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|Letter from Atlanta
by Cathy Byrd
|On a warm sunny day in February, it's impossible not to consider our incredible weather as one of Atlanta's most significant esthetic attributes. Besides that, in the past couple of months, the city has become the land of opportunity for arts professionals, with several significant job openings -- museum director, arts council director, and two gallery director positions. Ned Rifkin, director at the High Museum of Art, is off to Houston to manage the Menil Foundation. Fulton County Arts Council director Harriet Sanford moves to Charlotte, N.C., to direct the Charlotte Arts and Science Council. Chris Scoates, director of the Atlanta College of Art Gallery, is lured to Los Angeles by Razorfish. He'll be a project manager for the media company. His wife, Debra Wilbur, will leave her post as director of City Gallery @ Chastain to look for her own creative opportunities out West.
These days, the Peach is giving the Apple something juicy to think about. Atlanta has made it to the Whitney Biennial 2000, Mar. 24-June 4, for the first time since the early 1970s. Four local artists -- Robin Bernat, Kojo Griffin, Ruth Leitman and Chris Verene -- are in the show.
Leitman, a filmmaker, presents Alma, a Southern gothic documentary of Margie Thorpe (the big-haired singer of Miss Margie and the Tall Boys) and her mother Alma. The film is a humanistic look at the darkest of family secrets: mental illness, abuse, rape and incest. Leitman shoots through layers of snapshots, home movies, music and handwritten notes. As the twisted mystery of Alma unfolds, it reveals a deep affection between mother and daughter.
Bernat makes video art, and her Effortless is a video triptych on the subject of human instinct and adaptability. In her installation, Bernat overlays moving images with classical music and her own poetry. The disjointed narrative moves down red country roads, follows her thoughtful stroking of a salamander and finally meditates on the measured arc of a lawn sprinkler.
Griffin pictures the damaged side of relationships in mural-sized paintings of animal and patchwork people. Composed with paint, collage and block prints, his vignettes take place in a fluid world crossed by abstract diagrams of DNA, flower chains, hand-printed symbols from the Kabbala and the I-Ching.
As for Verene, he wrote last week from a shoot in Arizona (on assignment for the New York Times) that the Whitney has invited his alter ego, Cheri Nevers, to create what he calls a "Self-Esteem Salon" for the Biennial. In this work, he features cheesecake photographs of wanna-be-beautiful people in staged portrait sessions. Verene will also show his voyeuristic view of amateur photographers, specifically those sleazy shutterbugs who lure women seeking stardom to pose for pinups. The series, called "Camera Club," effectively "undresses" the male gaze.
Five galleries in the 1800 block of Peachtree Street are developing a remarkable synergy. Atlanta's main vein, Peachtree winds from deep downtown all the way up to the Buckhead gallery and nightclub district. When galleries in South Buckhead open, they draw crowd energy. Whitney-bound Verene just opened his "Self-Esteem" show at Vaknin Schwartz Gallery. He staged his last such salon in the Boho Luxe Botique on Virginia Avenue in Atlanta. The Verene's least expensive prints now sell for $1,200.
Next door, at Marcia Wood Gallery, New York painter William Steiger amazes us again with his lyric industrial landscapes. Whether referring to the future or the past, there's a dreamlike vision in the precise architecture and atmosphere of his bridges, towers tunnels and flying machines. Steiger's paintings sell between $2,600 to $7,000. One door up, at Sandler Hudson Gallery, Atlanta sculptor Maria Artemis shows massive wooden boat-ladders that reference an imagined spiritual journey. The Kiang Gallery continues a stand-out series of sculpture exhibitions. On view this month are Atlantan Grady Black's undulating Georgia marble abstractions; last month cast bronze works by Hoang Van Bui were featured. Hoang, a Vietnamese immigrant, makes amazing casts of delicate grasses and surgical sutures that are beautiful, private icons.
Two vibrant painting exhibitions are on view through Mar. 12: "Post-Hypnotic" at Atlanta College of Art Gallery and "Hypnotic Post: Atlanta Abstraction Now" at the Swan Coach House Gallery. "Post-Hypnotic" features a roster of 27 neo-Op abstractionists (Mark Dagley, Peter Halley, Jim Issermann, Sarah Morris, Philip Taaffe, Fred Tomaselli) curated by former East Village art dealer Barry Blinderman, now-director of the Illinois State University Galleries at Normal, Ill. The gallery walls are filled to bursting, with splashes and spatters of paint, wavering lines, endless stripes, explosions of dots, pulsating patterns, vibrating graphic interludes and subverted color theories.
Artists in both shows enjoy the pleasure of non-objective art-making while sometimes referring to very real world objects, situations and experiences. The Swan Coach exhibition catches Atlanta area painters engaged in abstract color play. There are resemblances among a number of the color works in "Post-Hypnotic" and "Hypnotic-Post." Karen Davie's voluptuous curved stripes meet their sensual match in Angela Wilcock's slippery Green Line. Judy Ledgerwood's yellow flecked color fields resonate with Teresa Bramlette's impressionist daubs. Mark Dagley's Primary Color Vortex echoes in a dot painting by Jon Coffelt. Scott Ingram and Michelle Grabner both use found objects as stencils for their repeating patterns.
And let's not forget about the museums. "Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks" at the Michael C. Carlos Museum spans the lifetime of the self-taught photographer, filmmaker, musician and storyteller. The octogenarian Parks, with his pipe and mane of white hair, was here for the opening and for the packed preview of his upcoming HBO special.
After packing the Norman Rockwell show off to the Chicago Historical Society, the High Museum of Art takes up yet another Impressionist -- this time, American painter John Twachtman. In a slight nod to contemporary art, the High's "Art at the Edge" series has just recently resurfaced after two years' absence with sculptures and drawings by Todd Murphy. This first museum show for the former Atlantan centers on excerpts from a 1997 exhibition staged at Vaknin Schwartz. Now based in Charlottesville, Va., the artist assembles his signature sculptures from found materials like broken furniture, old toys, clothing and tools.
Other notables: After 22 years, Nexus Contemporary Art Center is renaming itself the "Atlanta Contemporary Art Center." Name changers want us to call it "The Contemporary." Janet Biggs' video installation BuSpar just closed at Solomon Projects. Biggs continues to focus on the lessons to be learned from horsing around. This time, by juxtaposing large-scale projections of a trotting horse and a rocking woman, she emphasizes the hypnotic and flattening effect of anxiety reducing drugs on western society.
CATHY BYRD is an Atlanta-based critic and curator.