In her solo exhibition “Loud Magic,” at Whitespace Gallery, Atlanta-based artist Sonya Yong James uses nature as a kind of collaborator, the source of her inspiration and font of her materials.
Clearly, when it comes to the natural world, James is a fan.
And who wouldn’t be, contemplating the coiled power—but also the refinement—of a cantering horse? Or the elegant, interlocking geometry of bones in a snake’s skeleton? The horse and the snake are both animal kingdom touchstones for James in “Loud Magic;” creatures that convey power and presence and teem with mythic associations. But in her work, James also incorporates fox toe and crow bones, animal fur, tree roots, charred pine and gourds into her salt-of-the-earth sculptures, tying tiny femurs into her ladders of bed sheets and paper and cotton that dangle from the ceiling in “Pale Arcana.”
An alchemist of nature, James turns red Georgia clay into marble-sized beads that cluster like grapes or cherry pits from a crucifix-shaped root dripping vines of thread in “Home.”
In “Free Animal,” James weaves horsehair into a kind of wreath, a ring of ombre color that moves from white to ivory to black to gray as if to suggest the stages of life, from infancy to old age. “Elemental” spews forth tendrils of deep red silk rope and spun silk organza (the earthy colors are achieved with mushroom dye) like entrails from a split wool felt sack.
James has described the influences on her adult artwork in childhood. She grew up in Stone Mountain where she had the strange experience of living near a stable where the Ku Klux Klan kept their horses. As a little girl, she felt a mix of attraction to those lovely, enchanting animals and also fear of the men who kept them, and her work seems to play off of that complicated mix of beauty and menace.
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Certain sculptures, like “Free Animal” have the look of relics from a museum dedicated to indigenous cultures, totems of a mysterious tribe that culls it crafts and religious icons from flora and fauna. “Mortal Coil” made from layers of hand-dyed horsehair in shades of blood red and tiny ivory curls, looks like Mother Nature’s front door fall decor.
Her most ambitious, operatic piece “I know a song of the colors where I live…does it know a song of me?” stretches 144 inches across one of the gallery walls, an epic frieze that combines hand-dyed wool yarn and wool felt, cotton thread and rope, silk, black clay, gourds and even a taxidermied red siskin bird (not yet integrated when I saw the work) into a narrative of nature’s teeming abundance.
You can almost hear the strains of bird song and katydids in the piece. And thanks to sound artist J.D. Walsh, you kind of do.
Walsh, a fellow member of the Atlanta Contemporary Studio Artists Program, has provided an ambient, immersive soundtrack for the show that moves from the sound of horse hooves and whinnies to ethereal electronic music and sampled sounds in strains ranging from plaintive to playful.
Though James could often be described as a fiber artist, in “Loud Magic” she’s after something more complex. We often think of nature as a helpmate to human ambition: horses are to ride, cotton is to weave, clay yields pottery and trees, furniture. But in “Loud Magic” James has contemplated these materials as wonders in their own right, channeling us into thinking about their inherent beauty, their aesthetic and sculptural qualities.
While much of the work is strangely compelling, the slightly spooky, metaphysical tone doesn’t hold throughout, a fact especially evident in two works—“Piano I” and “Piano II”—that use fragments of pianos combined with elements from nature. It’s an intrusion of culture that doesn’t really fit with the organic, mystical, talismanic vibe James works so hard to establish in “Loud Magic.”
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