Outliers and American Vanguard Art at the High Museum continues to shake up my understanding of art historical categories.
“Vanguard” is a better synonym to replace that unpleasant military metaphor “avant-garde,” which suggests that the world of art is forever engaged in a war with established ways of seeing and thinking in which the avant-garde is leading the assault (and suffering the highest casualties as a result). As recently as 50 or 60 years ago, outsider groups such as the Beats, with ideas about race and sometimes gender that were partly ahead of their time, read previous generations’ avant-garde literature and looked at previous generations’ avant-garde art, and thought of themselves as the latest iteration of a long string of forward assaults on a stultifying status quo. As part of that, they celebrated working-class culture, but they did it in the name of “authenticity,” contrasted with the plastic blandness of middle-class consumerism.
Something changed in the ’60s, when a certain style of techno-hip slickness emerged as a different way of rebelling against middle-class stodginess by being out in front of it technologically as well as in terms of social attitudes. But that “new optimism” was displaced by the oil-price shocks of the early ’70s, which threw art off balance along with the rest of society. And we are still living with the consequences of that displacement, with some people still misconstruing what hit them. That displacement, plus new definitions of ethnic and gender identity, changed an entire relationship to past vanguards. But as an enormously significant side effect of all that, something emerged in 1977–79 that turned out to be a permanent shift in artistic sensibility.
Punk rock and art crossed over from England, and rap and graffiti rose on native soil in the cities, and the hybridizations thereof turned into an alternative mainstream that flows through American culture to this very moment. But it doesn’t define itself that way, and it relates to its own history in ways that are significantly different from earlier vanguard generations’ relationship to previous avant-gardes.
The rise of rap and graffiti may have had other effects, though I’ve not read any testimonials to that effect. Starting around 1980, curators showed significantly increased interest in African American vernacular art (or “folk art”). Did this stem in part from unconscious responses to the upsurge of creativity from the streets — not as a direct influence, but the kind of thing that happens to curators when they make their way to work at the museums and pay attention to what is happening around them? Lynne Cooke’s show, with its focus on how the outside made its way inside, doesn’t psychoanalyze curators, but the timing of various museum shows is suggestive.
That said, I want to look at a couple of things currently in Atlanta gallery spaces.
At Mason Fine Art through August 31, Mark Karelson has brought some significant older items out from inventory in homage to the Outliers show, and his selection of Purvis Young, Jimmie Lee Sudduth and R. A. Miller is particularly provocative when placed in juxtaposition to the different species of outlier aesthetics found in Evanescent Permanence, an extraordinary fabric wall hanging by recent UGA graduate Hannah Ehrlich, installed on the opposite wall almost floor to ceiling.
Although Mason’s summer exhibition includes other self-taught artists alongside art-school-educated ones, Karelson wants to call particular attention to the aforementioned vernacular-art trio, a stylistic and biographical combination that sums up succinctly the range of vernacular art of the 20th century — an African American resident of Miami’s Overtown district who got his inspiration from the art history section of the library, an African American in rural Mississippi who made his paints out of mud, and a vision-impaired white ex-millworker who drew his inspiration from the Bible and nature shows on public television. Karelson doesn’t provide that sort of information on the wall, so I’ll leave it to you to navigate your way further into the world of these artists, united only by outlier status and recognition by a gallery owner who also introduced to Atlanta the work of a graffiti collective whose members made their way into the world of easel painting and considerable art-world recognition — José Parlá having been one of those artists.
That observation leads me to the current curatorial efforts of Joe Dreher, whose monthly exhibitions at Blue Mark Studios are intended to provide a link between his own graffiti/wall art practice and the experiments of the emerging generation — not that he would put it that way. As he said in conversation, it’s a way “to keep from being a dinosaur.”
Daytona, which closes September 2, is Dreher’s homage to youth and to summer, with a nod to the digital Siri in between, as he presents a project he signed on for sight unseen — Emily Braswell and Jenna Rees (a.k.a. strawberriemilk and warmmilkwithsugar) based their exhibition on a trip to Daytona Beach accomplished by asking Siri for positive or negative judgments about alternatives and either acquiring unconventional memorabilia en route or taking note of unusual landscape features that found their way into photo collages or, however loosely, into collaborative paintings. All this is significantly reminiscent of other methods of incorporating randomness into painting that were popular a few years earlier when these artists were in art school. But the exhibition, which included a one-night-only installation/performance featuring two models posing on jet skis, with aluminum foil standing in for the ocean, had less to do with recent art history than with Dreher’s wish to “bring the beach to Atlanta” (his words in an e-mail) for an evening that was memorably immortalized in video, with a painting and sculpture exhibition as a lingering reminder that something playful yet serious can be pulled off in these grim times.
Dreher will follow this exhibition with what he terms the “durational performance painting” of Amanda Grae Platner, an evening in which her efforts at producing an artwork will be both guided and obstructed by the actions of audience members who will tug at one or another knotted rope attached to her body, thus determining the range of movements within which she can apply paint to a large canvas. This opening night act of process-heavy artmaking on September 7 will be supplemented through October 5 by an exhibition of other paintings that Dreher describes as “based on fighting the current.” Her website, however, describes her work as based on “chance occurrences,” suggesting that this 2016 SCAD graduate is also in touch with currents of the art world’s fast-changing and/or ever-fluid zeitgeist.
Dreher as curator is equally fast-changing and fluid, still in the process of assembling an October photography exhibition that will range from “street culture to high building climbers who photograph the city.”
His only nod to history will be the November 9–10 opening of the Steel Wheels show of hip-hop and graffiti that pays homage to the genres I mentioned earlier, which he describes as “what was current when I was a kid. I was a surfer, a skater, a punkrocker when all this was new.” The show presented by Steel Wheels will feature “model trains that have been painted by the artists that paint the real trains,” with “celebrity DJs and B-Boys breakdancing” as a further evocation of the oldest of old-school culture. Braswell and Rees will contribute a “steel heels” fashion show, and Platner will hang paintings related to the sign-painter art that Steel Wheels will install alongside the model train cars, thus fulfilling Dreher’s dream of uniting the generations — and demonstrating the coherence of his curatorial vision, even if, again, he wouldn’t choose to describe it that way.
The seamless blend of visual art and theatricalized performance in Dreher’s curation for Blue Mark Studios is in many ways close to the mainstream of the larger national art market (if the descriptions are accurate in essays such as, most recently, Chris Wiley’s contentious two-part “The Toxic Legacy of Zombie Formalism” on artnet.com). Despite their semi-outsider status, these exhibitions are probably closer to it than the exhibitions that the realities of the local art market compel most Atlanta commercial galleries to present. The divorce between experimental aesthetics and guaranteed commercial success locally is doubtless praiseworthy, since it means that local buyers acquire work for reasons other than short-term investment, but it limits the range of permissible aesthetics in galleries dependent on sales for survival. At the same time, the sheer quantity of DIY activity ensures the presentation of a range of work that wouldn’t be seen in a more investment-driven art community. However, this set of circumstances means that local commercial galleries are faced with the problem of creating a context for difficult work without benefit of an overheated market in which difficulty, or a simulation of it, is a marketable commodity.