The Divine and Diverse Gallery of the New Millennium
T.S. Eliot, in a 1919 essay on Hamlet, defined the term objective correlative as “the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.” Eliot’s term has long been a creative impetus for writers, but it’s also a driving force for artists. Visual arts embody the emotional attitude of the time period in which they are created and infuse a cultural consciousness. Adam Krisch in his article “What Can Artists Do to Oppose Trump?” writes, “it has been a long time since artists and writers commanded so much public attention.” The political turbulence brewing in America has produced Joshua Monroe’s naked Trump statues and Kathy Griffin’s photo grasping the president’s decapitated head. While these examples express American resistance to opposing views, they do little to spotlight individual communities and regions. Additionally, both feminism and the LGBTQ community receive less recognition of their Bible Belt struggles. Yet both groups refuse to be left behind in the evolving South of the New Millennium.
Kezley Smit, a native Georgian, focuses on womanhood within Southern culture. In a region where the “Southern belle” archetype is viewed as the pinnacle of femininity, not all women identify with the Scarlett O’Hara standard. Smit says, “I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for the way women occupy the world, and femininity inspires me. We are divine.” Her photography showcases this reality. In a culture where flawless skin, chic clothes, and appropriate posture are considered the feminine norm, Smit challenges this outmoded behavior with photos of barefoot women dancing in the grass or bare, freckled bodies.
Kezley Smit’s self-portrait featured in a 2009 show called FACES located in Statesboro, GA.
Smit edits her photo to create an ethereal image that makes the viewers question what is real and what isn’t.
Her self-portrait omits her face but brazenly focuses on her freckle-dusted shoulders, chest, and arms. Other photos display the movement of women from dancing before storm clouds to standing in the wake of ocean waves. Each example reveals that women are not porcelain figurines but sentient beings empowered by their nature. About her photos, Smit says, “It makes me so sad on days when I realized that a lot of us can’t see that about ourselves. When I’m making art, I feel optimistic that I can change that.”
Dyllon Pendrak, another Georgia-born artist, seeks to create a similar space for the LGBTQ community. Pendrak’s work focuses on creating pieces that capitalize on the South’s homophobic attitudes. His inspiration emanates not only from isolation, “not fitting into rural community culture,” but also the region’s flair for the flamboyant.
Dyllon Pendrak’s mask sculpture ‘Brother-Daddy.’
Pendrak’s piece ‘Satanic Bitchcraft’ and other paintings often use drag-queen culture, bright colors, and extravagant fashion to add new characters to the Southern collection of queer art.
“Satanic Bitchcraft” shows a mustached drag queen flying through a pink and purple sky on her broom. The piece nods to the Southern habit of labeling anything that breaks social norms as unnatural while also bending gender norms. The subject wears colors traditionally seen as feminine while possessing inherently masculine traits like facial hair and a muscular torso. A mask sculpture entitled “Brother-Daddy” offers a similar theme. “Feminine” pink marbles the cast while a thick mustache and crinkly-eyed expression show masculine features. Through his pieces, Pendrak longs “to create visual representation for the Southern queer community.”
By associating images with their communities, Pendrak and Smit add valuable content to the collective memory of Southern culture. Their works turn the viewers’ attention to their subjects and their struggles. Instead of adding more publicity to policy makers always in the spotlight, Smit and Pendrak focus on humanizing and diversifying their portrayal of Southern identities while challenging pervasive conservative attitudes. By highlighting a community’s diversity, humanizing its members, and redefining its public image through the lens of the whole culture, young artists like Pendrak and Smit create objects that fuel the emotions demanded to move social changes forward.