead of becoming the environment, becomes a possibility.”
As the recipient of the 2023 Jane Crater Hiatt Artist Fellowship and a $20,000 scholarship to travel, study and create art, the artist plans to spend time in West Africa, painting and interviewing women, girls and other people who present femininely, she said. “That’s a big part of what my body of work is right now, just questioning of identity and how you present yourself and how race intersects with that here in the States.”
“I wanted to broaden that conversation to a place where race isn’t quite as prevalent a thread in that tapestry, and see how those things compare,” she said. “How does your identity compare when you can remove race totally from that?”
“How do you present yourself to the world?” Brown-David continued. “What is your comfort level? Your discomfort? What is it that you focus on, outside of that when you don’t have to think about it? So, this fellowship is going to help me do that.”
The relationship between people and their landscapes and environments finds intriguing outlets in works from several artists in the invitational, including the branching, tangled expansions in the photo/graphite art from Kariann Fuqua of Oxford, the lantern and coal slag installation from Caroline Hatfield of Starkville and the slideshow of photographs that Rory Doyle of Cleveland took and prepared.
In “Modifying the Mississippi,” Doyle’s photos featuring aerial views of flooded communities and striking images of people dealing with the aftermath provide a more complete picture of recent historic flooding stemming from the river.
“His effort as a photojournalist is to go beyond what we often see pictured in the abstract,” Pfohl said, further explaining that aerial flood views are rarely seen alongside personal images of people and communities coping in their wake. “He moves between all of these, with the idea of capturing the real human impact, as well as the enormity of the problem. It’s really compelling to see an artist trying to do both of those things at the same time.”
‘Rewriting Their Stories’
Environment leads to introspection in Taylor Loftin’s intricate mixed-media assemblages. Their patterns evoke quilts or fences, but their dense layers also reference connections to family, place and the past. The Water Valley artist, who grew up on a pine-tree farm in south Jackson, described the work as “an excavation of family history” at the property his grandmother inherited from a friend, a place where both his dad’s generation and his own grew up.
“Returning is like encountering these enormous waves of very tangible memories—not just my own memories, but stories that my father has told me and that my grandmother has told me,” Loftin said. “I can feel it in the physical landscape there.”
His art is built in layers, each canvas involving an artistic action. Based on texts from dinner conversations he recorded with his grandmother, they are stacked to imply a “kind of collapsed history,” Loftin said. Personal investigations became an entry point and avenue to larger topics such as religion, masculinity and interpersonal relationships in general.
Hannah Wegner’s bold, red “Summer Burn” throbs with Mississippi heat and lush subtropical shapes. “I’m always thinking about organic edges, pushing and pulling together,” Wegner told the Mississippi Free Press. “I think I’m always going to reference some portion of a landscape.”
“Hannah really knocked our socks off when we did these studio visits,” Pfohl said. Wegner owns a tiny log cabin behind a church in Perkinston, Miss., where she creates works that fuse abstract art history and inspiration from world travel, especially to Paris, with her own experience in her landscape and place.
The palmetto leaf in “Summer Burn” serves as a metaphor for the hand and the act of creativity, its stretch toward the sun reflecting the artist’s ideas and search for a place to foster her own creativity and expression, Pfohl explained.
Scenes composed from archival and found photos form the base for James Kane’s paintings that re-imagine and flesh out a history of queer culture that, in past decades, was largely underground. In “Piers,” he reappropriated images of working-class, presumed heterosexual men—some shirtless, all young—to put a twist on the past and what these men could have been experiencing.
“I’m interested in rewriting their stories in a way that people can look at them and question what’s happening in the composition,” Kane said. Their arrangement can be read as casually shooting the breeze, or openly flirtatious.
Artworks explore not only the “Gulfs among Us” but those within us, as in Kwasi Butler’s 8-by-8-foot canvas newly created for this exhibition. Two figures merge as they lock in struggle. “All of us are really blown away by it,” Pfohl said of Butler’s art piece. “He works with a lot of pop icons and symbols, but a lot of his work is about this battle of self-definition. … You’re constantly, kind of, at war with yourself as you try to grow and become who you’ll be.”
Jackson artist Sabrina Howard channeled her faith and spirituality in arresting large-scale paintings and assemblages that combine powerful imagery and raised text from biblical scriptures. Her “Scriptured” series dates back about 20 years when, pregnant and newly widowed after a car accident took her husband’s life, “I had my first teary call out to God,” she said.
“I asked him, ‘What is it I’m supposed to do? What’s happening with my life right now?’” Howard recalled. “Moments later, I just started getting these images, and I got Scripture I didn’t know I knew.”
Spiritual studies brought the realization of the Holy Spirit at work, Howard said, driving her sketchbook of images and ideas. She sees purpose in her creative expression. Pfhol points out Howard’s use of art as a tool to highlight the state of the world and prompt thoughts about art’s role in changing it.
Bare feet step forward with intent in Howard’s “Walk of Faith,” their impression aglow in the swirl of scripture on the canvas’s inky depths. An injury, its healing, Howard’s journey through it and Bible passages that helped, all inspired “Gracefully Broken.” In it, a female figure—head back, eyes closed, arms outstretched—basks in the light, a model of assured acceptance and confidence as she moves forward through the world.
The 2023 Mississippi Invitational also showcases works by Jackson artists Adrienne Domnick, Monica Hill and Robin Martéa; Brenden Davis of Brandon; M. Robyn Wall of Cleveland; and Brooke White of Oxford.
“It’s been so exciting to give a lot more emerging to mid-career artists their first opportunity to show their work in a museum on this scale, and in this depth,” Pfohl said.
For more information, visit msmuseumart.org.