White Gold: Thomas Sayre
December 9, 2017 - July 8, 2018
The Donna and Jim Barksdale Galleries for Changing Exhibitions
White Gold: Thomas Sayre is an immersive site-specific installation, by artist Thomas Sayre, which depicts a cotton-filled Southern landscape. The work intends to express the beauty, the complexity, the dark eeriness, and the tragedy of our embroiled agricultural traditions. Inevitably, reference to any landscape which has been worked by humans, but especially the Southern landscape, releases the voices which live in the pain of the land. Cotton is one of the nation’s most contentious and layered materials, and one with which almost every Mississippian has a personal relationship, either directly or indirectly. Cotton’s identity is at one with the economic, racial, and social history of the region and its people. Two centuries after statehood, cotton still looms large, and remains largely unnegotiated in its complexities. In presenting this exhibition highlighting a contemporary artist’s response to this iconic and provocative symbol, the Mississippi Museum of Art is intending to stimulate personal responses, shared conversations, increased understanding, and potentially reconciliation. Accompanying programs and engagement spaces will offer opportunities for further reflection and community conversation about cotton and the social frameworks and economic systems that built the economy of Mississippi and other states while leaving a legacy of racial inequity.
First installed at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, White Gold is composed of four large-scale works occupying 2,000 square feet of gallery space. One work, Tracks 1-18, features artist Thomas Sayre’s signature earth-casting process, in which he pours concrete into molds in the land itself. The other three works, Thicket 1-14, Row 1-10, and Barn 1-3, are two-dimensional renditions achieved with earth, tar, paint, and the artist’s labor; the physical act of smearing, scraping, and rubbing.
Thomas Sayre has always made work that dances between human intention and the resistance of materials. His process of making allows the life of the work to spring from the world’s serendipitous offerings when the human hand intersects with nature. The earthcasts in the exhibition, Tracks, are an expression of this intersection and a physical recording of the act of “touching” the earth. Thicket depicts a cotton field from an intimate vantage point, as if the viewer were crouched down, peering through the brambles. Row provides a compelling, slightly elevated perspective, of rows of cotton hurdling toward
their vanishing point. Barn juxtaposes the crop’s nature-made organic growth with the overtly person-made barn structures that line the field.
“This exhibition has inspired a lot of searching,” says Sayre. “I’ve looked back through my notebooks to find decades of references about the way light finds its way through chinks in an old barn wall, or how to express the feeling of otherworldliness induced by a row of cotton in a long, flat field. I’ve searched for materials and techniques to capture the stark whiteness of a cotton boll in the sharp thickets of the field. I’ve wrestled with the hard history embedded in the red clay and what I could add to this very complex and potent story.”
White Gold refers to cotton and a reverence for the land, the labor, and the people (forced or unforced) who made cotton their livelihood. White Gold is a fierce expression of the Southern landscape: its searing beauty and the haunting pain of history, memory, and ultimately, belonging.
About the artist: Thomas Sayre is a Raleigh, North Carolina, based artist who is best known for his large-scale earthcast sculptures. He has created public installations across the United States and around the world. Sayre’s work has been exhibited at the Fayetteville Museum of Art in Fayetteville, North Carolina, (1988 and 2002); and the Gregg Museum of Art and Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, (2009). Sayre’s commissioned public works are included in various collections across the United States with projects in Tampa, Florida; Denver, Colorado; Portland, Oregon; Nashville and Chattanooga, Tennessee; San Jose, California; Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona; Baltimore, Maryland; Washington D.C.; and Raleigh, North Carolina. Internationally, he has commissioned public projects in Istanbul, Turkey; Phuket, Thailand; Hong Kong; and Calgary and Ontario, Canada.
Thomas Sayre grew up in Washington, D.C. He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a Morehead Scholar, majoring in English and Studio Art. He graduated in 1973, summa cum laude. He was awarded a Michigan Fellowship with a three-year grant from the Ford Foundation to create sculpture at the University of Michigan. In 1975, he attended the Master of Fine Arts program at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Sayre received the North Carolina Award for Fine Arts and received an honorary doctorate from North Carolina State University in 2014. He currently resides in North Carolina with his wife, Joan-Ellen Deck. Together they have two daughters.