The Atlanta art world is divided not just by the prior interests of various audiences but by geography. Any number of differently interesting shows pass unnoticed because location is destiny. Many of us art viewers simply find some galleries easier to get to than others.
Not even the BeltLine has displaced the habit of seeking out the most conveniently situated art. This has worked to the disadvantage of galleries that end up in hard-to-reach places because of lower rents. And spaces such as the city-owned gallery in the middle of Chastain Park are where they are because of accidents of history.
Three current shows illustrate this problem.
Confluence: The Art of F. Geoffrey Johnson, curated by Kevin Sipp, is at Chastain Art Center through April 8. Unfortunately it can only be seen for a few more weekdays, but Johnson’s website provides extensive information about the works and their intention.
Identity Theft is a series of works in which a triangular frame serves as the support for a shredded garment beneath it. The names on metal signs on the triangles are those of the American presidents after whom formerly enslaved Americans named themselves during Reconstruction — “Washington,” “Jefferson,” “Johnson” — all presidents who had been slaveholders.
The garments are pieces of clothing that Johnson purchased in northern Ghana where, despite his African American identity, he was referred to in the local language as “white man.”
The rest of the series explores various aspects of the identity theft of slavery and resistance to it: West Africans whose names and local places were erased upon arrival in North America, and women, brought here for their agricultural skills, who carried their own rice concealed in their hair braids.
Other works in the exhibition deal with contemporary topics from postcolonial Africa, from the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic conflict addressed in Sleepless in Rwanda to the tragedies of children poisoned by the tobacco they harvest or the electronic components they recycle.
All these topics are presented through repurposed objects, including discarded satellite dishes, a conscious political choice and a pragmatic use of available materials. Some of his works also incorporate the texts of his own poems, most notably in confined: history remixed: an uncivil guidean assemblage that contains vintage stamps, skeleton keys and galvanized steel hardware cloth.
Johnson combines a concern for African American history with practical action. To acquire donations for Books for Africa, an organization that provides up-to-date materials for African schools and libraries, Johnson will trade a vintage Olympic pin for any appropriate book brought to the gallery.
Chastain isn’t open on weekends and faces the difficulties of timing and geography. Similarly, StudioSwan, a project of the well-known artist couple Gail Foster and Thomas Swanston, is in Chattahoochee Hills, outside the usual precincts of the Atlanta art world.
Enchantment, at the gallery through April 16, features work by Tracy Murrell and rEN Dillard. Quoting Carl Jung’s “Enchantment is the oldest form of medicine,” and asserting that “art is enchantment, and artists have the right of spells,” the exhibition statement asks, “Do you have the capacity to still be astonished by life.” . . does the profound mystery of your being occur to you as you lie awake and alone in the dark? Do nature and art ‘still fill your soul with wonder?’”
Many who would answer “yes” will still find it difficult to physically travel to the gallery. However, the exhibition is fully documented in an unusually fine virtual 360-degree tour that replicates the gallery layout and provides better views of the artworks and their accompanying information than some earlier virtual tours.
The result is that Murrell’s and Dillard’s different perspectives on African American visionary experience — and on visionary experience across cultures — can be viewed in detail from afar, although there is still no substitute for the full experience of a one-on-one encounter between a viewer and a physical artwork.
Another gallery that has been overlooked by most Atlantans because of its location is The End Project Space, so named because it is located at the near end of Craig Drennen’s studio at 1870 Murphy Avenue. This corner of the metro area is less obscure now that ArtsXchange and the studio of painter and metal sculptor Corrina Sephora are only a few minutes away. The more extensively publicized MINT is a few minutes further up Murphy Avenue.
Shawn Campbell’s installation Act IV: We are what we are sold — Part I Primedis at The End through April 29. It offers a deliberately perfunctory nod to the signifiers of the imaginary cowboy in old Westerns and to the working-class life of cattle herders as depicted in more recent movies about discontents on the range.
The painting of Custer’s Last Stand that was de rigueur in any self-respecting bar in a classic cowboy movie is represented by a moiré-patterned reproduction presumably taken off the internet. A miniaturized pool table with video insert of classic bar fights sits adjacent to a shelf of empty beer bottles alternating with cigarette butts.
Like the swinging doors or the minimal general store on the wall outside the enclosed gallery space, these symbols don’t pretend to be a simulacrum of an original experience, as the poststructuralist critics of a generation ago would have put it. It’s more like a passing reference to things we know too well to bother rehearsing in detail.
Drennen, whose work is currently being shown in First Acts at Atlanta Contemporary through May 15, has been hosting carefully chosen exhibitions of this sort since 2019, but the gallery’s appointment-only status (after the opening reception) has been an obstacle for some.
This is a commonplace difficulty for spaces that are deliberately, sometimes defiantly noncommercial. Except in the case of established nonprofit institutions, it is difficult to maintain regular operating hours when everyone involved — including the exhibiting artist — is engaged most of the time in other necessary activities. Combined with the challenge of travel time, this is often enough to keep audiences away from exhibitions they would potentially find interesting.
Dr. Jerry Cullum’s reviews and essays have appeared in Art Papers magazine, Raw Vision, Art in America, ARTnews, International Journal of African-American Art and many other popular and scholarly journals. In 2020 he was awarded the Rabkin Prize for his outstanding contribution to arts journalism.
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