The brouhaha resulting from Kennesaw State University’s decision to yank sculptor Ruth Stanford’s artwork, since reinstated, from the Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art’s inaugural exhibition last month had many unintended consequences. For one, it drew attention away from an otherwise successful curatorial project. See Through Walls (through April 26), the vision of artist-curator Teresa Bramlette Reeves and associate curator Kirstie Tepper, is a smartly crafted poetic expository on the language of architecture. With the new museum building as backdrop, each of its 15 artists uses the vocabularies of “division, articulation, support and structure,” as noted in the show’s curatorial statement, as a means to access a myriad of other topics — cultural, political, environmental, personal. The results are splendid.
Both broad and nuanced in scope, the exhibition includes a range of media by both locally and nationally known artists and does what a well-curated show should. Its overall train of thought is perceptible but not stifling. The individual works relate and talk to each other, while strongly positing their own trajectories in both form and content.
Athens artist Adriane Colbern tackles systems and infrastructure in Denatured Ground. A wall-size web of thinly cut mylar strips and inkjet prints, the installation reads as a theoretical digital networking system: multiple information highways conjoining at little synapsing nodules. Upon closer look, however, the whimsical and abstract resolves into the literal and concrete: each nodule is actually an aerial photograph of oil-drilling in Odessa, Texas. The combination of Colbern’s playfully hand-cut elements and her blurred representations of technology and power offer an intimately tactile relationship with what is otherwise invisible.
Annette Cone-Skelton’s site-specific gridded drawing responds to the brick facades typical of KSU’s campus architecture. In her notable Agnes Martin–style minimalist-meets-transcendentalist aesthetic, Cone-Skelton and an assistant created a replica of one such facade by drawing it, brick by brick, on a 15×30-foot gallery wall.
Also dealing with physicality of planes is Jenene Nagy. Her delicately monumental graphite drawings conjure tactile surfaces of floors and walls, their lush velvety texture like animal fur that wants to be touched. Much in the way Richard Serra’s testosterone man-paintings come at you from the wall like sculpture, these minimalist works levitate and puncture space, equally effective up close and at a distance.
The individual video works of both Ben Goldman and David Haxton consider the wall as an inhabitable psychic space, smudging the line between canvas and phenomenological realm where artist and art are blurred and indistinct from each other. Both videos depict figures not only painting walls, but also being absorbed into them through the artists’ own mark-making.
A pairing of legendary Gordan Matta-Clark’s 1974 film Splitting and Casey McGuire’s Terrestrial Apparatus Poised for Lights Out is particularly effective. Both address socio-economic and class division through images of housing. In this “anarchitecture” work (a hybrid of “anarchy” and “architecture”), Matta-Clark literally split in half a New Jersey home slated for demolition. A critique of bourgeois American culture, for the artist, Splitting subverted any residual myth of the American dream.
McGuire’s construction was inspired by the American housing crisis, specifically the innumerable abandoned homes the artist encountered near her home in Carrollton. Made of actual exterior housing remnants, the work is a precariously situated box trap — an allusion to the literal economic trap of owning a devalued home during the crash. Crouching on the floor to peer inside (hoping it won’t snap from its mock rope suspension), one encounters a space outfitted with interior house lighting, a family photo, and a recording of Elton John’s Tiny Dancer playing inexplicably on repeat. Such personalized elements transform this economic disaster into a palpable narrative.
In a manner similar to Matta-Clark’s houses, Ruth Stanford’s installation A Walk in the Valley speaks of severances and divisions as well — in this case, racial, generational and psychological. With historically controversial author Corra Harris as her focus, an ethically contradictory character who resided on property now owned by Kennesaw State University, Stanford questions how the ethics and ideals of history remain embedded in a piece of land.
Operating like a Mark Dion–style display of excavated artifacts, the installation features two Plexiglas vitrines set against the backdrop of a photographic series depicting white ghostly silhouettes of Harris on her property and a blow-up of the racist letter that tarnished Harris’ reputation rendered illegible by aerial maps of the property.
The vitrines contain memorabilia, photographs and relics from Harris’ property — shredded copies of Harris’ publications, rusted spoons and, most pointedly, a 1899 letter from the editor of The Independent magazine inviting Harris to continue writing for the publication despite her strong support of lynching of African Americans in the South — and a longitudinal half section of a tree.
Among the most effective elements of the installation, the tree sections are not only starkly symbolic of Stanford’s poetic autopsy, but also simulate the visceral wound of Harris’ legacy. Quotations from the writer are also included, some remarkably beautiful, others vaguely racist — though taken out of context it’s difficult to tell.
As a whole, Stanford’s piece is a diplomatic, open-minded, G-rated rumination on themes not at all new to the South and its racially fraught past. Like many artists, Stanford simply illuminates the facts, leaving her audience to draw his or her own conclusions. If art is meant to be subversive, to be censored usually means it’s doing its job. Kudos to Stanford.
The inaugural exhibition also includes Salon Wall Selections. These works from the permanent collection, both historical and contemporary, present something of a mission statement for the museum: to uphold the past and look to the future.
The Museum will host Considering Spaces, a panel discussion featuring artists, curators, and architects on April 12.
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