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Artists Tonya Gregg and Juan Logan take on race and culture in their exhibitions at The Southern Gallery

Prisoners of perception



On the surface, the two exhibitions running concurrently at The Southern Contemporary Art Gallery right now would seem to have little in common. Tonya Gregg’s After Midnight In The Dynasty, is a series of paintings of African-American women surrounded by dreamlike objects and sly, mischievous-looking cherubs. The women are posed almost too ideally, as if they’re in advertisements or photo shoots.

The second exhibition is more abstract. Juan Logan’s Fatal Links is a series of mixed-media works with a haunting recurring theme: Disembodied heads with no features, used in different sizes and colors throughout his work. In one such painting, called "The Help," the heads are so lightly colored that they fade into the more dramatically colorful background. In another, part of a series called Elegy, they’re much darker, crowded chaotically into a boat with precise angled lines.

The two exhibits seem as different as night and day, but they both deal almost entirely with race.

“I play with expressions that people believe to be true, like your parents saying nothing good happens after midnight,” Gregg says of her show's title. “But it could refer to the coloring of the women; their flesh tones.”

As for the objects, Gregg says that these represent the tastes and interests of the women, things that can often be ignored in favor of their physical appearance. That’s where the idealized poses come in, and the notion that these women are being watched.

“I intentionally stylize my figures,” she says. “It comes from my fascination with fashion and modeling, so there’s that kind of strange stylized theme in my work. I used to collect all these fashion magazines over the years, and I would study them and think, ‘What’s missing in these images?’ And so what I wanted was always a little bit of reality or something that keeps young women and girls from idolizing these images from fashion.”

As for the cherubs, even though they’re often not the center of Gregg’s paintings, she says they might be the most important part of her work. “The cherubs are everything to me,” she says. “They’re the truth tellers. They convey the human emotions and psyche that I don’t think we get to see every day. They represent the inner child within everybody. Sometimes they’re just cooperating in the work with these ideals and sometimes they challenge them.”

Juan Logan's "Elegy I" - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Juan Logan's "Elegy I"
Logan’s Fatal Links considers the viewers’ own reaction to those from different cultures, and there’s far less of a playful spirit in his work than in Gregg’s.
“The whole notion Fatal Links is tied to our culture talking about things as if we care, but then our actions prove otherwise,” he says. “And I think an excellent example of that is The Help. The Help is always in the background. We don’t pay a lot of attention to the help, whether we’re talking about domestic or otherwise.”

By “otherwise,” Logan is referring to the labor of people from other countries who work in the fields harvesting our food. “From looking at this larger issue of immigration, and immigrants working in the fields of South Carolina or North Carolina or any of the fields of where our food is harvested, we don’t know their names,” he says. “We don’t know where they’re from, and we don’t really care. The only thing we want them to do is be The Help and harvest our food. But we couldn’t really live without them in our culture. And yet we don’t know any of them, not really. It’s a disconnect.”

That disconnect is just as pronounced in the three-painting Elegy series, where the potentially connecting lines emerging from the heads don’t meet any other lines.

“I’m simply raising the issue that we are not making those connections,” he says. “We allow ourselves to be disconnected because those things are not happening to us directly. And I think we’ve become desensitized to connecting to those other people. They’re human beings. That should be enough. If you look at that boat and think about all these people trying to escape their homelands, they’re also becoming prisoners. Not behind walls per se, but they end up somewhere they can’t escape from because the next country won’t accept them. So they’re stuck.”
Juan Logan's "Elegy III" - PROVIDED
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  • Juan Logan's "Elegy III"
Despite that theme of disconnection, Logan says that that’s not why the heads in his works don’t have any features. It’s not meant to convey anonymity, but the similarities between all cultures. “It’s more about a certain kind of universality,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s your head or my head or if they’re from Syria, it’s all of us. It’s each of us.”

The pieces in Fatal Links are more abstract than work that Logan has done in the past, and he says that over time, he’s consciously moved away from more literal art. “There was a time in my life when I tried to pull people in in a more direct fashion,” he says.

“Now I think it’s more important to raise questions about the things going on around us. These are my questions, but my hope is that they will become questions for others. I’m not trying to provide any answers or send you down any particular path. I’m telling you how I feel and asking you how you feel. Does it matter to you at all?”
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