Exploring the Atlanta Contemporary’s repurposed new exhibition spaces can feel like geocaching. Behind, next to, between and beneath larger shows in the main galleries, visitors discover unexpected treasures.
Tucked around a corner or down the stairs in the aptly named “Sliver” and “Chute” spaces, intimate installations by David Onri Anderson and the artists’ collective Leo Gabin surprise curious viewers. In an unassuming corner of a small gallery between Anna Betbeze’s Venus and Matthew Angelo Harrison’s Dark Povera Part 1 exhibitions, Mohamed Bourouissa’s 2015 video diptych Horse Day reveals a little-known community of “urban cowboys” hidden in plain sight inside the city of Philadelphia. And on the atrium wall between the main exhibition galleries, artist studios and courtyard, Katya Tepper’s playful How Does the External Shape Shape the Internal Shape (2017) turns out to be more than meets the eye.
Casually posted on the edge of the narrow “Sliver” space, seemingly suspended from a whitewashed incense box, a slightly crumpled piece of printer paper with handwriting in pen identifies the entrance to David Onri Anderson’s Rice, Beans and Incense (2017), on view through December 17. A pair of abstract vertical diptychs face each other inside the narrowing space that leads toward five very different paintings stacked against the slender back wall. The panels of each vertical diptych are striped with horizontal bands of yellow and white. Crescent-shaped swells of darker green and grey curve out from the edges where the panels join in the center, looking almost like lips about to murmur something as the viewer passes.
The five small paintings at the end seem to exist as distinct explorations of painting as a space of discovery, and also to comprise some sort of profound destination. Extending the entire width of the back wall, the central painting is a textured, golden-brown, lateral rectangle with a diminutive vertical rectangle of black, yellow, pink and pale blue stripes in its center. Above and below are slightly larger paintings resembling ruled notebook paper with simple line drawings of a tree branch with leaves, or a simple oval. At the very top, on a small square of coarse, unprimed canvas bordered with pale blue, ribbon-like lines and a mosaic pattern of loose, blue and brown brush strokes, a flat white circle floats in a field of tiny pink, yellow and white dabs. In contrast to the homespun and spontaneous quality of the top image, the shimmery black painting at the bottom of the wall presents a mysterious nighttime scene that looks like a tent and fire in a mountain-rimmed desert.
Individually, each painting explores painting’s possibilities. Together in the constricting space they become an oddly compelling, altar-like destination, a spiritual allusion reinforced by the inclusion of incense in the title. But what does this all have to do with Beans and Rice? Anderson offers a cryptic clue, written on the crumpled title paper at the entrance: “almost invisible. like a grotto that is visited by bugs and animals more than humans. With their innate sense of brightness or shade. in love with the moon and her mischief. rice and beans for us, incense for all that was forgotten.”
A viewer who wants to find complex allegorical or metaphorical meanings, or who feels compelled to figure it out, might be out of luck. Beans and rice, simple line drawings and a handwritten note on white paper are just everyday things. But everyday things sometimes conjure unexpected associations. Anderson’s installation is perhaps best experienced without expectations, at face-value.
Mohamed Bourouissa’s film Horse Day (2015) reveals an unexpected everyday reality for residents of North Philadelphia. The Algerian-born French artist was invited by the Barnes Foundation to spend eight months in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood of Philadelphia, a crime-ridden area of dilapidated row houses that is home to the Fletcher Street Stables and Urban Riding Academy.
Bourouissa spent time getting to know and gaining the trust of the mostly African American “urban cowboys” of Fletcher street who take tremendous pride in horses that they care for in makeshift stables behind row-house facades. Presented in two channels, Horse Day juxtaposes scenes of mounted riders running errands on urban streets with scenes of preparations for a “Horse Tuning Expo,” for which Bourouissa paired the cowboys with artists to help show off their horses.
Seated in a quiet corner of a side gallery to watch the film, viewers are immersed simultaneously in the incongruity of cowboys riding horses on city streets and in the excitement and pride when each horse enters the competition ring wearing coats of glimmering CDs or streaming mylar ribbons. On view until December 17, this 14-minute film addresses racial, cultural and class differences in America; it captures the power of community, and it will occupy viewers’ thoughts for much longer than the running time of 14 minutes.
How Does the External Shape Shape the Internal Shape, a site-specific installation by Katya Tepper, through April 22, 2018, also unexpectedly engages the curious visitor for longer investigation. At first the installation appears to be large pieces of scrap material and paper that have been cut, clumsily painted and tacked to the wall in three over-sized sections. Tepper’s childlike rendering of shapes and lines imparts an innocent playfulness to her quirky combination of materials and her deliberate inversion of conventional rules.
For example, in the central section, a square brown shape with rectangular interior compartments hangs flat on the wall with two black shapes resembling handles dangling beneath. Inside the compartments, purple and red painted ceramic bowls protrude, almost as if they are being fried in some kind of skillet, seen from above. However, skillets generally rest horizontally on top of a stove, not vertically on a wall, and bowls might typically be found in front of, but not attached to, walls. Despite the flat areas of light violet and bold red paint and the thick black outlines that define their shapes, these bowls remain emphatically three-dimensional, as do numerous small clay, wood and metal objects that protrude from holes puncturing thin sheets of painted wood attached to the wall.
Sometimes, beneath an empty hole, the artist has painted a different color in a contrasting shape. The childlike playfulness of the installation lends itself to countless imaginative readings. From a distance, for example, the installation can resemble a crudely rendered breakfast scene: The “I” shape on the left might represent halves of a broken egg shell on the top and bottom, with the yellow egg yolk between them. The central pane could be seen as a skillet, and to its right, the flat pink square with its rounded top resembles a piece of bread or toast. And in all three of those sections, the external shape of the egg, skillet and toast do shape the internal shape. One could spend hours peering inside its holes and following the actions implied by protruding objects in search of answers to the question the installation poses.
Turning away from the atrium wall, an intriguing neon arrow beckons visitors down concrete steps, past an old glass window with broken and stained panes and into the dark and dingy “Chute” space. The dimly lit, dungeon-like room is nearly empty, except for a pair of rusted and broken mechanical objects on a raised concrete slab. The Belgian artist collective Leo Gabin’s soundtrack Awesome fills the cavernous space. A perky teenage girl’s voice says “Hi! . . . So, I just wanted [pause] to clarify a few things . . . the first thing is [her voice lowers] that I’m not dead. . . .” She laughs, repeats herself in an almost confessional tone and then chimes, “You guys are mean . . .” interrupted periodically by beeps, clicks and other audio distortion. Leo Gabin compiled the soundtrack from amateur videos on YouTube overlayed with stock DJ and audio-editing prompts and effects. When heard in the ominous Chute space, the teenager’s cheerful comment “. . . and I really appreciate that I got almost 500 followers . . . that’s awesome . . .” becomes almost disturbing and ominous.
Though the experiences range from surprising and whimsical to disquieting and disturbing, overall, the insertion of these four installations into the spaces between the main shows at the Atlanta Contemporary elicits the feeling of a delightful, playful treasure hunt.