Laney Contemporary Fine Art presents Southern Arcana, a solo exhibition of recent pen and ink drawings, sculptures, and photo-based works by Stephanie Howard. In her first exhibition in Savannah in almost four years, Howard, based in Greenville, South Carolina, continues to be influenced by outsider and folk art practices, vintage photography, illustration, and embroidery, resulting in drawings so densely saturated with ink that they appear to be quilted onto the paper. Southern Arcana is an exhibition conceptually divided into two spaces of thought, inspired by Tarot cards which have been employed since the 15th century in many different cultures to divine the future. The Tarot deck is split into the Major Arcana, time in the past, and the Minor Arcana, time in the potential future. Howard’s work explores the Major Arcana by creating a fictitious narrative of the past composed of Rorschach-like drawings, “documentary” photographs, embroidered garments as “found objects,” and Polaroid images of masked female figures. The collection illustrates a fictitious tribe of Appalachian women which Howard describes as a “balancing force in contrast to powerful and horribly hate-filled southern, mask-wearing male organizations of the past. Ideally, this female tribe would have spanned generations and could balance the scales of feminine and masculine energy in a fictitious history, providing justice or witness to unchecked atrocities.”
In the second aspect of Southern Arcana, the Minor Arcana is forecast by divining patterns of the future and interpreting messages “received” from items in a domestic environment. These drawings explore floral still lifes and the repetitious patterns of wallpaper as revelatory or even prophetic. Black marbles float on the surface of Howard’s drawings, as if cast runes, predicting knowledge of the future. Like some homemade version of an ancient tea leaf ceremony, the marbles appear to be cast onto a patterned kitchen tablecloth, each inky square of the checkerboard hand-rendered, revealing patterns of behavior and daily life. The uncertain future is revealed as a game played with the intimacy of the kitchen table. Howard’s densely focused practice explores the context of history, power dynamics, and Southern female experience.
Howard’s work can be understood as “threads of time.” Time and labor are visible in generative, trance-like detailing of pen and ink patterns. Repetitions emanate from the paper, emulating the rings of a tree trunk in cross-section; its growth, past and future, recorded in natural linework. The reiterative borders in her work act as both frame and continuation of the subject, recalling late 19th century daguerreotype portraits framed in floral or fabric borderwork. Referencing votive imagery of figures in the past, typically created by womenfolk, within vernacular cultures as diverse as Bavaria, Latin America, England, Russian folk practice, and the United States, Howard’s work participates in this history and reinvents it. Southern Arcana exaggerates and illustrates the power of women’s visual divination, of intuition with all of its practices and expressions, and the desire to extract meaningful revelations.