“Made in the 80s” and “One One,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia through June 8, give us a general view of more than 30 years of art making in Georgia.
The first exhibition, curated by three MOCA GA staffers born in the 1980s — Amy Johns, Eric Kaepplinger and Shana Barefoot — contains 47 works by 29 Georgia artists from the museum’s permanent collection. The second consists of new work by the 11 WonderRoot 2012-13 Walthall Artist Fellows.
The contrast between the shows, both of which are excellent, is more extreme than it would have been under different circumstances. Most of the work in “One One” is site-specific, and this type of work is not and could not be included in “Made in the 80s,” because the museum collection would not by definition include site-specific installations, multimedia performance or wall murals from that period. For that matter, it contains relatively few works that were exhibited only in alternative-space shows; the majority were originally shown in commercial galleries.
Despite that, “Made in the 80s” is a superb representation of the sort of work that was being made in Atlanta and Athens (and, via Howard Finster’s Rolling Stone Press lithograph, in Summerville). There is spectacularly large-scale abstraction; narrative art and landscape/townscape and other forms of representation in painting and photography; and a modest amount of social critique, by art-school-educated and folk artists alike. Given the speed with which the specifics of political art become dated, Ned Cartledge’s critique of preachers of the prosperity gospel has worn well, and Tom Ferguson’s “Money Honey” seems as relevant a commentary on the flows of capital today as it seemed in the Ronald Reagan era in which it was painted.
The curators don’t contextualize the work, but they do juxtapose illuminating visual contrasts and similarities. Biographical information is seldom immediately relevant, though it’s interesting to note that Jackson Lee Nesbitt made his first prints since WPA days after being rediscovered by Wayne Kline for the Rolling Stone Press series of lithographs. (In all, the curators have included 11 pieces from Rolling Stone Press.)
As it is, the contextless works stand in egalitarian juxtaposition or establish visual dominance by strength of skill, scale and palette (Sidney Guberman’s painting in the lobby area being only one example of this) or by skill combined with clever placement (Susan Cofer’s small diorama-portrait of quintessentially important art dealer David Heath is impossible to miss).
Historically, exhibitions such as this one, and reviews of them, have given rise to hurt feelings among artists in a local scene in which, as Henry Kissinger supposedly said of faculty politics at Harvard, the emotions run so high because the stakes are so low. This new generation of curators, knowing little about most of the personalities involved, has given us a way of looking at the art without the emotional baggage of too many art-politics issues. One thing that their intelligent choices prove is that art in the Georgia of a quarter-century or so ago generally followed no agenda but its own, even when it extended the insights of earlier trends.
“One One,” the Walthall Artist Fellows exhibition, is more akin to the styles and trends not evident in “Made in the 80s.” It might be interesting (if perverse) to treat “One One” as an unintentional homage to several trends begun in the 1980s that evolved into trends and topics that dominate today.
One could begin with the exhibition design itself. “Made in the 80s” is installed in a respectable but conventional gallery-hanging and wall-label style. By contrast, “One One” uses a unifying gallery theme that resembles deconstructivist design from 1984 or so onward, as a hot pink stripe carries white-lettered floor labels around corners and across walls in overlapped zigzags that prove that the historical examples of, say, Liubov Popova are not dead. (Popova’s works from the 1920s were exhibited in Atlanta in the 1980s.) The few surviving echoes of 1980s manifestations of this in Atlanta include Mack Scogin’s and Merrill Elam’s Buckhead Library and some of the books of Nexus Press, plus Ruth Laxson’s Press 63+, which was honored in the preceding MOCA GA exhibition.
The artists in “One One” are grappling with questions of visuality, language and social politics that were first formulated for Atlantans in the 1980s by Alan Sondheim, who was curator at Nexus (now the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center), and others. Certainly they are grappling with issues first articulated in such exhibitions as Paris’ “Les Immateriaux” (1985), “Magiciens de la Terre”(1989) and New York’s “The Decade Show,” a 1990 survey of the 1980s’ multi-genre and multicultural realities, all of which were brought home to Atlanta in the pages of Art Papers magazine. [Disclosure: the author was an editor at Art Papers.]
They are doing so in the conditions of a decade or two of post-Cold War wars and culture wars, but the issues have changed alarmingly little from the years when the United States carried on a global war against perceived Russian and Chinese expansionism at the same time it carried on covert diplomacy against the challenge of global terrorism.
Rachel Stoker’s “the in finite white shadow of thou,” which presents texts under erasure in FBI documents dealing with Guantánamo, simultaneously acknowledges the Derrida-influenced document art of the 1980s and a culture of government secrecy in the name of national security that has changed all too little since the days of Reagan. On the other hand, Stoker’s audio piece, activated via QR code, is inaccessible to the few — or not so few? — folks who do not own the current technology of the present century.
The letters of names collapsing into starry constellations of language in Bethany Collins’ “(Unrelated)” pay homage to the questions of revised ethnicity that would find their way, via “The Decade Show,” into the era of “post-blackness” exemplified by the Studio Museum’s 2001 “Freestyle,” and to the 1980s concern with the social limits of language. But the imagery and the specific approach to the problems are distinctly 21st century. A group of neurology students who saw Collins’ work in an earlier exhibition linked it to contemporary studies of the physical construction of memory in brain circuitry.
It may say something about the prevailing artistic climate that Collins’ is the only completely 2-D wall work in “One One.” Even painter In Kyoung Chun is represented by a sculpture that three-dimensionalizes her flows of social and spiritual energy (which was another hot topic of the 1980s, incidentally, even if few in Atlanta other than Professor John Johnston understood Deleuze and Guattari’s European iteration of it; Chun’s version is simultaneously Asian and very, very American).
On the other hand, the exquisite success of Kevin Byrd’s arranged objects in “Study Models (notes towards the American obsession with placing objects on shelves gently and with great care)” owes more to the example of, say, Sarah Sze than of her predecessors of previous decades. And, in general, the technology employed by these artists reflects the digital era. For example, Hailey Lowe’s artistic use of the Crittercam for viewing the doings of nocturnal animals was new to me, but I do need to get out more. Andre Keichian’s “¡Que Rico! / I just need you in the reel” makes brilliant use of a technique for printing silver-gelatin photographs — or video stills — onto wall surfaces that has been around for a while but seldom employed in art in Atlanta.
Michael Klapthor’s robot sculptures, which I find less effective than his earlier surreal ceramic creatures, play with a mode of ironic retro-techno—a mode that may also be obscurely reflected in Deborah Sosower’s wall installation.
Accessing time-based art can be problematic. I didn’t have the stamina to perceive the thematic links of Roni Nicole Henderson’s internally referential video (the artists in the exhibition are the performers). Corian Ellisor’s performance-inflected installation dealing with identity and ethnicity, like Helen Hale’s complex mix of installation and dance, are fully accessible only to viewers who attended their performances.
May 25: Artist talks by Helen Hale, Deborah Sosower, In Kyoung Chun and Roni Nicole Henderson. 1-2 p.m. at MO CAGA.
June 1: Panel discussion with current and future fellows, 1-2 p.m at WonderRoot Community Arts Center.
You can see more photos from the exhibits here.