Since 1999, the Forward Arts Foundation has supported metro Atlanta artists with its Emerging Artist Award. Winners of the juried competition, who receive $10,000 and a solo show at the Swan Coach House Gallery, are evaluated on three criteria: where they’ve been, where they are and where they’re going in their artistic practice.
This year’s winner, Curtis Ames, bested 17 nominees for his creative approach to reconciling ideas on effort, achievement and expectation. His less than more exhibition opens Thursday and runs through May 16 (with a gallery talk at 3 p.m. Saturday). The work of finalists Robert Chamberlin, Krista Clark, Sonya Yong James and Christina Price Washington will be featured in the front gallery.
Ames spoke with ARTS ATL about first impressions as an artist, his less-is-more approach to starting dialogue and the irreconcilability of desire.
ARTS ATL: What is your earliest recollection of being moved or changed by a work of art?
Curtis Ames: I don’t have a defining moment, but my mother was a French teacher, and she used to take me and my sister along on trips to France with her high school exchange students. We visited all the major cultural institutions, and the museums of Paris gave me an understanding of history as represented through art. The exposure made me understand that I could contribute to the conversation in some way. I also remember the monumental scale of paintings by Delacroix, and Géricault really had an impact on me, which is interesting because my work doesn’t attempt to be monumental.
ARTS ATL: Even though you were first inspired by French romanticism, your expression as an artist is minimalist, cerebral and conceptual. Tell us about your evolution.
Ames: My work has evolved out of an interest in effort, achievement and the ethics of irresolvability, examining my own life and shortcomings and realizing that I’m a temporary, flawed creature — coming to terms with that aspect of existence and looking at desire and what we can do to make our lives better but realizing that we are going to fail at the attempt because every achievement is an approximation of whatever idyllic edifice we’ve constructed within our own minds.
ARTS ATL: What materials do you use?
Ames: I try to focus on small, simple gestures with materials and objects that have a universal quality. They’re everyday materials, not fine art materials, and sourced mostly from big box stores. I use a steel rod in one piece, titled Corner Piss [that represents the feeble and pathetic attempt to mark my territory]. And I’ve become interested in Flex Seal, a liquidized rubber you can pour to make things waterproof, stronger and more durable. I really like the somewhat delicate aspect of the material. It’s one of those as-seen-on-TV products, [hence] the title of my canvas coated with Flex Seal, As Seen on TV.
ARTS ATL: What comes first for you: the material, the message or some other source of inspiration?
Ames: I think they all come together at the same time. These material choices are informed by the manual labor I’ve had to pick up over the years to supplement my income as an artist. I’ve always liked working with my hands, so I’ve been drawn to occupations like residential and commercial painter, handyman, chef and, most recently, behind the scenes in the art world as an art handler.
ARTS ATL: How did your experience as a chef inform your practice?
Ames: I learned to work efficiently and with precision. That art form stays in the kitchen, but I’ve got a glass of water in the show.
ARTS ATL: What does your show title mean, and why is it lowercase?
Ames: This idea of less than more comes from desire and really accepting things the way things are and that they’re as good as it’s going to get. Every experience is valid. There are no large or small tasks; they’re all equally important. By accepting these opposing ideas, there’s a way to keep us humble, innocent and come to terms with what comes our way.
ARTS ATL: What do you want from your viewers?
Ames: I like to see what other people get from my work. What I put out there is not necessarily what someone is going to take from it, but that’s fine, too. It’s a conversation . . . a dialogue. These works of art came out of very personal experiences — even though they’re not confessional.
ARTS ATL: The Emerging Artist Award panelists describe your expression as “intellectual,” “raw” and “wildly interesting.” How would you describe it?
Ames: [laughs] I’m glad they find it “wildly interesting.” I think it’s kind of quiet; some of it’s absurd, some of it has wit and some humor. But, honestly, I hope earnestness is something that really comes out.