The late Robert Rauschenberg, who said his aim was “to act in the gap between art and life,” seemed to be the spirit behind many of the visual art exhibitions in Atlanta in 2017. Like Rauschenberg, many of the artists shown in Atlanta incorporate nontraditional materials into their work in ways that bring aspects of life directly into it. Also like Rauschenberg, many believe that art has the potential to change the world, a particularly poignant position in this time of political upheaval and change.
Most notable was Al Taylor, What Are You Looking At? at the High Museum (November 17, 2017–March 18, 2018), a 20-year survey of the artist’s work curated by Michael Rooks. Taylor (1948–1999), who worked as Rauschenberg’s assistant for eight years along with fellow artist Brice Marden, looked at the world poetically using found and everyday objects. His marks and images transform mundane objects into art, and his three-dimensional works constructed of wood or wire define intriguing forms made even more sublime by the shadows they cast on the walls behind them. While the drawings and prints in the exhibition reflect the purity of his mark-making, his deadpan humor comes across especially in a series of drawn-on polaroid images of his fingernails. Kudos to the High for presenting this artist, who is well-known in Europe but just beginning to be recognized by the American art world.
Another artist shown at the High Museum this year who had not previously been given his due in his lifetime was Donald Locke (1930–2010) in A Conspiracy of Icons: The Art of Donald Locke (November 19, 2016–July 2, 2017). Locke was born in Stewartville, Guyana, and moved to Atlanta in 1990, where he lived, worked and wrote, becoming an important influence on younger artists and a friend to many here. For those in the art community who knew him and followed his work, the exhibition was redemptive. Locke’s large paintings have a close relationship to Rauschenberg through the collaged images Locke collected and inserted into fields of saturated black paint alongside three-dimensional objects embedded into the canvas itself. (Locke’s use of these techniques speaks to a different cultural context than Rauschenberg’s; however, their shared interests and their differences lead one to speculate what they might have said to one another had they met.)
Photographer Nancy Floyd’s exhibition Weathering Time at Whitespace Gallery (November 3–December 2, 2017) marked the end of the artist’s 20 years of teaching, living and working in Atlanta, as she will be moving to the High Desert of Oregon in the new year. In the exhibition, which was first shown in New York at the prestigious Cue Foundation in September before traveling to Atlanta, the artist presented a straightforward chronicle of her life, having photographed herself daily for 35 years and arranging these works in lines or grids. Weathering Time became a sort of personal archive chronicling Floyd’s persistence in documenting herself, bridging her life and her art as she presented herself to us as a photographer, a pet owner, a woman, a mother, sister and daughter, and also simply as a human being. Her photographs constitute continual self-examination and reexamination of who she is, her life and her times.
Another powerful exhibition using the medium of photography to document, and also to instigate social change, is “A Fire That No Water Could Put Out”: Civil Rights Photography curated by Erin Nelson, a curatorial assistant at the High Museum (November 4, 2017–May 27, 2018). The documentation of this crucial period in American history still feels very current, and the photographs remain potent. The images, which range from 1968 to a 2016 print by Sheila Pree Bright (an artist committed to the idea of art as a vehicle for confronting racism), all speak to the present with immediacy and authority.
Landscapes and Interventions at Hathaway Gallery (September 23–November 4, 2017), a group show of landscape photography curated by Mary Stanley and Anne Weems and presented in conjunction with Atlanta Celebrates Photography, consisted almost entirely of archival pigment prints. The images presented the natural world with distinctive twists and quirky beauty. Joshua Dudley Greer’s photos, for example, depicted landscapes found along America’s highways with seductive eeriness. There were similar touches of the surreal throughout the works, and these surprises, paired with the rich visuals, made the show particularly memorable.
Pure Black, New Works by Paul Stephen Benjamin at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (September 23–November 18, 2017), a Working Artist Project exhibition, was the artist’s most successful show to date. Like Rauschenberg, Benjamin works across media, incorporating painting, video, installation, light and performance into his work. The paintings, all in highly saturated hues such as Behr Totally Black, Golden Black Gesso and Valspar Very Black, managed to be both formal and provocative at the same time. At his lecture, the artist performed in silence for 40 minutes raking the glass on the floor like a Zen master in his rock garden, while the social metaphor of his work Ceiling, a large installation on the floor of the gallery made of broken and shattered “safety” glass, was clear, profound and wryly humorous.
Anna Betbeze’s Venus at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (August 26–December 17) was a powerful and playful exhibition. The works crossed the line between painting and sculpture and also the line between art and consumer products. The artist’s Flokati rugs, substrates for her painting, were torn, burned, dyed and painted in multi-colored hues that ranged from magenta to kelly green. Her work, influenced by German artist Katharina Grosse, had a feminist bent in this exhibition in which she tortured objects associated with domesticity. The artist’s humor was evident in her rack of wearable clothes made of the same funky material she paints on. Her throwback to ’60s and ’70s style, when shag rugs were popular, and her homage to this period, seemed fresh and raw.
Atlanta’s eco-warrior artist Pam Longobardi has long repurposed waste materials that she finds in the oceans. In her show Reworlding at Hathaway Gallery (July 22–September 16, 2017), she used bits of found plastic washed by the sea in works ranging from monochrome reliefs to a large-scale black anchor. Flag of Lesvos (anamnesis) (2017), her collage of orange-hued life preservers repurposed from the discarded heaps left by the hundreds of thousands refugees that were received on the Aegean Island of Lesvos, seemed simultaneously exuberant and politically disturbing.
Atlanta artist Mario Petrirena used found and treasured family objects to create a kind of self-portrait of his life as an evacuee from Cuba when he was only eight years old in his show The Distance Between at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (February 25–April 29, 2017). Petrirena’s collages, installations and ceramics transformed daily objects into art. In particular, the installation Many Among the Many, composed of doilies made by the artist’s mother, grandmother and aunts arranged onto sky blue walls, was richly layered in form, history and nostalgia.
Brooklyn-based artist Paul Anthony Smith similarly makes work informed by his experience of coming to this country from Jamaica at the age of nine. In his show Walls Without Borders at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (April 13–July 30, 2017), the artist created metaphoric walls and barriers by subtracting from and obscuring underlying images. Smith picked at layered digital prints to obscure an image with a field of white dots resembling brick walls. Certain works also had beaded drapery moved by air currents from small electric fans, obscuring the work but also beckoning the viewer.
Bandit, Craig Drennen’s Working Artist Project exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (December 2, 2017–January 27, 2018), is an anti-Christmas, anti-materialism show that includes painting, video and installation. The artist incorporates imagery drawn from a range of sources, including the Mr. Monopoly board game mascot who appears as three life-sized dead Santas dressed in grays that lie on the floor of the gallery. In his paintings, Drennen collages real objects like tinsel onto painted grids that contain painted bows, candy canes and the graphic image of dollar signs. When viewed closely, small painted surveillance mirrors reveal a person taking a selfie. According to Drennen, his work refers to Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, but the paintings and collage-like images themselves, compositionally reminiscent of Rauschenberg’s “combines,” are ultimately the most compelling.
Finally, an event that was not an exhibition but was nevertheless a significant occasion for the Atlanta community: On October 12, 2017, Atlanta Celebrates Photography presented a conversation between artist Marilyn Minter and curator Michael Rooks. Minter, who uses photography in her work, is known for her large-scale paintings that span the gap between feminism, sex and fashion. Minter declared that in this year of social and political upheaval, art not only can — but indeed will — speak to what’s happening around us.
ALSO IN THE NEWS THIS YEAR:
Kevin Tucker became chief curator at the High Museum of Art in June, and Doug Shipman signed on as CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center in July, both seemingly set to bring some interesting new energy to the campus. This year, the Souls Grown Deep Foundation donated 54 works by African American artists, including 13 works by Thornton Dial, to the High Museum. The High also acquired works by Donald Locke, Nandipha Mntambo, Kara Walker and Thomas Wilmer Dewing. The High Museum’s sprawling Wine Auction fundraiser celebrated its 25th anniversary in March with the fitting tagline “the Big One,” and the institution also rolled out a new cocktail competition fundraiser, the Highball, in February.
The National Black Arts Festival named Vikki Millender-Morrow as its new president and CEO in July, and Hammonds House Museum director Myrna Fuller retired from her position in April after 13 years at the helm, with Leatrice Ellzy stepping in to serve as interim director.
Atlanta is building a new stadium (what else is new?), and it was nice to learn that the arts will have a place there. Atlantans picked a new mayor, and the arts community came together to have a voice in the process: the candidates held an arts-related forum in September to debate and discuss issues specifically related to the arts. MARTA announced its new public art program ArtsBound, which will set aside one percent of its annual budget for public art, and Mayor Reed announced $4.4 million for nine new public artworks in Atlanta by the likes of Radcliffe Bailey, Katharina Grosse and Willie Cole. Art dealer Bill Lowe plead guilty to felony theft and was sentenced in April.
In August, MailChimp became the first corporate entity to win a Nexus Award from the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center for ongoing support of the arts in the city. Hambidge Hive brought art to midtown Atlanta’s Colony Square property in the summer. Painter Andrew Boatright won the $10,000 Forward Arts Foundation grant, and Artadia awarded prizes to Atlanta artists Clark Ashton and Michi Meko, with Meko also winning a Joan Mitchell Prize. The Hudgens Prize — at $50,000, Georgia’s largest prize for artists — went for the first time to a choreographer, Lauri Stallings of glo.
The Decatur Tiny House Festival showed us how to live with less, and Atlanta Celebrates Photography had plenty to celebrate with another huge year of exhibitions and events. Ten top Atlanta galleries came together to present work at the Atlanta Gallery Collective, a group exhibition that brought Atlanta art and artists to a diverse group of visitors at the busy Ponce City Market.
(News items contributed by Andrew Alexander)