The Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia’s exhibition The First 21: Working Artist Project, currently on view through April 19, is an act of transparency for the small museum that hums on a cluttered road in Buckhead between hair salons, antique stores and other compact (and public) galleries. The First 21 chronicles — via approximately one piece per artist — the work of 21 artists that were selected over the last nine years to be part of the MOCA GA’s Working Artist Project. WAP offers funding, a paid studio assistant, a solo exhibition at MOCA GA and other forms of support that give an artist (who is or was living in Atlanta at the time they were selected) space to create, and perhaps more importantly, the potential to flourish. While institutional support often contains incredible complications of taste and power, The First 21 comes across as a kind of devotion to giving creative workers ample freedom to inhabit this city. Increasingly, to do such a thing, whether you’re an institution or not, is a necessary and urgent act. By creating a reflection or a historical perspective on this, MOCA GA only further highlights what it means to celebrate ideas and their texture moving through Atlanta.
I listened to Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered (loudly) on the way to the museum and (quietly) while I pinballed around it. It’s an album that, like The First 21, is a visceral hunk of something, a vision much bigger than myself. To be inside of it requires allowing a joyful kind of envelopment that asks a viewer or a listener to celebrate a body as it works, as it risks, as it instigates movement while both aware and unaware of you. I haven’t lived in Atlanta long. I wasn’t able to experience, first-hand, what these artists impact on Atlanta was while they created very specific and larger solo exhibitions. It’s incredible to be invited anyway to look and feel, to study and consider. In other words, through The First 21, I am encouraged to deeply imagine and touch a proximity to art that was generated and vibrated somewhere inside this place I live.
The three rooms of the exhibition seem to be arranged by aesthetic similarity and complementary mood. The first room houses darker colors, as well as thick and alternating textures. A voice from Micah Stansell’s (WAP 2010-11, The Water and the Blood) video The Water and the Blood says, “Looking at flowers in the flowers district.” Standing in front of Fahamu Pecou’s beautiful painting (WAP 2013-14, GRAV·I·TY) Phoenix, I notice a small bit of red in the edges of a young man’s black hair. A pair of pants hangs down from several layers of boxers. The boxers look simultaneously like a tier of ashes falling away from the reborn shape and like feathers. It’s a portrait or an insistence of black masculinity shedding and blossoming all at once. Across from “Phoenix” is leather, poplar wood, black-grey wool, egg-shaped steel and sawdust made into wheelchair and bin, rough machine and weight. Wheelchair Assessment with Table and Steel Orbs and Bins is sculpture and a static excerpt of Martha Whittington’s (WAP 2011-12) deus ex machina, which originally contained a collaboration with Beacon Dance. Mandala #14 (The Mandala of Ruin Series) by Caomin Xie (WAP 2010-11, Samsara) is worth getting very close to.
Lighter colors and density glow in the natural light of the second and largest space. The third room focuses on the impact of multiple, radical shapes and bright color. Maria Artemis’ (WAP 2008-09, Events that Rhythm) Hermeion is smooth and wild, a rigorous, but delicate arrangement of material folding against and with what surrounds it. It’s a headdress and a landscape. In the bathroom, just above a lock it says, in black ink, “Behold the savage sky.” I think about this phrase while looking at Scott Ingram’s (WAP 2013-14, Blue Collar Modernism) Untitled #23 and wondering which parts of its swath is made of marble dust. The complex juxtaposition of Jiha Moon’s (WAP 2012-13, Foreign Love) piece Masqueraders is fierce and kaleidoscopic. The bulbous outline of this piece is reminiscent of the shape of some Korean fans. Finite and abstract drawings are piled on top of each other in bright colors and energetic tensions. Small fabric flowers are strewn throughout. Masqueraders is a smart, open-ended attention to the violent or vigorous collapse of cultures and histories, to the bodies that move through such thrashing and feel it permeate.
MOCA GA’s The First 21: Working Artist Project is essentially a glimpse. It’s a glimpse of what’s possible when a city and an institution decide to invest in creative life over an extended period, a point that is emphasized further when one considers that this exhibition is, quite literally, merely a glimpse of what 21 artists created and shared while living in Atlanta during different and particular times. It’s a exhibition you can go to in order to get an idea of what happening in this space, Atlanta, Georgia, whether you notice it or not. It’s an exhibition that yes, seeps you in a brief history, but more importantly, demands a viewer consider the potential for us to celebrate and expansively consider art that’s made in proximity to us, to all our very different lives.