Jerry Cullum’s Notebook is a monthly survey that highlights some of the most notable art + design happenings in metro Atlanta. Cullum has written about art + design in Atlanta, and beyond, for decades.
Most of December’s major holidays explore our place in the world and the cosmos and are celebrated with light and home decoration. People become installation artists without knowing that there is such a category, and so, for some of us, each year brings the question of when “decoration” turns into “art.”
Sometimes this question doesn’t arise, or matter. Nobody asks if the spectacular lighting display in the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Garden Lights, Holiday Nights conveys some deeper aesthetic or conceptual meaning beyond pleasurable amazement, although the repurposed figures from the garden’s Imaginary Worlds raise some interesting issues. The question lingers even when it isn’t asked.
The strange hybrid that is Winter Wonderland at Fernbank Museum of Natural History is more provocative, however unintentionally. Each year for the past decade, consulates and international groups in Atlanta have decorated Christmas trees with ornaments that range from amateur creations and children’s art to professionally made objects that contain information about the country represented. One of the most aesthetically successful this year is a tree festooned with Mexican piñatas. (Mexico is also represented by a separate but adjacent wall display of art about the 68 languages spoken in the country by indigenous groups.)
A few organizations contribute display cases instead of trees. One represents religious festivals in India, another the branched candles of the menorah (made by students in Israel), and a third holds cultural objects from the Arab world — mostly icons and devotional art from ancient Christian churches.
A quite different, specifically Christian holiday display recurs each year at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany’s one-week (December 7–15) exhibition of Nativity figures from around the world, an amazing variety of approaches to presenting the story of Jesus’ birth. They range from the elegantly ornate to the appealingly rough-hewn, and provide rich ground for debating the demarcations between so-called fine and folk art. First and foremost, however, they’re a fresh approach to the sometimes overly familiar Christmas story.
An exhibition at Hathaway Gallery conveys a thematically appropriate sense of cosmic wonder as well. Whitney Wood Bailey’s You’ll Never Make This Again (through January 11) is her response to the combined impact of motherhood and medical issues, but this isn’t in any way apparent. The work is new and, to my mind, a deeper response to the metaphysical and aesthetic questions that have occupied her from the beginning of her artistic career. The overall effect here involves a sense of pain and difficulty not so much overcome as transcended through unceasing exploration.
The aesthetic evolution from her previous work is what strikes the viewer first. Her mysterious organic patches of swirling color are still overlaid on rigorously gridded lines of small rectangles, but in two paintings (The Other Side, It Has a Face 2 and The Other Side, It Has a Face 5), the grids form an all-over, semitransparent foreground for a background of swirls and bubble shapes that give the illusion of great depth.
Only one of these 2019 paintings is titled Paracosm, but in a sense, all depict detailed imaginary worlds. Alternate dimensions are titled The Joy Fields and Tree of Life. The palette is a joyous riot of color, affirmative even when it dips toward darker tones. Titles such as 7th Wonder and A Splendid Torch 3 and 4 suggest that these paintings point toward a sense of cheerful mystery rather than shallow happiness. They do it through a wide variety of compositional techniques that make this a particularly significant exhibition in terms of formal success and thematic ambition.
The aesthetic and conceptual path and personal style of Benjamin Jones are quite different from Bailey’s, but it seems appropriate to call attention to his reemergence this month with the retrospective exhibition Speaking (December 6–February 15 at MOCA GA) and Salt Island, a show of new works (December 13–January 25 at Whitespace). Jones also seeks an ultimate resolution of the world’s difficulties, although he approaches it through a combination of serious commitment and personal whimsy expressed in a naïve-appearing style that conceals a sophisticated perception of the challenges facing would-be agents of change. Jones now carries on his personal mission from a residence on Tybee Island, the subject of his Whitespace exhibition.
Luzene Hill, whose Now That the Gates of Hell Are Closed has been extended through January at Different Trains Gallery, gives an artist’s talk at 3 p.m. December 7. The pointedly feminist drawings of women’s legs (which one of Hill’s college teachers termed “the gates of hell”) in the front gallery are in sharp contrast to the small mythic homage to her Cherokee heritage in the back. Transparent to Transcendence consists of seven beeswax figures suspended from the ceiling in the shape of the Pleiades. They represent a legend in which seven female children accept a destiny of transformation into stars in the heavens.