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Review: All shine in show of Hudgens Prize finalists

The Hudgens Prize, a juried competition open to Georgia artists, was awarded recently to Gyun Hur, who won $50,000 and a solo exhibition at the Jacqueline Casey Hudgens Center for the Arts in 2011. The competition also occasioned an excellent exhibition of all the finalists: Hur, Ruth Dusseault, Hope Hilton, Scott Ingram and Jiha Moon. On view through February 19, it’s well worth a visit.

The five finalists represent a spectrum of art practices and themes, and they do what they do very well.

Dusseault exhibits photographs from an investigation of the makeshift sets that mostly young males construct for war games, the latest in a long line of forms of play, from cops and robbers to video-game battles. What started as an exploration of a culture of violence expanded into respect for the creativity evident in these elaborate sets, constructed of flotsam and found materials like a folk art environment. Dusseault fuses the two in a video that plays off a 1950s cartoon of futuristic superhero Astro Boy and her own creative play with found objects.

Hilton, the only Georgia native in the group, mines her family history in her multi-faceted installation. One element concerns her discovery that her great-great-grandparents’ slave walked 60 miles to announce the birth of her great-grandmother. In an act that seemed part penance and part Richard Long, Hilton replicated the walk and presents objects discovered along the way. Visitors can contemplate the rest of the works sitting on the porch she constructed of old wood in the gallery.

Ingram engages modernism as aesthetic and a metaphor for Western self-assurance in one of his best bodies of work. It’s based on the lowly cinderblock, the module of construction in modern buildings, which he elevates to an icon by dint of architectural arrangements of his beautifully hand-crafted wooden versions.

A large vertical wood-block print titled “Endless Column” is an ironic reference to Constantin Brancusi’s eponymous sculpture. Far from an endless column, the power of modern Western culture is on the wane, as implied in the ruined cinderblocks placed on pedestals, like Ozymandias artifacts.

Moon is a crackerjack painter, as these works on paper affirm. Like many immigrants, she makes art about the cultural fusion of homeland and adopted country. She is rare among them in that her tone and outlook are upbeat. Rather than stress dislocation and outsiderness, her paintings say, bring it on. Moon melds references to Roy Lichtenstein, Asian scrolls, Korean pop culture and Abstract Expressionism just as deftly as she segues from translucent inks to opaque impasto acrylic.

Hur brings together performance, installation, process-driven minimalism and her Korean heritage in a meditation on memory, culture and family ties. Her striped floor piece, which she continues in paint up an adjacent wall, is based on her mother’s wedding quilt. Its colors are believed to drive away bad luck. She created it with the help of her parents (whom you can see in her video), who share in the tedious labor of shredding and color-sorting artificial funeral flowers which function as pigment, and of laying it onto the floor. The labor devoted to creating such a fragile piece — a puff of air or wayward foot could ruin it in an instant — is a touching metaphor in itself.

No doubt the Hudgens Prize will be transformative for Hur. I’m not so sure it will be for the Hudgens, at least in terms of national attention. Thus far, to my knowledge, the story has not been picked up outside Georgia. The art world would help as well.

If the prize continues to be given, there are ways to make it matter more and be of more benefit to artists, which would, of course, benefit the Hudgens Center as well. The staff is aware that the $50 entry free for a winner-take-all competition deterred some artists from entering, as did the size limitations. The Hudgens also acknowledges that there should be some compensation for all the finalists, if only to cover exhibition costs.

And, please, change the Miss America format of the awards ceremony. It’s an awful lot to ask of the finalists who didn’t win to deal with disappointment in front of a crowd.

That said, kudos to the Hudgens Center and the anonymous donor for their ambitions. It’s a learning curve. Let’s hope they do it again.

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