Contemporary cultural enthusiasts are likely aware of ‘Southern Gothic’ as a genre pertaining to literature and film, but what about visual art? How may the inherent dysfunctions, eccentricities, and sharply geopolitical dynamics of the American South be communicated in a gallery or institutional space? Miami-based multidisciplinary artist Christina Pettersson answers these questions in grandiose, appropriate fashion with her solo exhibition The Castle Dismal at Primary Projects.
Films (all of which are based on modern novels) like A Streetcar Named Desire, Big Fish, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil share common themes of the Deep South as a kind of socio-political vacuum; populated by flamboyant caracitures (hoodoo priestesses, drifters, cabaret transvestites, and flailing, drugged-out youths) whose public behaviors are casually accepted, and politicians whose personal and professional activities (regardless of their repercussions) are closely guarded by their constituents, in brief. Alcoholism, infidelity, drug abuse, anti-Christian rituals, secret societies, murder, and corruption are subversively deemed as insignificant moral imperatives. Pettersson’s sprawling layout is a conglomerate of physical associations with cemeteries, shipwrecks, willow forests, seances; in totality, they contribute to a sensation of the ‘sublime in nature’, a concept introduced by Kant in direct regard to ancient ruins and manmade structures overtaken by time and nature. It was, strangely, an allusion to romance: a gentle nostalgia that encompassed the glory and awe experienced by those observing a Greek Temple or a Roman forum long-since vacated.
This is Pettersson’s playscape. A traditional bow ornamentation (a maiden) is drenched in crude oil, the remnants dripping onto the gallery floor. A garden of tall candlesticks are interspersed with ceramic bowls shaped into peacocks and swans (the kind found in a craft store, adding to its homespun charm). A wrought-iron gate stands freely in the space, twisted towards the sky like a passionate, Mannerist figura serpentinata. Close by, two logs and the horizontal base of another iron gate are gathered on the floor, with another maiden (painted white) seductively draping one arm over her head. The show’s most prominent installation is presented in the form of a charred stagecoach, dismantled from its four wheels (one sits awkwardly in front of it), with one of its headlamps still intact. Large-scale graphite drawings complete the scene, with gaping spaces threaded through ruined stones, twisted briars, and lonely rows of Corinthian columns.
Pettersson hasn’t shown us anything particularly new about the remnants of the Antebellum South, nor has she proven the dark magic residing in the region can be found in these specific physical markers. The space is massive, which would ideally call for a greater number of works to comfortably fill it: a film or sound piece comes to mind as a perfect accoutrement. To Pettersson’s credit, however, her intense focus on the delicate, almost feminine details of this messy period of history remind contemporary viewers of what is still possible in the Gothic South. ‘Ruins’ of this kind are a part of the modern consciousness, voodoo is practiced by a few remaining priests hidden in the willows, and the undertones of sexism, racism, indifference, and strangeness are still very much at home there.