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Review: Artists and writers tap personal and collective memory in Agnes Scott’s “Groundstory”

Still from “There’s no place like…,” a video by Benita Carr and Bill Orisich

“Groundstory: tales from the shade of the South,” on view through November 17 at Agnes Scott College’s Dalton Gallery, is a multifaceted exploration of Southern narratives. The show, the second in a series of storytelling exhibitions at the gallery, comprises visual art in a range of mediums and a catalog of writing by artists and writers. In this incarnation of the storytelling theme, writers and artists predominantly discuss the past, dealing with personal and collective memories. The most compelling works, however, succeed by rising above personal specificity.

Lonnie Holley's "Coming Back at You"

Lonnie Holley’s “Coming Back at You” utilizes items that invoke memory in order to tap into feelings of an uncertain future. Holley spent two weeks gathering objects, he says, on Atlanta’s “highways and byways,” bringing them to the gallery by the pocketful and carload for the installation. A tent-like structure made of tree branches frames the work, sheltering discarded children’s shoes, trash from companies such as McDonald’s and Walmart, and a child’s wooden table among leaves, sticks and many other items.

The work suggests that the future we leave for the next generation will be wild and unruly, an apocalypse brought on by overconsumption and big corporations. Yet there is a sense of innocence and hope brought forth by the implied presence of children; whatever happens, life will continue. A black elongated pyramid is placed defiantly on the top mast of the tent frame, a symbol of strength and a challenge to those who would consider the future hopeless.

Ruth Stanford’s installation “Past Perfect Continuous” focuses on the elusiveness of memory and the unsatisfactory substitute of documentary items such as photographs. Stanford edited photos from her childhood, cropping herself out and leaving a white form behind. Rather than appearing excised, however, the artist’s younger self seems to be trying to enter the picture and return to this lost time.

Ruth Stanford's "Past Perfect Continuous" (detail)

Reinforcing this are the images of herself that she has cut out of the photos and scattered around the gallery floor. Stanford also plundered objects from her childhood and placed them on shelves inside a plywood crate, a hideout of sorts replete with a child-size lawn chair. These artifacts of the past are displayed for the viewer but present a glimpse of a world — Stanford’s childhood, as substitute for our own — that we cannot access or return to.

“There’s no place like ,” a video by Benita Carr and Bill Orisich, serves as a powerful statement about the strangeness that exists right under our noses. Set in a perfect-looking neighborhood, the pervading feeling is that, despite surreal happenings, everything is normal. The characters include a woman and two young girls, presumably the woman’s daughters, as well as two older women singing “Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie” while standing on a stoop.

In one scene, the woman and girls eat pizza while white feathers cascade over them. In another, the girls levitate the woman. The subject matter is eerie yet the scenes strangely calming. “There’s no place like …” defies explicit narrative; it’s just another day in the neighborhood.

A scene from “There’s no place like …,” a video by Benita Carr and Bill Orisich.

Sometimes a single sound or smell is all it takes to send us reeling into the realm of recollection. Donna Mintz’s installation, “ballad of a place,” achieves such an effect. She has constructed a pine cabin in the gallery and covered the floor with leaves. Although a sound element was indiscernible during my visit, the piece was effective without it. From the second I set foot in the room, the smell of leaves and their crunch under my feet brought back memories of a dozen falls, of raking with my brothers, a leaf stuck in my red sweater.

Objects and images are similarly the locus of the authors’ memories in the writing component. In these essays, combined in the catalog with images of the artworks, what arises is not nearly a complete picture of the South but dozens of individual voices and memories coming through, conveying moments past, present and future.

A brunch, with artist talks and readings, will take place 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, November 10, at the gallery.

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