Regular readers of this Notebook know that I am enamored of the outdated conceptual duo of nature and culture, which are not quite the opposite terms that the originators of that binary once thought. So this month’s survey is devoted to culture taking a look at nature (at Fernbank) and culture(s) in all their pluralized unity, in a variety of different art spaces (the about-to-open Take It Easy, and the other Edgewood Avenue galleries, the WADDI and whitespace; and MINT).
Fernbank Museum of Natural History is currently exhibiting (through January 9, 2022) the photographs of Fernbank Forest made by noted nature photographer Peter Essick in a two-year project to highlight the forest’s ecological diversity. On October 28, Essick will join Fernbank ecologist Eli Dickerson for a ticketed walkthrough tour of Fernbank Forest from 5 to 6:30 p.m., followed from 7 to 8:30 p.m. by a separately ticketed conversation about the project, and a signing for the elegant book of these photographs published by Fall Line Press.
Since the WildWoods walkway leading from the museum to Fernbank Forest is currently filled (through November 7) with Laura S. Lewis’ hauntingly atmospheric Woodland Spirits figures plus Halloween-themed features for children, the museum continues to address the interests of all ages, but the after-hours Essick events are designed for ages 14 and up and are limited attendance, requiring advance online purchase of tickets.
Fernbank carries out the mission of a natural history museum in ways that combine ecology and ethnography, from the permanent dioramas of A Walk Through Time in Georgia and the current Antarctic Dinosaurs (through January 2, 2022) to the decidedly art-oriented permanent displays of the globally-focused Reflections of Culture and the Georgia-specific Conveyed in Clay, which ranges from 5,000-year-old Native American pots (the oldest known from North America) to majolica from the Spanish mission period. Given the perennial popularity of such things as the museum’s atrium-filling dinosaur skeleton, the subtle exhibitions based on Fernbank’s own archaeological research are too often overlooked.
This month also sees the opening on October 23 of the newest member of what is unofficially becoming the Edgewood Avenue gallery district. Take It Easy is a joint project of independent curator and ex-Camayuhs gallerist Jamie Steele and formerly Providence-based gallerists Corey Oberlander and Lindsey Stapleton.
Their inaugural exhibition, Below the Thin (October 23-November 27), is a two-person show of mixed media works by Heather Leigh McPherson and paintings by Sarah West. The differently complex imagery in both artists’ work, summed up in the press release by an epigraph from Marcel Duchamp that discusses a “threshold that allows one to pass from one dimension to another . . . like corduroy trousers moving” promises to be productively provocative on a conceptual as well as visual level.
The two nearby art spaces, the long established whitespace and newer arrival the WADDI, offer an unplanned juxtaposition almost as provocative, until both shows close on October 23. Zipporah Camille Thompson’s wild chrysalis bloom at whitespace and her companion installation Victory Garden in shedspace are exuberant, outrageously unexpected mixes of objects, textures and palettes, for purposes that are far from evident but mesmerizing on a level beyond simple signification. The signification, as it is explained in a stunningly written gallery statement, is anything but simple: The work “embodies a wild self-welcoming . . . When we choose to love and embrace ourselves and others through deep change and discomfort, we find rest, we transform, we emerge, we extend compassion . . . vibrant gardens of self and community are cultivated.”
We are at the edge of fundamental redefinitions of cultural symbols, then. And that is, by coincidence, what the WADDI is doing when curator and gallerist Shawn Vinson presents seven immigrant artists in Here & Now, and the simple act of presenting under the same rubric artists who emigrated to the United States from China (Xie Caomin), Mexico (Hector Amador and Yehimi Cambrón) and England (Ruby Franklin, Ruth Franklin, Michael Jackson and Kosmo Vinyl) does much to illustrate the theme of their partner organization, Welcoming America — namely, that this is a country in which everyone is welcome.
Putting four very different types of English-born artists (none are from the three other parts of the United Kingdom) into a multicultural context in which all seven artists are now contributing differently to the United States’ cultural identity is, perhaps, as subtle an act of redefinition as can be imagined, defining the shape of diversity just a little differently.
Different definitions are also at work at MINT through November 6 in Mary Stanley’s group show What We Know, presenting work by the ten Ones to Watch artists for Atlanta Celebrates Photography 2021. Stanley notes in the exhibition overview that portraiture “can make bold statements about culture, values, social norms and aspirations.” The works here, which happen to be predominantly of African American subjects, stir viewer interest.
A suite of photos from what is conventionally called the American heartland may well be the most disturbingly provocative of all. The Unchosen Ones: Portraits of an American Pastoral is a series by Minneapolis photographer R. J. Kern portraying the young entrants in state fair competitions for best-of-show animals, standing with the animals they raised to enter in the contest. In some cases in this selection, Kern has returned several years later to do followup portraits of the pair.
Only a few feet away from Kern’s photographs, in an adjacent gallery space, El Lewis’ Voyage to ATLantis (also through November 6) is a “future imagined as Black” that contains no portraits at all, but only photographs of plants and details of contemporary architecture. A placard states that “Lewis focuses on recording the various ways in which Black communities and societies create and interact within their built environment” and “reveal one’s innate ability to reimagine.”
In both exhibitions, we are invited to look and to reimagine. Their proximity leaves us much to imagine, and reasons to contemplate the right ways to imagine.
Dr. Jerry Cullum’s reviews and essays have appeared in Art Papers magazine, Raw Vision, Art in America, ARTnews, International Journal of African-American Art and many other popular and scholarly journals. In 2020 he was awarded the Rabkin Prize for his outstanding contribution to arts journalism.