The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) held its annual contemporary art showcase deFINE Art last week. Whitewall was in Savannah, GA for the series of talks, performances, tours, and exhibitions – including a special talk by Theaster Gates and a keynote lecture from the 2014 deFINE Art Honoree, Alfredo Jaar. At the SCAD Museum of Art, which opened in 2011, several exhibitions were on view showcasing works by Sam Nhlengethwa, Dustin Yellin, Tim Rollins and K.O.S., Tallur L.N., Matthew Brandt, Nicola Lopez, Viviane Sassen, Jason Middlebrook, Nathan Mabry, and Jaar.
Several of the artists were in Savannah for the festivities, including Middlebrook, who has created a site-specific installation entitled “Submerged.” We spoke to the Hudson, NY-based artist (fresh from a midnight hearse ghost tour the night before that we, too, would highly recommend) about the commissioned suspended wood planks and massive chandelier in the museum’s lobby.
WHITEWALL: How did “Submerged” come about?
JASON MIDDLEBROOK: I knew Melissa [Messina, Senior Curator at the museum] back in New York. She got the job at SCAD and we kept in touch. In November she called me and she said, “I think we have a space and I want you to come down here.” The second I got here she took me to Southern Pine Company, a big Savannah wood reclaiming business.
WW: What did you find there?
JM: I discovered these tips that were the ends of logs that had been driven into the Savannah River. They made up the pier system that built Savannah over 200 years ago. I was like, “Oh my god, I love these things.” They looked prehistoric. I couldn’t get over them. They seemed like tops of spires, some kind of Mayan or Incan relic.
I went back to my studio – I live in Hudson – and I started doing these drawings of a chandelier-type of structure, something that would be forcing the energy downward and would mimic some type of medieval chandelier. I was thinking about the history of Savannah, slavery, plantations, all this loaded content.
WW: The museum was built with a lot of reclaimed and historic wood and bricks that have a similar history to those logs.
JM: I feel like that’s what I was trying to do here. Even though this is really brutal in some ways, I like that it’s the only thing they’ve ever done in this space [referring to the chandelier hanging in the lobby’s 86-foot-high steel and glass lantern]. This is sacred space because it’s the tallest contemporary structure in Savannah. Savannah has strict rules about how high you can build.
WW: How did you decide that you wanted to paint the logs that make up the chandelier? Was that to take away some of the brutality, to make it more contemporary?
JM: A little bit. I was torn. Paint is a big part of my work. And I just didn’t want it to be raw wood. It needed a little punch, but in a very subtle way. I think there are 77 points and I painted less than half. It was just to kind of give it a little artist touch. It’s my need to imprint on things. A lot of what these works are about is to make a comment on the grain or form, some kind of dance on the surface that will penetrate it somehow. But really I’m always paying homage to the tree.
WW: Speaking of the tree, tell me about the suspended planks throughout the rest of the lobby. Were those also found at Southern Pine Company?
JM: Southern Pine had some cypress planks, and cypress is a water wood that is native down here. They shipped me these cypress planks all from one tree. They are beautiful. I wanted to keep it quiet and poetic. It’s the first time I’ve ever hung planks, I always lean them, so this was a double-sided attempt to activate the verticality of the space. I think it’s a nice little departure for me and I could see a whole museum full of them.