Agnes Scott College gallery Director Lisa Alembik’s ambitious “Quadrennial: Greater Decatur 2010” is dominated by a spirit of poetic conceptualism.
Since you asked: “poetic” visual art is art in which visual metaphors operate like the verbal metaphors in poetry: emotionally evocative or condensing multiple layers of information into a brief, pithy image.
And since Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” is one of the most poetic films ever made, it seems appropriate that Matt Haffner’s short video in his “Between 2 Worlds” installation (detail above, photo by T.W. Meyer) should be almost a composite of its visual tropes: scenes change when an eye opens and shuts, a finger comes briefly and beautifully into focus in an extreme close-up, a woman’s long hair falls across her shoulders, a flock of birds wheels in a twilit sky. For once, Haffner’s large paper cut-outs of portentous figures work in tandem with another medium as the lighted windows of a MARTA train in the video intersect momentarily but exquisitely with the windows of the parked car in the wall mural.
Wenders’ film is also referenced for an instant (a glimpse of Berlin’s angel-surmounted victory monument) in “En Transit,” a remix by Sara Hornbacher, Hartmut Koenitz and Kenneth Knoespel of footage from “Berlin: Symphony of a Great City” intercut with the Paris of “Playtime” and “Breathless,” punctuated by trilingual texts of Walter Benjamin’s aphorisms on architecture, open spaces and dwelling (still, at left). Originally screened in Paris, the video is a reminder that some Greater Decatur art is global.
Metaphoric visual juxtaposition functions differently in Chung-Fan Chang’s collision of the conventions of Chinese landscape painting with the neon geometry of shapes representing kites. The organic forms of mountains and rivers are abstracted into independent planes of imagery in traditional landscapes; here they are abstracted still further, making these paintings a collision of two styles of 20th-century abstraction as well as a 21st-century mash-up of cross-cultural sensibilities. (Photo by T.W. Meyer.)
The metaphors turn murky in the other paintings in this quadrennial, Marc Brotherton’s symbolic renderings of collective confusion regarding things people don’t understand. The meaning is clear enough in the list of things that presumably don’t exist: unicorns, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc. (The painting’s faux-folk marginal commentary suggests “there is one thing that you know and that is that you never really know you know?”) However, when other paintings offer vast mixtures of different types of scientific symbols, I don’t even understand what it is that people don’t understand.
Jonathan Bouknight’s spectacular gender exploration isn’t much clearer. He installs full-scale replica walls, broken in Gordon Matta-Clark style, in the back gallery as a frame for a video of a woman exaggerating her femininity (still, above) and photos of a man asked to imitate Cher. These gender role-playings flank a dressing table with anonymous, anomalous bottles, more like containers for liquor than for cosmetics. Perhaps the whole scene, coated uniformly with green paint, is about gender camouflage? I have no idea. The code escapes me.
By contrast, Lisa Tuttle’s “Post-Colonial Karma” presentation of the burden of Southern and global history is painfully clear. Racial stereotypes show up in tourist shops and motel art and family photographs; the whole doubtful heritage is explicated on a website, with relevant books available to give students context for the visual shorthand that may (happily) now be generationally obscure.
Susan Krause’s sociopolitical transmutation of Sudoku, on the other hand, is as immediate as today’s headlines. Replacing the popular game’s numerals with symbols, she asks viewers to fill in the blanks with visual shorthand for the forces behind our economic crisis.
Krause’s ideograms are visual metaphors at the opposite extreme from emotionally evocative. They engage the viewer in the game, but are as bloodless as the abstract statistics that mask real suffering. That, surely, is part of her point.
Claire Paul rounds out this diverse quadrennial with a large wall painting plus sound recordings that turn the gallery’s Barcelona chairs into listening stations for moments of nature and machines interacting, a meditative, metaphorical substitute for her original goal of recording her surroundings as she slipped into a dream state.
Curator Alembik has shown us that Greater Decatur has richer imaginative resources than routine exhibition schedules might lead us to assume. Pushing the boundaries needs to be further encouraged.