Tag Archives: Birmingham Museum of Art

Third Space

Entrance to Third Space, Birmingham Museum of Art

The last thing I care to do on the day between Thanksgiving and the Iron Bowl is shop. Instead, I try to find some free time to do something relaxing and just for myself.

This Thanksgiving weekend I found time to go to the Birmingham Museum of Art (www.artsbma.org) to catch an exhibition I’ve been wanting to see since it opened in January. “Third Space: Shifting Conversations about Contemporary Art” will be up until January 2019. It incorporates a number of contemporary pieces from the Museum’s permanent collection and explores correlations between diverse media, artists, and themes.

Birmingham Museum of Art regulars are already familiar with some of the featured Alabama artists like William Christenberry, Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Kerry James Marshall, and Moses Tolliver. They are all represented in “Third Space.” The exhibit also gives the opportunity to view lesser-seen pieces, monumental pieces, and video installations by international artists that are rarely viewed.

“Big Fish Eat All the Little Fish” by Thornton Dial

The exhibit is organized into groupings with labels like “migration / diaspora / exile”; “gaze / agency / representation”; “spirit / nature / landscape”; “traditions / histories / memory.” Those categories, peppered with contemporary art buzzwords, prepare the viewer for the dominant themes of victimization and resentment which are so prevalent in much current contemporary art.

There are exciting images throughout the venue and around each corner is something to please and/or challenge the senses. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I spotted one of Jim Dine’s Pinocchios but moving closer it was a sculpture by Cuban artist Esterio Segura. In “La historia se muerda la cola (History Bites Its Tail),” Pinocchio’s nose, which grows when he lies, has grown into a rope that binds him. Not only did I ponder the symbolism of the nose in the Segura piece but it lead me to consider why Dine is also drawn to the character and has presented him in so many ways.

“La historia se muerda la cola” by Esterio Segura with “Old Salem: A Family of Strangers (Series One)” by Fred Wilson and “Making the Bed” by David Salle (far right)

I have a quote from art critic Cay Sophie Rabinowitz on my office wall; I regularly discuss it in my directing classes. She wrote, “When agency is replaced by agenda, the intelligence and poetry of art often get sacrificed.” I found myself thinking about that quote during my time at the Third Space exhibit. “Third Space” is a challenging exhibit, raising questions and issues at every juncture. However, the artists’ agenda in the approximately hundred works on view usually does not take precedence over the provocative agency of the artists’ accomplishments. I was often drawn to a work’s skillful execution before being drawn into the artist’s more powerful and subtle intent. At times, I had no clue to the intent.

For example, Laylah Ali’s “President” is a puzzling collection of small sketchy drawings of each U.S. president pre-Obama. Exhibition notes say the artist gave no instruction for how the portraits should be ordered so the curator has arranged them from president with most hair to president with least. A few of the presidents are being gazed at (taunted?) by little orange heads. There was no apparent rhyme or reason as to why Ali chose the presidents she did for these puzzling cartoon additions. Still, I kept looking.

“among the weeds, plants, and peacock feathers” by Ebony G. Patterson

One of the prettiest pieces is also abruptly disturbing. “among the weeds, plants, and peacock feathers” by Ebony G. Patterson compels with its sparkles and bangles until one notices the shoes in the tapestry and realizes they are attached to a human body.

Probably the most aesthetically pleasing painting for me was David Salle’s “Making the Bed,” a striking work on canvas in which an armada hovers over a shadowy reclining figure. A blood red streak of paint connects the two images.

“Gravity’s Rainbow” by Odili Donald Odita as seen from inside “2x’s” by Rural Studio

One of the galleries in the exhibit is grounded by a large piece built by Rural Studio architect/artisans. “2x’s” (two bys) is an aggregation of boards that would be used in building one of Rural Studio’s “20K Home” projects. The assemblage has built-in seating areas and provides a unique and personal perspective to the work that surrounds it. When the Third Space exhibition closes in 2019, the boards of “2x’s” will return to the Black Belt to be used in a new 20K Home.

On most visits to the Birmingham Museum, I head first to the modern galleries where I have favorites I like to revisit. It’s good to have “Third Space” available for another year with some of those familiar pieces and others with which I have just established an acquaintance.

View of “Third Space” at Birmingham Museum of Art with “Soundsuit” by Nick Cave in the foreground


Communion: Haitian Vodou Flags at the Birmingham Museum of Art


DSCN0143   The Birmingham Museum of Art has always been my museum. It has been there, across the street from the north end of downtown’s Linn Park, as long as I can remember. It’s the first museum I knew; I still remember my first visit on a Sunday afternoon with Mother, Aunt Polly, and a cousin when I was about 7-years-old. When Dad’s office was downtown, I would occasionally go to work with him and idle away a morning or afternoon in the museum collection. Since then, I have always felt at home there. Even when I lived far away from Birmingham I would try to work a visit to the museum into each trip home.

Beyond my sentimental attachment, the Birmingham Museum of Art is also an excellent museum with an impressive and wide-ranging collection ranging from African, Asian, Native American, and Pre-Columbian Art to American, contemporary, folk, European, and decorative arts. One of my favorite places at the museum is a multi-level sculpture garden where I like to be at any time of the year. I didn’t appreciate how good the Birmingham museum was until I started traveling around the country and visiting other museums. DSCN0136

Most importantly, the Birmingham Museum is a city-owned museum that is still free to the public (except for the occasional special exhibition).

I spent the morning there visiting a current exhibit, “Haitian Vodou Flags from the Cargo Collection.” The small but impressive exhibition is shown in a dark room with lights highlighting the colorful flags and accompanied by video of a Haitian Vodou ceremony. Vodou was a religion established with the Africans’ arrival in Haiti in the 1500s; because Vodou was outlawed by the European colonial powers, it was practiced in secret and evolved to include Catholic saints and symbols along with the loa – Vodou spirits. There are links with American “voodoo” but Haitian Vodou has distinctions which set it apart from the American tradition most identified with New Orleans.

DSCN0122The flags on display are generally colorful square patches bedazzled with beads and sequins. As evidenced in the video, the flags may be hung, flown, or draped over the shoulders and backs of celebrants. Images combine iconography of Christian, African, and Masonic traditions and recognizable types include a Madonna and St. Patrick, snakes writhing at his feet. The textiles are stunning in intricacy, vibrance, and design detail.

I enjoyed the exhibit in its own right but another incentive was to view the legacy of Robert and Helen Cargo. In the late-70s, between undergrad and graduate school, I lived in an apartment taking up half of the ground floor of a two-story white frame house on Tuscaloosa’s Caplewood Drive near the University of Alabama campus. My landlords, Robert and Helen Cargo, lived directly across the street. Dr. Cargo taught French at the University. They were good landlords and I remember when I took the apartment Mrs. Cargo instructed me that I could open and close the blinds in the front windows but not to raise them because that would look “tacky.”

When Hurricane Frederick moved inland from the Gulf and Mobile Bay and dumped a tree on my house, I was at work on the University campus. Mrs. Cargo called me to let me know that my apartment was not damaged but that the tree which had toppled onto my house was the “biggest uprooting I ever saw.” Indeed, the house I lived in was included in a segment on Frederick’s damage that night on the “NBC Nightly News.”

I hope I was a good tenant; I think I was. But once I threw a party at my place on the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend and some of the party-goers got the bright idea to go down the street and t.p. writer Barry Hannah’s front yard. I didn’t hear about the escapade until after the fact; I expected to get an earful about it from Mrs. Cargo first and Barry second but fortunately I never got the reprimand from either source.

Not long after I moved on from the Caplewood house, Robert Cargo Folk Art Gallery opened up on 6th Street in downtown Tuscaloosa. The Cargos were important collectors of folk and outsider art – I had admired some of their pieces on the very few occasions I had been in their house – and the downtown storefront provided a place to share the collection, interact with dealers, and continue acquisitions. The Robert and Helen Cargo African American Quilt Collection was probably the most notable part of the impressive collection.

Robert Cargo died in 2012, preceded by Helen Cargo a few years earlier. A year after Dr. Cargo’s death, their daughter Caroline donated approximately 700 items of the Robert Cargo Folk Art Collection and the quilt collection to the Birmingham Museum of Art. The gift included over 75 Vodou flags the Cargos collected from the makers over the course of several trips to Haiti during the 80s and 90s. Many of those flags are included in the current exhibit.

Over the twenty years the Cargo Folk Art Gallery was open in downtown Tuscaloosa, I had visited and was well aware of the impressive quilt collection and numerous other works of folk and outsider art but the Vodou flags were unknown to me until the museum announced the current exhibition.

The last time I visited with Dr. Cargo at his gallery was in November 2003, the day after the legendary Tuscaloosa dive, the Chukker, closed its doors. Dr. Cargo was making plans to close the Tuscaloosa gallery and ship the collection to Caroline in Philadelphia where the Gallery would continue. I told him that the gallery’s closing would be a loss to Tuscaloosa. “Ahh,” he mused, “I don’t think it will be as momentous as losing the Chukker, but I hope some people might miss us.”

Robert and Helen Cargo were gracious people and passionate collectors. It was good to remember them and commune with their spirits today at my favorite museum amidst some of the objects they collected and loved. DSCN0141


“Complex Vision” and a Medical Visionary

IMG_1541  After a year of restoration under the artist’s supervision in Florida, Yaakov Agam’s “Complex Vision” is back at home on the University Boulevard façade of the Callahan Eye Hospital in Birmingham. The Israeli artist’s 30’x30’ kinetic mural, commissioned by Dr. Alston Callahan (1911-2005), the ophthalmology pioneer and founder of the Eye Foundation Hospital (www.uabmedicine.org/locations/uab-callahan-eye-hospital) that now bears his name, has been a striking landmark in Birmingham’s sprawling medical center since the 1970s. IMG_1545

My mother has a strong bond with the Eye Foundation and a visceral affection for Agam’s mural. After being misdiagnosed for a problem with her left eye by another doctor in another town, her malignant melanoma was diagnosed by Dr. Callahan at the Eye Foundation in 1986. Immediate surgery led to loss of the eye but the cancer was removed and there has been no recurrence. She is now cancer-free for over twenty-nine years.

The Callahan Eye Hospital and its patients seem to become like family. My mother’s ongoing relationship with the hospital and members of its staff is powerful. She is now the patient of “Dr. Mike” Callahan, Alston Callahan’s son, and maintains friendships with employees whose time with the hospital dates back to her 1986 life-saving and life-changing surgery. IMG_1559

Dr. Callahan seems to have envisioned the Agam sculpture as a gift for his patients. He imagined the patient who arrived at the Eye Foundation with impaired vision being able to leave to appreciate the full color and beauty of the mural. Symbolically, from one perspective the mural is black and white; as one moves past it, it reveals itself in its full array of vivid panels of primary colors and patterns.


I know that Mother wants to view it each time she visits the hospital and she likes to drive by it whenever she’s downtown. She missed it over the past year and is delighted at its return. The mural was spectacular as it was but the renovation has clarified, brightened, and reinforced its vibrant splendor. IMG_1553

Dr. Alston Callahan’s lasting influence extends far beyond the Eye Foundation Hospital and the many patients he served. He and his wife, Eivor Holst Callahan, left an impressive legacy as philanthropists and art collectors. Much of their extensive Asian art collection was bequeathed to the Birmingham Museum of Art. The museum’s Indian and Southeast Asian gallery,  a meditative room with a window looking across to Linn Park and the skyline beyond, is named the Eivor and Alston Callahan Gallery in their honor. The museum also has an annual Eivor and Alston Callahan Lecture series focusing on Asian art.

In addition to all of that, Dr. Callahan was a seasoned world traveler who went on expeditions to both the North and South Poles. Those adventures, in addition to the Eye Foundation, are commemorated on his gravestone.

The Callahan’s home atop Red Mountain overlooked Birmingham with a direct view across the road to Vulcan, Birmingham’s iconic iron man statue. I once lived in an apartment around the curve from Vulcan and that house and was a fan of the architecture before I ever knew who lived there. The Moshe Safdie-designed house was a modernist vision of dramatic mystery and unexpected angles. It was the kind of house that made one wonder what treasures were to be found inside. It went on the market after Dr. Callahan’s death (his wife preceded him in death in 2002). Unfortunately, the new owners razed the Callahan house and built another more traditional big house in its place. It’s a perfectly fine house, I guess. But now it’s just another big house on the mountain. The Callahan house was one that was destined to live in the memory. IMG_1562

The loss of the Callahan house, however, does not diminish the impressive legacy of Dr. Callahan. That legacy lives on in Birmingham and beyond in the Eye Foundation; the Callahan Eye Hospital; the International Retinal Research Foundation; the art his family collected and shared; the BMA’s Callahan Gallery and Asian lecture series; and the thousands of doctors and patients who are touched directly or indirectly by his influence. Given his impact on my family, Mother’s Day seems to be a perfect time to honor him.

The magnificently restored Agam mural is perhaps the most visible and accessible piece of that legacy. And now it’s back where it belongs. IMG_1557