Early in my writing career, I heard the maxim that in the South, artists can spend their whole career emerging. Midcareer artists who, by choice or accident, don’t fit into an easy-to-understand niche can experience undeserved obscurity even more.
As a past dean of Maine’s globally famous Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and now a professor at Georgia State University, Atlanta-based artist Craig Drennen has had more than ample opportunity to know artists whose practices take them out of the mainstream and away from recognition.
Accordingly, he has assembled work by nine artists — from Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Buffalo Center, Iowa, plus a historic Cramps video for a memorable exhibition at Hathaway Gallery through July 13. The title comes from the legendary Cramps video Somebody Told Me You People Were Crazy.
It’s hard to define what unites this show beyond Drennen’s uncanny ability to pick diverse works that fit together. Paintings by Atlanta’s Marc Brotherton, referencing digital culture, coexist comfortably with extraordinary self-taught near-signage by Iowa’s Tim Wirth and a wall painting by Boston’s Steve Locke, which features three dominant shades of gray from photos of Freddie Gray, the reported victim of police brutality in Baltimore.
Somehow a highly conceptual video of New York’s Colleen Asper typing on a giant keyboard at a speed too fast to follow seems an appropriate accompaniment to fellow New Yorker Christopher Carroll’s slow-paced video, in which he tattoos the word “nature” onto his arm and onto the tree from which he extracts the bark pigment.
Carroll’s accompanying Covenstead pieces are described as consisting of “buon fresco affresco, incense, raw pigments, water taken from holy sites and pyrography.” Viewers should ponder why the neo-expressionist skull-like drawing and plastic flower collage of Chicagoan Mel Cook’s Drinking and Thinking of You seems an appropriate companion to the graphite-and-torn-paper minimalism of Los Angeles artist Jenene Nagy, the pop-culture canvases of Los Angeles’ David Leggett and the untitled (walnut screen 3) sculpture that Los Angeles’ Joshua West Smith photographs in desert landscapes. Please, go see this remarkable combination of artwork in its few remaining days.
Atlanta multimedia and performance artist Shana Robbins’ exhibition Interspecies Lovers (at Whitespace through July 27) is a set of metaphysical assertions as challenging as anything in Drennen’s collection. This also means that its frankly autobiographical origins are tough to assess since so much is at stake beyond what meets the eye.
As Robbins says in a written and recorded statement, her “textiles, acrylics, pencils, crystals, plants, powders and so on” are only vehicles of revelation like the “magical messenger molecules” that have opened spaces for her and others worldwide. Like the Pollen Path of the Diné Navajo to which she refers, her mirrored-hand sculpture Intergalactic Touch, hanging-doilies Veil and such visionary works on paper as Swallow the Snake Who Swallows Herself allude to a hybrid spirituality based on direct experience.
Blending the historical and spiritual worlds in a completely different way and with different motives is longtime Atlanta artist/curator Tina Dunkley’s Sanctuary for the Internal Enemy: An Ancestral Odyssey. It’s at the Auburn Avenue Research Library through September 9, following a January–March launch at New York’s Kenkeleba House.
The work ranges from assemblage to mixed-media textile to editioned prints in media from aquatint to cyanotype and aluminum plate lithography. It makes extensive use of elegantly handwritten documents that Dunkley uncovered while researching the resettlement in Trinidad of ancestors who fled enslavement in the United States and enlisted as colonial marines in the British navy during the War of 1812.
The layers of history are represented exquisitely in a collage of images that convey information and constitute beautiful objects. They translate into art a forgotten element of American, British and West Indian history with the dignity and responsibly conducted research it deserves.
Happily, the exhibition wall text and catalog answer questions that otherwise might go unresolved. The mysterious reference in several titles to “Ebute Metta House,” for example, comes from signage on the homes of Trinidad’s “Merikins” — the name given to descendants of liberated and resettled ex-slaves. “Ebute Metta,” meaning “three shores” in the Yoruba language, refers to a region on the Nigerian coast. Note that Dunkley will give an artist’s talk at 3 p.m. July 21.
Michi Meko’s Out Here by Myself, extended through July 20 at Alan Avery Art, uses contemporary vocabulary to explore a seldom-investigated topic — the challenge of experiencing wilderness in a country where hazards for a solitary African American male are more likely to come from culture than from nature. The show, which follows on the heels of a successful exhibition at MOCA GA, is the sort of commercial success that presages more recognition.
Radcliffe Bailey, of course, has long since achieved a level of national recognition, and his inclusion among 57 artists from 26 countries in the forthcoming 2019 Istanbul Biennial demonstrates that it’s possible to maintain a globally successful artistic career while continuing to live in Atlanta.
Bailey is among a handful of American artists, alongside such longstanding superstars as Glenn Ligon and Andrea Zittel, included by celebrated curator Nicolas Bourriaud in the 16th biennial. As I implied at the beginning of this column, the difficulty of remaining an artist at all in this city continues to make that level of success singularly challenging.