ArtsATL > Art+Design > Review: The Contemporary’s smashing redo; Fallen Fruit’s engaging scrapbook of Atlanta

Review: The Contemporary’s smashing redo; Fallen Fruit’s engaging scrapbook of Atlanta

Thornton Dial's sculpture, "Lady in Pain," is in the foreground of this view of "Fallen Fruit in Atlanta."
The Contemporary's lighter, airier spaces. (Photo by Mike Jensen, courtesy of Atlanta Contemporary Art Center)
The Contemporary’s lighter, airier spaces. (Photo by Mike Jensen, courtesy of Atlanta Contemporary Art Center)

The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center debuted its renovated space last month, and it is a winner. With an economy of moves that grew out of creative consideration of the building, ACAC’s needs and $600.000 budget, Atlanta architects Brian Bell and David Yocum of bldgs have fashioned a distinctive but not overbearing container for the wide variety of art ACAC exhibits and its new lecture hall.

Walking through the door, one’ first impression is of a lighter, airier space. Indeed, light suffuses the place, a quality achieved mainly by simple restoration of the building’s original features. The architects unblocked existing windows on the north and south facades and made use of the clerestory of the old factory building’s sawtooth roof.

Much like “Boundaries Issues”, bldgs’ 2008 “window intervention”, the newly created views orient the visitor to the building’s urban and spatial context and offer a more accurate sense of the whole campus. The windows in the resource room, for instance, offer an enticing peek into the courtyard in the center of the studio wing.

Atlanta Contemporary Art Center
Windows replacing a glass-block wall offer a view into entrance courtyard. (Photo by Rachel Reese for Atlanta Contemporary Art Center )

In an interesting archaeological footnote, the new portals for the new reception desk and bar were originally windows of a building-within-the-building, which bldgs had discovered during earlier research.

The architects have succeeded in injecting architectural energy into the space by mixing orthogonal and diagonal lines and spaces. The long diagonal wall on the right side of the foyer leads visitors toward the galleries. They also created a teeny folly: a diagonal wall on the left creates a quirky triangular space between it and the exterior wall. It won’t be long before an artist takes it as a challenge.

ACAC has inaugurated its revised space with exhibitions by Fallen Fruit (Los Angeles artists David Burns and Austin Young) and Steven Anderson, one of the ACAC’s studio artists. Both are on view through December 14.

Thornton Dial's sculpture, "Lady in Pain," is in the foreground of this view of "Fallen Fruit in Atlanta" at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.
Thornton Dial’s sculpture, “Lady in Pain,” is in the foreground of this view of “Fallen Fruit in Atlanta.”

Fallen Fruit uses – you guessed it – fruit as a platform and symbol for public projects and site-specific installations addressing issues of urban space and community. In the mode of relational aesthetics, audience participation is an integral part of the process, and the endgame. Projects range from simple communal experiences such as making jam to creating city maps noting the location of fruit trees. One permanent work is Del Aire Public Fruit Park, California’s first orchard planted on public property.

The collective changed course in Atlanta. For their public project, “Public Atlas”, they mapped two neighborhoods using artwork that locals had installed for this purpose, invited people to walk neighborhoods and make their own maps. For the gallery installation, “Fallen Fruit in Atlanta” they use portraiture as a vehicle to explore Atlanta’s social history – inspired, according to artistic director Stuart Horodner, by the rich vein of southern storytelling.

Fruit – the peach, inevitably – didn’t entirely disappear. Garlands of peaches float on a bright blue ground in the striking wallpaper they designed and hung in the large gallery. In addition, the artists solicited self-portraits drawn on pictures of peaches. At first glance, the wallpaper appears to be the kind of decorator-y pattern for an upper-middle-class breakfast or dining room. (The gallery is the homiest it’s ever looked.) On closer examination, it has more in common with the memento mori of 17th-century Dutch still lifes: the peaches are represented in stages of decay, right  to the sky-borne pits.

The wallpaper sets the stage for the salon-style display of 274 photographs, sculptures and photographs lent by institutions, local artists and other individuals, picked up in flea markets or made by the artists. They are a jumble of aesthetics and genres — works by famous artists, local luminaries, family snapshots, amateur paintings, vernacular art, children’s self-portraits, news photos, African masks and so on. Intentionally so, they serve the various aspects of Fallen Fruit’s multivalent installation: part populist scrapbook of Atlanta’s history, part art exhibit, part life-cycle sequence reminiscent of Edward Steichen’s exhibit and book, “Family of Man.”

photosAnyone who is fascinated by old photos, other people’s lives or Atlanta history will find this cornucopia of images engaging. References include Margaret Mitchell and Maynard Jackson, the Peachtree Road Race and college football. So many faces: kids in loving snapshots, vibrant women in fancy hats, dignified business titans, old guys playing checkers…..

But, as you might expect from these artists (and The Contemporary), this isn’t simply a feel-good enterprise. As inevitably as the peach is Atlanta’s fruit, race is the project’s running theme. Had the artists not already been predisposed in that direction, the paucity of African-American images in the archives at the Atlanta History Center would have suggested it to them. To build parity, they borrowed works from such institutions as the Hammonds House, Souls Grown Deep Foundation and Create Your Dreams, an after-school youth program. All told, the artists did a staggering amount of work finding, culling, sorting and arranging these objects.

Sometimes, curatorial choices are pointed. The first image in section titled “The Eight Forms of Mother” is of a black maid pulling a casserole out of the oven. On the opposite wall, images of raggedy black kids in Bedford Pines hang next to portraits of well-to-do white children in comfortable homes. Comedically, one of a trio of lawn jockeys on pedestals is Maria Kirby Smith’s sculptural version of Jessie Helms holding the ring. Ah, sweet revenge.

But the artists have addressed many other themes. For instance, a chorus of repeating verticals obtains by placing a wooden statue of Buddha in front of Joe Light’s “Five Finger Rabbit Man” and Purvis Young’s “Saint” in a section titled “The Teachings of the Thirteen Forms of God.”   How better to express life’s beginnings with the juxtaposition of  Thornton Dial’s “Lady in Pain,” a powerful sculpture of a woman in childbirth, and Harry Callahan’s striking photo of the top of a newborn’s head?

In other cases, the relationship appears to be purely visual, such as the Sepik River mask hung in the midst of a wall of doodly self-portraits on pictures of peaches share a certain abstraction. (These pictures were probably fun for their makers, but not all that interesting for the random visitor.)

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There are baffling moments as well  – Why, say,  the Grant Wood’s print “Shriner Quartet?” – and the show seems more like a bunch of stuff. And there are significant omissions. I was surprised, for example, that the show didn’t acknowledge Atlanta’s racial complexity. Where are the Asian (I saw one) and Hispanic faces? And other than the politicians, there wasn’t much evidence of African-American prosperity.

I’m disappointed, I admit, that we didn’t get a fruit project; it’s such an original approach, and I think I would have learned something new about the city. This history is pretty standard. But its presentation is not. “Fallen Fruit of Atlanta” is admirable in the open-hearted in the way it disarms hierarchies, both social and aesthetic, and makes the most of improbable connections. In the end, the journey is its own reward.

NOTE

Steven Anderson's "Energy Strategies"
Steven Anderson’s “Energy Strategies”

Steven L. Anderson’s two-room installation, Energy Strategies”, is a vehicle for experiences. There, one might view his artwork, take advantage of the meditation room or attend programmed activities such as shamanistic performances and yoga classes. Perhaps it works well as a platform; I have not participated and cannot comment. My experience of the project, as it will be for most visitors, is of the inactive space.

The first room evokes a New Agey feel: a rug and cushions in the middle of the floor, Anderson’s energetic mantric drawings tacked to the wall, his geometric paintings, miniature videos of wilderness encounters. The artwork doesn’t cohere into an exhibit, and the effect is of a room waiting to be used. At least it’s pleasant. “Grow Room,” the meditation room in the back, is utterly uninviting, with its spiky carpet, dying plants and walls painted a disagreeable shade of green.  More relational than aesthetic, the project points up the challenge of presenting temporal works in fixed gallery settings.

All images of artwork courtesy of the respective artists.

Click here to view more photos. 

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