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Almost a decade ago, Lia Newman picked up Zadie Smith’s debut novel, “White Teeth.”
The British author’s book had come out in 2000 to much acclaim. The New York Times said the “satirical, multigenerational family saga set during the waning of the British Empire... established its author as a prodigy of the novel form.”
One paragraph in particular stuck with Newman, director and curator of the Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson College. It eventually sparked an idea for an art exhibit opening this month in Charlotte.
“One of the characters, Alsana, talks about this moment of looming disaster and precarity,” Newman said. “She says, ‘Are the stars you sleep under likely to open up for weeks on end? Is the ground you walk on likely to tremble and split? Is there a chance that the ominous mountain casting a midday shadow over your home might one day erupt with no rhyme or reason?’ ”
From there, Newman took inspiration for “A Midnight Thing,” an exhibit she curated at SOCO Gallery in Charlotte that began June 15 and runs through Aug. 3.
More than a dozen works by contemporary artists Bethany Collins, Allison Janae Hamilton and Hồng-An Trương will be featured. Some pieces will include archival documents and images, historical research, photography and video.
“I was looking for artists making work more than simply about uncertainty. I was interested in something deeper that reflected the current moment,” Newman said. “These three (artists) bring the past into the present.”
Although Alsana speaks about natural disasters in Smith’s book, Newman connects these phrases, written in 2000, to the current political and social climate.
The title of Newman’s show comes from Alsana’s answer to her own questions: “Because if the answer is yes to one or all of these questions, then the life you lead is a midnight thing…”
“The character whose monologue I was drawn to,” Newman said, “implies that if you are always a minute away from catastrophe, or as she says, ‘loseable like a keyring,’ you may be more open to taking greater risks or to fight harder for what you believe in.”
Newman appreciates how well artists document, visualize and expose the unpredictability of life, especially in the wake of COVID.
“How can we find some sort of stable ground?” she said. “We can lean on artists to help us figure out how to survive these moments sometimes.”
Southern influences in art
Collins is a Chicago-based artist whose drawings cover conceptual language-based art, using poetry, text and words. Her Alabama roots influence her series, “The Southern Review,” six of which will be included in “A Midnight Thing.”
When Collins lived in New York City, visitors to her studio would ask how it felt to be a Southern artist in New York. The question unsettled her; she’d never called herself a Southerner.
“Southern to me, when you say that term, I imagine a body that is different than mine, typically white and male,” she said. “I don’t fit that.”
It took Collins time to figure out how she wanted to respond to this question. While shopping in an independent bookstore in Atlanta, she found it in “The Southern Review,” a quarterly literary magazine founded in 1935. It accepts submissions from poets and writers.
For the Charlotte show, her process starts with tearing out pages from journals published from 1965 to 1968, then filling in the body of the page with charcoal. Collins leaves the title, author and footnotes untouched.
By altering the original content of the article, she’s rewriting and rethinking what it means to be Southern.
“My fingerprints are all over the page,” she said. “If the journal is a review of what it means to be Southern, can I rewrite that narrative by selecting pages that feel responsive about what I think of the South?
“The body of the page is filled in with super soft rich velvety charcoal. The words can’t be read like the journal intended.”
By the time the piece is finished, it may be ripped and her hands and the page are covered in the soft charcoal.
“It speaks to that instability that Zadie Smith is writing about,” Collins said.
‘We Are Beside Ourselves’
Trương, a professor of art at UNC Chapel Hill, is an interdisciplinary artist using installation, photography, print, sound and video to create. The medium she chooses is influenced by the project.
“A lot of my work starts with questions around historical events which are often bound up in colonial violence or racist violence and impact who we are and our identities as racialized and sexualized people,” Trương said. “My work is compelled by archival materials.”
Trương will show seven new works in “A Midnight Thing” from her series, “We Are Beside Ourselves.” In 2016, she began researching radical activism in the 1960s and 1970s. She takes her time reviewing the materials to understand what she intends to interrogate, she said.
“I wanted to relook at these moments in time... through the lens of Asian-American activism,” she said. “How were Asian Americans active in their own identity politics and the liberation movement?”
Her pieces for the exhibit are laser-etched two-way mirrors, making a relief print using archival materials from two events: the fight for ethnic studies departments at San Francisco State University and University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1960s and the removal of the confederate statue, Silent Sam, at UNC in 2017.
“My intention is to make people understand we’re still in this,” Trương said. “These things are not dead — the fight for liberation is not repeating. We’re just in a continuous fight.”
‘A Midnight Thing’
WHAT: “A Midnight Thing” features the work of three contemporary artists, Bethany Collins, Allison Janae Hamilton and Hồng-An Trương.
WHEN: Now through Aug. 3.
WHERE: SOCO Gallery, 421 Providence Road, Charlotte
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