A pipe, a cup, a spoon. Simple objects that one might see lying together in any number of contexts, most of them genial, cozy. But in the new exhibition Art Against the Wall, they are encased together in Plexiglas on a display plinth. The ivory pipe — carved with the figure of a woman on its bowl — is attributed to a captain in the first regiment of US Colored Troops, and the cup and spoon are peculiar souvenirs from the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta: they show and commemorate the “Negro Building,” a separate building for African Americans at that ostensibly optimistic, celebratory event. The demitasse cup may look familiar enough (and the location of that very building was our own Piedmont Park), but the assumptions and implications behind those two words make the homey little trio of objects seem chillingly otherworldly and foreign.
There’s a haunted feeling — a sense of the simultaneous irrecoverability and irrevocability of the past — in Art Against the Wall. Atlanta artist Radcliffe Bailey, who curated the show, mixes historical artifacts and work by contemporary artists in the two rooms of Gallery 72, through August 22. The cup and spoon are placed not far from Donald Locke’s 1996 abstract collaged canvas Southern Mansions II, which includes photos and images suggestive of the violence and oppression behind the myths of the Old South.
In the selection of his artifacts, Bailey seems most attracted to simple, everyday objects with a timeless, almost mythic, universality — drum, cap, cup. They’re items likely put to some practical use by ordinary people, often in the context of war or other contentious historical moment, and that noisy past is implied in their silent physical existence.
The contemporary works, such as E. K. Huckaby’s luminous, unpeopled painting of a memorial table or the symbolically resonant video by South African artist Mohau Modisakeng of a black man slowly peeling away layers of soot, share that sense of quiet, enigmatic, persistent presence.
What’s most fascinating here is that the artifacts are curated and exhibited with a poet’s eye rather than an academician’s or a historian’s. Implication, rather than substantiation, is the goal. It’s an approach that’s absolutely buzzing with electric potential. However, the exhibition’s strongest attribute is also its weakest.
The objects often suggest intriguing conversations, but there’s nothing in the way of text or a detailed curator’s statement to guide us in navigating these relationships: an antique Lincoln-like top hat seemingly overlooks a Ghanaian fantasy coffin by artist Paa Joe built into the shape of the Dutch Fort Good Hope in Senya Beraku (the “good hope” was that slaves, ivory and money would boom there). It’s a fascinatingly resonant pairing, and any critic worth his salt could write volumes about these objects’ placement together, but I would have liked to hear the curator’s own words about his inclusion of these particular, otherwise unconnected things. There’s little text in the galleries, and the curator’s statement is brief and panoramic.
Some objects clearly bridge the divide between the exhibition’s two classes of objects: a vase by George Washington Carver is both a historical artifact and an artwork, as are Stephen Shames’ photos documenting Black Panthers in the early 1970s. But mostly the viewer remains too conscious of the divide: the artifacts and contemporary works could occasionally seem too distinct, even at a conceptual remove, and they didn’t always feel organically in dialogue with each other. This, again, is a realm where the curator’s voice could have helped. Narrowing the concept could have provided sharper focus, as well. The exhibition’s subtitle informs us that this is an “Artist Response to Civil Wars.” Note the plural of wars: his is a global perspective, addressing civil wars in general — a fascinating topic, but too much to take on in two rooms and 30 or so objects.
Still, Bailey’s dream-logic curation of historical artifacts remains one of the strongest threads. Activating the mysterious, often wordless connection between two seemingly disparate objects is one of art’s primary modus operandi.
Art Against the Wall is an exhibition that will likely divide viewers as to what, if anything, needs to be made more explicit. In the end, I have a feeling the artist would contend that whatever potential message these objects might contain is best conveyed when they are allowed to speak for themselves.