Since the Jepson Center opened in 2006, Telfair Museums (the collective which encompasses the Telfair Academy, the Jepson Center for the Arts, and the Owens-Thomas House) has added 1,267 artworks to its permanent collection.
This year, the Jepson Center celebrates its 10th anniversary with Landmark: A Decade of Collecting at the Jepson Center, an exhibition showcasing the 10 most significant of those acquisitions.
Selecting those 10 must have been a painstaking process, but the criteria and choices were sound: the exhibition–which opened in March and runs through August 14–presents a striking diversity of genres, techniques, time periods, technologies and artistic visions.
Some of the chosen works are from notable artists with strong connections to the Savannah museums.
Nationally renowned photographer Helen Levitt (1913-2009), whose work was the subject of Jepson Center exhibits in 2009 and 2014, is represented this time around by “In the Street,” a 14-minute film that Levitt, Janice Loeb and author James Agee shot in New York City during the mid-1940s. The film features random streetscapes and close-ups of city dwellers, especially children. The film’s label card notes that Levitt’s body of work “reflects a New York that is both timeless and idiosyncratic, revealing the poignant and mundane aspects of daily existence in the city’s neighborhoods.”
Painter Gari Melchers, who served as the Telfair’s fine arts adviser from 1906 to 1916, is another familiar face. Melchers’ Landmark piece, “Vespers” (1892), typifies well-disciplined 19th century realism, focusing on three stylishly bonnet-ed Dutch women who sit attentively during a church service (the painting’s label notes that Melchers’ “[paintings] tapped into a yearning for traditional rural life during a time of rapid industrialization”).
Sam Gilliam, whose work was the subject of a major Telfair Museums retrospective in 2006, represents the abstract end of the painting spectrum. His Landmark oil-and-acrylic piece, “Inlana” (1969-71), a confection of billowing and streaming shapes in bright hues, reflects his work within the Washington Color School.
Two Landmark pieces represent the Telfair Museums’ Kirk Varnedoe Collection, a collection of contemporary works donated by various artists in memory of Varnedoe, a Savannah native who served as a curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art before his death in 2003.
The first work, “I Love Liberty” (1982), a screen-print by the seminal pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, is a close-up head shot of the Statue of Liberty rendered with bold strokes of blue and yellow. The other, “Self Portrait” (2002), a 43-color, hand-printed woodcut by Chuck Close, exemplifies Close’s trademark technique of overlaying a photograph with grid lines and then filling the resulting squares with shapes of ink to form a recognizable facial image.
Other entries represent two fast-growing categories in the Telfair Museums’ inventories: photographs and silver.
Photographer Carrie Mae Weems’ “Untitled” (1990) is part of the artist’s “Kitchen Table Series,” which “marked her as a powerful African-American voice in a whitewashed art world,” the label text states. “Weems used her own apartment as the setting for powerful vignettes of life and love as they play out under the harsh glare of a single illuminating overhead lamp.”
In “Untitled,” Weems stands in the background, peering at a man seated under the lamp in the foreground, “who is unaware of or unwilling to notice her.” The poignant tableau leaves myriad narrative possibilities to the viewer’s imagination.
Since 2006, the Telfair Museums have nearly doubled their silver holdings. The Landmark exhibit displays an assortment of antique tableware pieces, most notably a silver coffee pot inscribed “TG” for Thomas Gibbons, then-mayor of Savannah, in 1799.
Finally, two other Landmark entries harness digital technology in memorable fashion.
“Guardian” (2008), a chromogenic photo print by Anthony Goicolea, digitally superimposes images of wolf-like dogs (or are they dog-like wolves?) on the snow-covered ruins of a building foundation, with oblong, multicolored apartment units in the background—presumably the homes of the humans being guarded by this pack of fiercely loyal carnivores.
Daniel Shiffman’s “Timeframe” (2003), the exhibit’s lone interactive piece—and a surefire crowd- pleaser—uses a web camera to capture images of viewers standing in front of it as a TV screen below projects the images back, in rippling, repeated patterns, across a grid of 1,024 tiny frames.
Shiffman’s works were the first “new media” pieces exhibited at the Jepson, the label text notes, and formed the seed for the museum’s annual PULSE Art and Technology Festival.