There is a perpetual movement to support local artists in Hampton Roads. But why? In an age of war, climate change, and so much tumult, why does supporting local artists sustain as a cause célèbre in our little seaside community?
I have a few theories. The military is a culture of visual homogenization and adherence to rules, two characterizations that are about the polar opposite of what makes for important art. We also inhabit a culture dominated by multi-national brands who plaster our sight-lines with lowest common denominator marketing designed to get us to buy things we don’t really need. Good, honest art, on the other hand, is deeply personal, often from an individual’s gut, and while it is not completely foreign from commerce, only at its most cynical is art about the money.
Moreover, though, I think the drums beat so long and loud to support local artists in Hampton Roads because our artists help us unravel our distinct regional and city identity crisis. Artists have a way of telling us who our culture is, right here, right now, in a singular way that breaches the barrier of words and finds a way to express an unvoicable truth about who we are.
That’s why shows like Native, which opens today at Work | Release, are so necessary. They help us understand our very confused little selves. The show features nearly two dozen local artists who have created work about here.
“It’s like why we like seeing pictures of ourselves we didn’t take,” said the show’s co-curator, Gayle Forman. “It’s about feeling like someone else is recognizing your presence. It’s the same thing as collective memory.”
Without dipping too deeply into hyperbole about a show that features numerous friends and colleagues, I believe Native is going to be looked back on as an important show in this community’s cultural history. The art is honest, the art is raw, the art is weird, the art is intelligent. The art is us.
“I think this is one of the best shows of Tidewater art that I’ve seen in a long time,” said Virginia Van Horn, an artist in the show who has been a part of this community since the 70s. “It’s very good and very sophisticated. People are doing some original and unique things. There are some really outstanding people of different ages, generations, affiliations with different pockets of communities. It’s going to be a really interesting show for people to see.”
Eclectic is a word that comes to mind.
“There’s boats in the air, there’s frosting on the wall, there’s keys all over the floor,” said Forman. “You won’t know what you’re going to find.”
Water was chosen as an underlying theme, and it couldn’t be more appropriate. What substance better represents a city with identity issues than one which so quickly can move from water to vapor, from liquid to ice.
And you might have heard that we’re dealing with a little something called sea level rise here in Norfolk. Water is on the mind.
“I think art is one of the best ways to gently introduce more uncomfortable topics such as sea level rise and global warming,” said co-curator Charlotte Potter.
It will be impossible to explore the art showcased in Native and not take a moment and reflect on the ways that water is forcing our city to evolve. It is a vital conversation we all need to be having: what vision of Norfolk can co-exist with the approaching seas?
“The symbolism of living in a water area, or wherever you live, affects your creativity and ideas, especially in the situation of a vulnerable climate,” said artist Luisa Adelfio, who calls herself a ‘double native’ for also having lived in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. “Whatever is created for the show is a lasting thing, but reflects the vulnerability of the climate.”
The art in Native is edgier in a deeper, more genuine way than you will find at most art spaces, large or small, in Hampton Roads. It tries to do more than shock you with images of skulls; it tries to get in your head.
“Probably one of the most rewarding parts of curating this exhibition was being able to be the catalyst for local artists to make transitional pieces,” said Potter. “It’s incredible to see how people have responded and really pushed their practices.”
As much as I encourage you to see this art, I urge you to have conversations about it.
“I hope people talk more about Norfolk itself as an interesting place where art comes from,” said artist Joan Biddle. “Water people are different.”
Native opens today, February 12, and runs through March 19, at Work | Release in the NEON District. Here is the event on Facebook for more info.