Matthew Brandt, Viviane Sassen, Alfredo Jaar at SCAD's deFine Art

An installation view of Jason Middlebrook's "Submerged," 2014 at SCAD Museum of Art.
(Photo by John McKinnon/Courtesy of SCAD)

Mention Savannah and most people think of creepily beautiful fingers of Spanish Moss, or the haunting events captured in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” But this idyllic Georgian city is also the home of the Savannah College of Art and Design, which — despite being founded only in 1978 — is now a sprawling, deep-pocketed institution that hosts the annual deFine Art festival. (SCAD has also turned out some top-notch alums, like Wendy White, Michael Scoggins, Whitney Stansell, and Marcus Kenney.) This year’s deFine Art, from February 18 through 21, featured exhibitions from Alfredo Jaar (2014’s honoree and keynote speaker), Dustin Yellin, Matthew Brandt, Nathan Mabry, and others, as well as the premiere of a dance performance by curator and choreographer Jonah Bokaer. Truck driver-cum-art critic Jerry Saltz was also on hand to lecture students on the road to success. 

At the SCAD Museum of Art — where most shows are on view through June or July — Jason Middlebrook hung his signature painted planks in the lobby, along with a “medieval chandelier” that he’d constructed from yellow pine wood reclaimed from Savannah’s former piers. Tim Rollins and K.O.S. unveiled works that referred to Duke Ellington, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Huck Finn, made in collaboration with local junior-high students; South African artist Sam Nhlengethwa presented mixed-media paintings and photographs that, in one instance, were shown alongside collages by Romare Bearden, a clear (at times overbearing) influence. 

Matthew Brandt brought photos from his “Lakes and Reservoirs” series, for which he photographs bodies of water and then submerges the prints in that same water, generating brilliant effects: flying debris, melting blobs, fiery bursts of yellow, orange, or magenta. In the courtyard outside the main galleries, Nathan Mabry installed “Process Art (B-E-A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E),” a bronze sculpture inspired by Rodin’s “The Burghers of Callais” (in this case all of the figures are wearing the sort of animal masks you’d see on sports mascots). Viviane Sassen’s inclusion in deFine Art nodded to SCAD’s focus on fashion — André Leon Talley is on the Board of Trustees — and featured a slideshow of editorial images that happily blurred the lines between commercial and fine art photography. 

Alfredo Jaar debuted a new work at SCAD: “Shadows,” which used a traumatic image taken in 1970s Nicaragua by Dutch photographer Koen Wessing as its centerpiece. The shot — which captured two female relatives of a man who has just been murdered — was presented without much context, but rather as an iconic image of suffering. Jaar, during his keynote lecture, would nonetheless stress that “context is everything,” and that his practice involves a “constant effort to try to change the order of reality.” A survey of past works certainly attested to that activist mission, ranging from interventions in Montreal to spotlight the city’s homeless problem to a unique memorial for los desaparecidos at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile. Jaar’s lecture also divulged two fun facts: He was once a magician; and one of his first artworks was a nearly 10-minute video that featured him heroically blowing into a clarinet until he succumbed to exhaustion.

New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz spoke the night after Jaar, with considerably more levity. While his talk was titled “The Good, The Bad, And The Very Bad,” he mainly kept things positive — despite a brief dig at Dustin Yellin’s reliance on craftsmanship over content, and a reference to the current school of NYC abstraction that he’s on the record as despising. Saltz had a smattering of advice for SCAD students: Marry money, if you have to; “Bring the chaos” and “bypass the gatekeepers”; don’t worry about making sense with your work. He also gave some insight into the music he’s able to listen to while writing. (SPOILER ALERT: It’s Enya and Alannis Morisette.) 

Saltz went on to bemoan the hermetic state of the art world — “the same 255 people doing the same 55 panels on the same 55 subjects” — before assuring the student body that there was no need for them to relocate to New York in order to launch their careers. “You’ve got everything you need,” he said. “It’s your turn. You’ve got to fix this.”