Artists as diverse as octogenarian photographer Lucinda Bunnen and 40ish multidisciplinarian Shanequa Gay popped up in headlines about Atlanta’s Art + Design scene in 2019. So did Fahamu Pecou, who’s in his mid-40s, and 65-year-old Benjamin Jones. With this annual retrospective, we look back at them and the places and other faces that had us talking in 2019. We touch on many here but can’t hope to encapsulate everything the past 12 months gave us, even in a long piece.
Bunnen contributed A Spring Walk in My Woods at Marcia Wood Gallery in the, umm, spring, and is represented in From Nuns to Now: A Photographer’s Selections at an unlikely venue, Switch Modern’s furniture showroom (through January 31). ArtsATL cofounder and critic Catherine Fox calls it “an absorbing safari through the multifarious themes, approaches and subjects that characterize her canon.”
The past 12 months saw good news and bad, and even some sad. Painter, sculptor and book artist extraordinaire Ruth Laxson died June 1 at age 94. The 15-year-old WonderRoot, once one of Atlanta’s more prominent arts nonprofits, closed in August.
The Goat Farm Arts Center announced a $250 million expansion that will include a new, permanent home for MOCA GA. The two-year project will densify the West Midtown site, adding 375,000 square feet of new construction with a hotel, more art studios, two restaurants, a coffeehouse, and residential and office space. Most of the existing buildings, the ones that give the Goat Farm its funk and charm, will be renovated.
MINT, the nonprofit that champions emerging visual artists, left its 1,800-square-foot downtown space for spacier digs at The MET near the West End MARTA station. The new 7,300-square-foot space has three galleries, offices, five studios for MINT’s Leap Year residency artists and 18–23 studios.
And longtime art consultant and gallerist Fay Gold got back in the gallery biz with Fay Gold and Besharat Museum galleries in Castleberry Hill near downtown. Gold’s first eponymous gallery was open from 1980 to 2009. She’s known for hosting groundbreaking exhibitions by the likes of Robert Rauschenberg and for giving Thornton Dial and Radcliffe Bailey their first Atlanta shows. She curated photography for Elton John and sat for portraits by Robert Mapplethorpe and Annie Leibovitz. And whenever pop artist Keith Haring was commissioned to paint murals locally he’d leave voicemails asking Gold, “Wanna play?”
EXHIBITS TO REMEMBER
(In addition to Fox, ArtsATL‘s Gail O’Neill, Deanna Sirlin and TK Smith contributed to this wrap-up.)
Pinky Bass and Carolyn DeMeritt at Whitespace
A phenomenal show. This small exhibition featured raw and revealing portraits of older women’s bodies. Photographer Pinky Bass’ embroidered photos were especially arresting. The colorful strings added another layer of meaning, as well as depicting different layers of anatomy on her subjects’ bodies — the esophagus, brain and intestines, for example. DeMeritt’s portraits of Bass engaged her aging figure as sculptural, textural and beautiful. The portraits were suspended from the ceiling to create isolated moments for spending moments with each. This was a thoughtful and meditative exhibition that will likely never be replicated. — TKS
The iconic artist (1911–88) was African American, but his beautiful work was universal and transcendent. Although he was born in Charlotte and raised in New York City, he made such an impression on Atlanta that his presence is still felt three decades after his death. We were lucky enough to witness his genius — he was a cartoonist, painter, muralist, collagist and musician — in exhibitions at the High Museum of Art and Alan Avery Art Company.
The larger of the two, “Something Over Something Else”: Romare Bearden’s Profile Series at the High, continues through February 2. What many find most appealing is Bearden’s command of reality and myth. Collage, the medium for which he’s most known, weds the freedom of abstraction with the weight of reality. Bearden could take the face of an unnamed woman from a magazine and capture a glimpse of reality in her eyes. Through color, form and material, he’d create an image that no longer depicted reality but maintained an essence of its truth, whether using train motifs, retelling stories of the Great Migration or depicting the rural South. He transformed the black American experience into what we now understand as collective memory. — TKS
Framing Shadows at Emory University
See this exhibit — full name Framing Shadows: Portraits of Nannies From the Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection — through January 5 at the Woodruff Library on Emory’s campus. The 20 or so sepia-toned archival images, dating from the 1840s to the 1920s, are remarkable for their aesthetic beauty. The composition is clean. The lighting seems calibrated to flatter the adult subjects. And the framing forces viewers to recognize the women’s multidimensional aspects — whether resolute, melancholy, dignified, resigned or proud.
“Part of my mission is to rescue these women from obscurity,” said Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, an Emory associate professor of American and African American Studies and the show’s curator. “You honor nannies by using their names when talking about them, paying them well and acknowledging that they are full human beings with inner lives that do not involve you. I don’t want anybody of any race to leave this exhibition, go home and fire anybody. I am in favor of employment. But we must stop replicating mindless stereotypes by thinking and acting differently.” — GO
She seemed omnipresent at times. Shanequa Gay brought us paintings, video, typography, masked sculptural figures, installations, murals and more in two major shows — The Devout Griot, Emotional Keeper at Anne O Art in April and LIT WITHOUT SHERMAN: A Love Letter to the West End at Hammonds House Museum in July. The latter, originally scheduled to close October 15, proved so popular, it was extended, extended and extended, finally closing December 22.
Gay, who has exhibited and collected locally, nationally and internationally, considers herself an Atlanta artist and citizen of the world. Her Devout Griot (“griot” refers to West African musician-entertainers whose performances include tribal histories and genealogies) sought to see the beauty in blight, to deify black women and to explore the language of the feminine. It did just that.
LIT WITHOUT SHERMAN –– perhaps the best exhibit title of the year — saluted much more than buildings, historic markers and people in West End. It was a floors-to-ceilings love letter of humanity, pride and the will to endure. The exhibition/installation took Gay some 21 days to complete and included bright colors, familiar street markers, tributes to historically black colleges and universities, regular folks (boys selling water, Muslim brothers selling bean pies) and historic figures (W.E.B. Du Bois as a drum major; civil rights activist Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, aka H. Rap Brown; novelist/playwright Pearl Cleage; the Rev. Albert B. Cleage, a religious leader and founder of the Shrine of the Black Madonna bookstore; Lottie Watkins, the first black woman to sell real estate in Atlanta; funeral home director Willie A. Watkins; and Dr. Otis Hammonds, the physician and arts patron for whom the museum is named.
Keep an eye on Gay and her work. That should be easy enough. She’s everywhere.
High Rise Show
This large contemporary art show in October — coproduced by Fulton County Arts & Culture and the Goat Farm Arts Center — showcased the work of more than 100 Southeastern artists, from emerging creatives to those in midcareer. One floor was even taken over by Atlanta-based street artists. It took place in four stories of the historic downtown high-rise named Giraffe near the Five Points intersection and was curated by representatives from SHOWERHAUS Gallery, TILA Studios, MINT, The Creatives Project and artists Miya Bailey, Doran Hickey and Y. Malik Jalal. The art was terrific, but the event’s efforts to publicize itself were frustratingly minimal. The event was inspired by the Times Square Show of 1980, which introduced the art world to Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nan Goldin, Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer, Kenny Scharf and Kiki Smith, among others.
Welcome back! Benjamin Jones, who had been missing from the Atlanta art scene for several years, now lives and works in Tybee Island. Just this month, he opened concurrent exhibitions at MOCA GA (Speaking) and Whitespace (Salt Island). Speaking, through February 15, is a 40-year retrospective featuring large- and small-scale drawings, collages, embellished journals and sculptures. Salt Island, through January 25, features drawings that cover a range of emotions. The MOCA GA show is exceptional — arguably the best in Atlanta this year. Look for a full review in early January. — DS
The long-awaited Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings at the High Museum of Art was both a highlight and lowlight of the year. Although a deeply celebrated photographer, Mann, now 68, had never had a major survey of her work. A Thousand Crossings filled that gap for a time, finally offering an in-depth presentation of work that spans four decades, with more than 100 photographs, many never exhibited or published before. It, and the concurrent Sally Mann: Remembered Light & Landscapes at Jackson Fine Art, would likely be highlights any year.
But there’s a “but” here. Because of ongoing problems with a leaky ceiling, the High show closed intermittently during its run and shuttered permanently six weeks before its original February 2 end date. The High was the final stop for the traveling exhibition that visual art — and Mann — fans in Houston, Los Angeles, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., Paris and elsewhere were able to take in uninterrupted.
DO or DIE: Affect, Ritual, Resistance at Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum in February, March and April. Real Negus Don’t Die at EYP/Gallery 100 from July to October. The weeklong ELEVATE: Pittsburgh in mid-October. You might say that Fahamu Pecou — best known for multidisciplinary art that comments on representations of black masculinity — had a fruitful 2019.
The Emory exhibition, by far the most expansive, presented Pecou as educator-artist-performer and actually served as his doctoral dissertation. The three-part show included videos; paintings of individuals and groups; gods and goddesses; and photographs of four figures, heads covered and obscured, with sashes bearing the names of slain leaders — Martin, Medgar, George and Fred. The exhibition’s crescendo, wrote ArtsATL contributor Deanna Sirlin, was a short film titled Emmett Still, which called up the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. Pecou showed us that not much has changed. Yet the exhibition was a call to action, healing and resistance. And most importantly for the viewer, to move forward.
Real Negus Don’t Die was small but impactful. The drawings on paper depicted Pecou’s body in T-shirts featuring public figures with powerful significance in American culture — rapper Tupac Shakur, Black Panther activist Fred Hampton, playwright Lorraine Hansberry and 17-year-old gun-violence victim Trayvon Martin among them. Pecou’s images explored an African American mourning tradition, ArtsATL contributor TK Smith said in his review. “Whether a close loved one, a community member or a public figure has died, T-shirts function as an accessible platform to honor them, spread awareness and assert political positions.”
Finally, Pecou curated the 2019 edition of ELEVATE: Atlanta, an annual temporary public art program that brings visual art, performances and cultural events to a specific neighborhood. This year, it settled in Pittsburgh, a historically black in-town neighborhood. “What we do as artists is a reflection of the communities we live in,” Pecou said. “Art isn’t something that exists outside of who we are. It is how we experience and relate to the world.”
THE PROJECT at The Temporary Art Center
Large group shows of Atlanta artists are rare. That in itself makes PROJECT, an exhibition of 28 practitioners at what was the Conklin Metal building (on view through December 29), an important endeavor. Of course, what matters most is that the show was really good. This cross section of artists should convince anyone who still doubts that Atlanta has a mature and flourishing art scene.
Artist Scott Ingram, who proved himself an able curator with a smaller show in 2018, says he started with the premise that the roster be composed of current or former Atlantans who have “traction” nationally and in some cases internationally.
Though mostly midcareer artists, they are diverse in just about every other way: medium, subject matter, point of view. Yet they share the capacious industrial space amicably, thanks to Ingram’s thoughtful installation. He juxtaposes, for instance, gender-fluid riffing by Jen Ray and Ben Venom. He makes a “safe space” for Lonnie Holley’s found-object rumination on the horrors of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children. And there is plenty of room for art that takes advantage of the building’s soaring heights, among them Joe Peragine’s knockout scrolls and Sonya Yong James’ 19-foot-tall hanging.
Fredrik Brauer’s vivid photos of construction sites, which document the continual upheavals that characterize our cityscape, are on point here: The building is slated for demolition early next year. — CF
Amy Sherald + Mildred Thompson
New York’s Museum of Modern Art reopened its expanded space this fall with new attention to women artists and artists of color. The Baltimore Museum of Art recently announced that all of its 2020 exhibitions will be devoted to “female-identifying” artists. As institutions belatedly recognize artists from outside the old-boy canon, they are finally catching up with Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, long dedicated to women artists of the diaspora.
The Spelman Museum began the year with a small but splendid exhibition by Amy Sherald, whose career has soared since she painted Michelle Obama’s official portrait, and closed with Mildred Thompson: The Atlanta Years, 1986–2003, an equally fine, and perhaps more important, exploration of the artist’s multifaceted oeuvre.
As a female black abstract artist coming up in the 1950s and ’60s, Thompson had three counts against her. Still, she pursued what she called “a personal interpretation of the universe” with fierce determination and intelligence that’s most dramatically evident in paintings that throb with color, light, dense marks, complicated rhythms and cosmic metaphors. The exhibition also showed her command of printmaking and documented her forays into music and songwriting.
Cocurated by museum director Andrea Barnwell Brownlee and the Mildred Thompson Estate’s Melissa Messina, the exhibition pleased the eye, jostled the mind and contributed to the growing recognition of Thompson’s gifts. — CF
Street art (and the Off the Wall project)
Atlanta’s street art scene continues to throb with energy and color, although it’s not always easy to track who’s doing what and where, and there’s always the chance a mural will be painted over before you see it. For guidance, you might consult Art Rudick’s passion project, the website Atlanta Street Art Map. He does yeoman’s work in following muralists Chris Alvarez and Courtney Hicks, Dr. Dax, Yoyo Ferro, Charmaine Minniefield, Brandon Sadler, Lauren Pallotta Stumberg and a multitude of others.
This retrospective wouldn’t be complete without a nod to Off the Wall: Atlanta’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Journey, a collaboration between WonderRoot and the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee. The 30-mural effort launched in June 2018 but culminated in early February when Mercedes-Benz Stadium hosted Super Bowl LIII and the crowds that convened accordingly (the New England Patriots beat the Los Angeles Rams, by the way).
Off the Wall featured murals by 11 artists — Atlanta’s Sheila Pree Bright, Yehimi A. Cambrón, Shanequa Gay, Gilbert Young, Muhammad Yungai, Charmaine Minniefield and the Loss Prevention Arts Collective; Brandan “Bmike” Odums of New Orleans; Gaia and Ernest Shaw of Baltimore; and Reginald “L.E.O.” O’Neal of Miami. The murals commented on homelessness, gentrification and displacement, and undocumented young people, and championed the strength of women, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson, Southern Christian Leadership Conference icon Ella Baker, Ralph David Abernathy, Hosea Williams, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King and congressman John Lewis.
Although not officially part of Off the Wall, painter Fabian Williams‘ “KaeperBowl” murals were a smart and savvy complement. Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49er, was essentially drummed out of the NFL in 2017 for kneeling during the National Anthem to protest ongoing police brutality against black men. Williams’ original Kaepernick mural — on an abandoned building in West End — was torn down days before the game. Undeterred, he raised almost $9,000 in one day via a GoFundMe campaign and replaced the original mural with eight new ones. Score!