ArtsATL > Art+Design > Review: “Zen Dixie” merges architecture, history and art to create a unique aesthetic adventure

Review: “Zen Dixie” merges architecture, history and art to create a unique aesthetic adventure

Entrance to Zen Dixie, an imaginatively renovated Cabbagetown home which currently houses a site-specific exhibition. Neon sign by K. Tauches. Photo: Rachel Reese
Zen Dixie's serene courtyard. Neon sign by K. Tauches. (Photo by Rachel Reese)

The site-specific exhibition “Zen Dixie,” John Otte’s most recent curatorial venture, takes place in his former home in Cabbagetown. Otte, an Atlanta native who now lives in New Orleans, and stylist Kim Phillips worked with architect Nicholas Storck in the late 1990s to renovate the 1910 “shotgun” house.

Storck was an architectural resident at the Sainte Marie de La Tourette priory in France, the iconic late-modernist structure designed by Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis. Storck’s combined appreciation for modernism and the wabi sabi aesthetics of Japan, and a unique sensitivity to materials, blended well with Otte’s and Phillips’ vision for the space. (Jonathan Reynolds’ 2001 essay “Ise Shrine and a Modernist Construction of Japanese Tradition” comes to mind; see below.)

With a footprint of only 500-plus square feet, Zen Dixie (also the name of the house) reads — quite spaciously — as a Philip Johnson glass house cum Japanese teahouse cum turn-of-the-century Southern mill house. Architectural elements such as Storck’s “minimum dimension sleeve,” the minimal white-walled area that tucks into the kitchen and living spaces, are not only functional but also facilitate the separation of history from the new. 

Additional alterations included exposing and championing the original plaster  — extensively scraped to produce a smooth finish similar to oyster shell. Cracks in the ceiling were not repaired but rather respected and simply supported with translucent plexiglass panels. Several new windows, fitted with modern casings, were cut to admit light. The front door and outside windows are enveloped in full-length shutters, serving simultaneously as a reference to the American South and Japanese teahouse aesthetics.

Interior view. Gyun Hur's untitled floor piece is partly visible on the right. (Photo by Rachel Reese)

The architectural details of Zen Dixie, which will house the Driver Phillips Studio after the show, are important because they frame the entire exhibition — a show whose whole serves more strongly than its parts. This is not necessarily a flaw. Rather, it presents an opportunity for the viewer to make his or her own value judgments; the experiences of self-navigation and personal discovery are crucial to the success of this exhibition. There are many areas to explore, and literally no room is left untouched. For example, K. Tauches’ neon work “empty circle” (2012) is propped in the claw-footed bathtub, and Dave Greber’s video “Join Us Today” (2011) is projected from the sleeping loft, accessible by ladder. 

John Otte's exhibition at The Pearl in New Orleans.

Otte intends for Zen Dixie to serve as an indirect conversation between Atlanta and New Orleans, and he selected artists from both cities to draw parallels — not only between vernacular architecture (New Orleans’ historical wards speak to Cabbagetown’s colorful past) but also between modes of thought. Otte said that the importance of a return to the local and creating new connections between artists in like-minded cities is key to his conceptual framework.

Otte is not new to the practice of interjecting art into a pre-existing and “historical” environment. For last fall’s “Prospect.2” in New Orleans, he presented “Constant Abrasive Irritation Produces the Pearl, a Disease of the Oyster — Lenny Bruce” at The Pearl, a 200-year-old farmhouse turned residence, private salon and performance hall. Similar to The Pearl, Zen Dixie becomes a palimpsest of architecture, memorabilia and items to which Otte incorporated his external curatorial decisions.

He has here repurposed some works from The Pearl exhibition. Courtney Egan’s “Sleepwalkers” (2011), an elusive time-lapse video of night-blooming cereus flowers, which was projected into an antique bathtub in New Orleans, is now projected onto a plaster wall with much less resolution, creating the illusion that the video and wall are blending together.

There are several standout works and surprises. Brian Guidry’s “Hunters of the Sky” (2012), an edited video sourced from “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” is hidden from view until you enter the small kitchen and find it projected above the stove (housing Kim Phillips’ crystal and geode collection, not on the checklist).

Christian Bradley West’s small, delicate unframed graphite drawings initially read as vintage photographs, thanks to his attention to detail and his skilled draftsmanship. One drawing mounted on the plaster wall makes a poignant statement — the miniature picture feels vulnerable, and the material directness of this combination is palpable.

Nina Schwanse’s video “Civil Realness: Grant vs. Lee” (2011), an exaggerated conversation between the Civil War generals portrayed as skanky women, is exhibited sideways on a flat-panel monitor installed in the back closet. A smart decision: the video’s neon palette and Ryan Trecartin-esque personalities provide color and character to the otherwise quiet, monochromatic back room.

A still from Nina Schwanse's video "Civil Realness: Grant vs Lee."

Also a surprise is atypical work by artists such as Lillian Blades. Known for her colorful public art and assemblages informed by her Caribbean and African heritage, Blades exhibits monochromatic paper, concrete and metal “Papercrete Pod I” and “Papercrete Pod II” (both 2011) sculptures.

A number of works would fail to command the same presence in another context, but their nuanced placement in this unique and intimate architectural environment renders them collectively dynamic. “Zen Dixie” is an experience that will not exist in this same form ever again – this is part of what makes temporary site-specific exhibitions so exciting.

Through July 15. 323 Berean Avenue S.E. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays or by appointment. Otte can be emailed at

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Jonathan Reynolds, an art historian at Columbia University, discussed the history of the transformation of Japan’s Ise Shrine into a prototype for modernist architecture and, conversely (and to much debate), that modernism in Japan was not a foreign intrusion but an architecture that had developed organically out of indigenous practices. German architect Bruno Taut visited Ise in 1933 and was the first modernist to appreciate its beauty and understand the site as a modernist masterpiece. Reynolds’ 1965 book, “Ise: Prototype of Japanese Architecture” (MIT Press, English-language edition), which included architect Tange Kenzo’s and architecture critic Kawazoe Noburu’s writings along with photographer Wantanabe Yoshio’s 1953 photos of the inner shrines, solidified Ise’s place in the modernist architectural canon.

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