Perambulating the Bounds

Friday, May 13, 2005

Atlanta Biennial part 1

I was in Atlanta this week for a conference, which gave me the chance to see the Biennial show at the Contemporary. The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center is the kind of institution we really could use in Nashville, an exhibit face completely committed to contemporary art with enough space and funding to regularly mount substantial shows.

I suppose this was near parochialism, but the two artists in the show from Tennessee (both from Memphis) came across very well. Terri Jones had a small room, almost a closet, to herself and she used it to combine several sculptures and drawings into a single composition. A series of minimalist drawings on vellum were mounted in two-sided glass frames that defined a diagonal through the middle of the room. On the far end of the room, a thin Don Judd-like copper trough filled with wax protruded from the wall. At the base of another wall four wedges cast from red glass marked points along the floor, and two strips of felt crossed the floor and went up one wall where the line seemed to be picked up by the buildings water pipes. All of these linear elements made a coherent three-dimensional geometric form in the space. It worked its way outwards from the literal markings of pencil and conte on vellum to marks made more three dimensionally from several materials. The clarity of the composition and the transitions between and combination of 2-D and 3-D linearity was appealing in a clean modernist way. It reminded me of a piece in the current Corcoran Biennial by Richard Rezac which combines geometric sculptures mounted to different surfaces in a room and 2D schematics of the same works. In his case he made more literal connections between the 2D and 3D elements, but both exhibits had the effect of creating a more complicated and slippery experience of minimalist elements while maintaining a level of aesthetic austerity.

Lester Julian Merriweather engages in a very discursive sort of Black art that relies on words to such an extent that it occupies a border area between visual art and poetry. He combines drawings (including a large one made with electrical tape on the wall), sketches, and notes about the exhibit and its concepts. In those notes, he engages in word play that makes connections between figures like OJ Simpson and Emmit Till through permutations of sounds and games like a top 5 list, and the connections lead to points about racial stereotypes and the status of Blacks in American society and culture. “Cotton” turns into “Cotten” which transforms to “Hotten·tot (Venus).” His artist’s statement points out the connection between his methods of working with words and images to DJs splicing music together, and this comes across very clearly in the work itself.

The way he uses words seems like a truly hybrid form. This is not a visual artist using words as icons – the sound of the words matter. The transfers between words are too free form for most rap, and too fragmented within the sketches for most poetry. One of visual art’s primary rhetorical devices is the creation of meaning through juxtaposition of signs without linear logical connection, and this context provides the starting point for an alternate verbal rhetoric that is different than prose or poetry. Merriweather takes advantage of the critical and expressive avenues that this visually-derived verbal rhetoric provides. It seems this kind of discursive art may have a draw for African-American artists – some of Donté K. Hayes’ work has similar qualities.

<>Amy Pleasant is the closest to a Nashville artist in this show: she’s based in Birmingham but has shown in Nashville several times. Her paintings and drawings include story-board grids that convey the mood of scenes rather than a narrative and constellations of small figures in patterns that recall the results of scientific experiments. I’ve written about her in the Scene (http://www.nashvillescene.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?story=Back_Issues:2003:October_9-15_2003:Arts:Art). In several of the pieces here she seems to define the facial features of some of the figures more clearly, moving her work a bit closer to cartoons. The narratives still stay just past discernment, but maybe now have a touch more human specificity.

<>The other Birmingham artist represented in the show, Jane Timberlake, has a more political bent. Using the trappings of commercial culture – advertising devices or home products – as a base, she combines fragments and iconography from advertising, product labels, and high art. “Round and Round” is one of those lightboxes where the image changes as you move past it. She has created a multi-dimensional screen that intersperses logos, slogans, product ingredients lists, gossip magazine headlines, and personal ads with snippets of classical art and broad diagonal stripes that could come from a modern painting or a product design. Art and the most mundane commercial visual communications are interchangeable in this piece, hidden inside each other. The interdependence and convergence of those realms is not necessarily a new idea, but this piece makes the point very effectively through a visual device (the multi-perspective lightbox) that gives concrete form to the way they are bound together, intertwined, and hidden inside each other. It also conveys the confusion of encountering a welter of images in the visual environment.

More commentary later this weekend on other artists in the show.

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