In their collaborative identity as TindelMichi, John Tindel and Michi Meko have been trying to represent a different, newer South by borrowing images for their artworks from an older one — though not that much older. In practice, their works are as puzzling and paradoxical as the newer South itself, and the paintings, drawings and sculptures in “Baptism by Fire,” at Barbara Archer Gallery through January 5, are no exception.
In fact, it may help to read the show counterintuitively, from the smallest and least image-laden work to the largest wall pieces. The works titled “Tindel Pattern I-IV” and “Michi Pattern I-II” are abstract exercises in geometry in which the artists worked separately on the same general idea, on six 14-inch-square wood panels. Each of Tindel’s panels explores a different approach to patterning; Michi’s (he goes by “Michi,” never “Meko”) overlapping circles are structurally similar because they were produced by scorching the wood on a stove burner.
Nothing in the tightly rendered paint of Tindel’s patterns is intrinsically linked to “white Southern culture” any more than Michi’s inventive woodburning approach necessarily implies “black Southern culture.” Or if there are such implications, they need to be modified immediately in light of the tightly rendered figuration of Michi’s adjacent watercolors, altered minimally by Tindel’s geometric overlays. These pieces include three that could be read as politically charged: in “Rescue,” faceless state troopers drag away a man attired in a suit and tie, and in “Pixie Stick,” a uniformed officer wields a baton while restraining a police dog. In both cases, the ironic titles are meant to defuse or displace the easiest interpretation of the image. In “Boy’s Life,” Michi imagines how his father would have appeared had he been one of the Scouts featured on the cover of the Boy Scouts of America’s magazine, “Boys’ Life” — something that would have been impossible in his father’s adolescence. But this historically loaded picture appears next to an amusing and nearly meaningless portrayal of Tindel’s small son jumping into the air.
Tindel and Michi are being artists together in a South that is one generation removed from conditions that would have made the emergence of the TindelMichi collaboration inconceivable. So this mix of neutrally or ironically distanced past and lovingly rendered present is a deliberate strategy.
However, their strategy emerges organically from the act of collaboration, and is as much unconscious and intuitive as it is intentional. This explains the difficulty of making complete sense of paintings that feel resolved but defeat any attempts at definitive interpretation.
How, for example, are we to read the lattice-top pie, martin gourds and children in tree swings of “Relics,” appearing in the same painting if not the same picture plane as the text “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” (“quoth Prospero” is inscribed elsewhere in the painting to indicate that this is a Shakespeare line, from “The Tempest”), close to a machete-wielding figure from Hale Woodruff’s mural of the Amistad rebellion, overlain by a stenciled Confederate flag? It’s possible to make up a story involving the aspects of Southern culture shared by both white and black (the juxtaposition of blond-haired little girl and barefoot African-American boy on the tree swings being a clue in that direction), and their overall place in a past in which a different “thing of darkness” needs to be acknowledged more than the Caliban of Prospero’s original declaration.
Likewise, it’s possible to extract a reasonably coherent allegory from a work such as “Cotton Belt Route,” in which a black maid dumps out a container of wrapped peppermint candies such as were found on the living room table of every Southern woman of a certain age, while other assorted markers of a bygone but recent South surround the vintage logo of the railroad’s “Cotton Belt Route.” But in such works as “Our Faithful Hooch II” the allegory scales off toward semi-intelligibility, as Scarlett O’Hara, looking askance at a crow (or is it a raven, or a blackbird?), dominates a painting in which other birds perch on telephone wires and a child swings unaware and unharmed from the branch of a tree that contains a large hornets’ nest. As in “Detritivores of a System,” where a bottom-feeding catfish overlays a riverboat, a mansion, random black faces and a complex polyhedron, each image taken individually suggests a symbolic or allegorical meaning. Taken together, though, the composition begins to resemble the logic of a dream rather than a straightforward allegory. (It would be a well-structured dream, however; Tindel and Michi pointed out in a gallery talk that they use such things as repeated groups of three or seven as devices to keep the paintings visually organized.)
Perhaps “Baptism by Fire” could be read as a psychological portrait of Tindel and Michi as they come to terms with the South together and apart. “M. Dixon” is an impressive collaborative wall sculpture with imagery ranging from a black Union soldier to an apparently appropriated piece of signage reading “My Favorite Things,” with vines and cotton bolls in between, and time-worn fragments of architecture uniting the disparate visual elements. Despite its quintessentially Southern content, the work has a clear kinship with “The Bird Kachina” and “The Plow Kachina,” which derive their inspiration but not their appearance from the Navajo kachinas that Michi experienced in the desert Southwest.
Despite the South’s own Native American inheritance, nothing could be less Old — or New — Southern than a kachina, except that Southern travelers have been seeing kachinas for generations, and the sight has informed their own personal symbolism. The South has always contained currents of global culture, but until recent decades these influences arrived in the region one Southerner at a time, as with Michi’s recent travels.
Now the currents have merged into a continuous flood, but that is another story, and Tindel and Michi individually as well as in their identity as TindelMichi are mostly engaged with the story of how the South’s past cultures survived even as they morphed into the genuinely amorphous cultural forms we find in the present.