The Atlanta Contemporary currently has two exhibitions centered around regional identity. The group show It Can Howl, “takes a look at the numerous experiences of the American South.” The solo exhibition, The Dapper Comes to the Walkers collects Dapper Bruce LaFitte’s drawings of New Orleans marching bands and street scenes. The south is an enormous, sprawling region with shifting boundaries. It contains diverse peoples and places. It has long histories and complicated presents, evident in names and markers, statues and parades. It also has forgotten, hidden histories, absent from the stories we are told and we tell ourselves. These shows begin to expose the boundaries between what is seen and what we hide.
In It Can Howl, the garbage cans of Nancy Lupo’s Train immediately grab the viewer’s attention as they snake across the gallery spilling their cherries. The walls of the garbage cans seem to waver with the weight they carry, the objects embedded within them compromising their integrity. The blurring of real cherries and fake cherries, quail eggs and chocolate soccer balls gestures to and obscures the conspicuous emptiness of the garbage cans. The work fills the gallery with its overflow of materiality, yet it ultimately remains empty, a series of signifiers pointing to an absence hidden in front of us.
Chloe Seibert’s Welcome is gouged and eaten into the wall to create the text. It is a greeting that speaks of absence, peeling back the layers of paint on the wall and drywall to the studs and hidden infrastructure. The wall text lists drywall as the only material, yet it is its absence that we see. The absent drywall removed to the storage room, to the dumpster, to the landfill is as much the work as what is left behind in the gallery. The visible absence points to the built history of the gallery and infrastructure that hides our waste and disposes what we have abandoned. Its gesture of welcome rings hollow within the gallery, but its removal resonates far beyond.
Dapper Bruce LaFitte’s drawings in The Dapper Comes to the Walkers point to specific moments. They are specifically sited to post-Katrina New Orleans, explicitly linked to a history and present experience of black life. They attempt to catalogue loss and absence through exacting, precisely enumerated presence. They are an accounting of people marching, people watching. The exuberance of their playing and the joy of their listening are flattened, frozen in time. This precision coexists with the narratives of Hurricane Katrina, the injustices that surrounded it, and the ongoing changes it has wrought on New Orleans.
Lafitte is self-consciously aware of viewership and his presence within the art world. The text written across each of his drawing underscores the complicated presence of a gallery-represented, “outsider” artist within the institution. In writing “I love my/job/making art critics work/lol,” LaFitte is aware of his presence within the art world. The broken narrative he creates across his drawings attempts to connect the world from which he draws his experiences, love, and distress and the art world from which we view his drawings, yet our viewing environment remains a sterile white cube, however brightly painted in traditional Mardi Gras colors, forever divorced from the flattened drawings that contain so much life.
The works in It Can Howl and The Dapper Comes to the Walkers are rich. The exhibitions are paired well, and the works individually and together continue to unfold and make me think deeply about what is visibly present in the gallery and what remains hidden, the objects of the art world I know how to see and the architecture that props them up, hiding in plain sight. I am new to this place. I am learning how to understand the heat and humidity, the new species of trees and insects. I am still attempting to understand its history and present and my place within them. I am only beginning to see the surface. I know there is far more hidden before my eyes.
There is a palpable disjunction between the experience of Howardena Pindell, Pindell’s stunning solo exhibition at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, and its representation in the following words and photos. Beyond the ways in which photographs cannot capture the minute detail inseparable from the immense scale of Pindell’s work, the exhibition builds a complex understanding of a way to view her work that draws us in by asking us to look deeply and closely at and beneath its surface.
It is easy to overlook a grouping of six, small works, hanging in one corner of the gallery, washed by Pindell’s voice from Free, White and 21 and dwarfed by the large-scale paintings from the Autobiography series that dominate the space. These works speak with a sure voice and power of their own, and they compel and reward close looking. The regularity of the grids of Parabia Test #4 seem disrupted by the paper dots across and beneath the sheets of vellum, but the deliberate, drawn gestures across the tiny circles anchor them in their places and reinforce the depths plumbed beyond our sight. Untitled, 1975 explodes with and centers color. The layered, reversed, and obscured words of Text resist an easily read comprehension, making explicit the ways in which collage buries meanings, fracturing understandings we assume we know.
The intimate gesture – ink on paper, hole punched paper within paint, words spoken with deliberate calm, canvas ruptures sutured – is central to all of Pindell’s work in this exhibition. The staggering beauty and power of Pindell’s work has been built slowly and deliberately through these gestures, and those gestures demonstrate the futility of easy comprehension, the impossibility of walking away from the exhibition with a fixed understanding of Pindell and her work. We must match her accumulated, repeated gestures with multiple viewings, with re-seeings that slowly accrue and reveal meaning over time.
Ultimately, these words cannot do Pindell’s work justice. There will always be more to learn from Pindell’s work just as there will always be more to learn within this world. Pindell’s first solo exhibition of paintings and drawings was at Spelman College. Thankfully, in specifically re-presenting Pindell’s work here, this exhibition asks us to re-view that work and re-see that world. Fortunately, this exhibition reminds us that we will not find a just and equal world, but perhaps we can build one through small, intimate gestures.
I will continue living with Pindell’s work, the small gestures that built those works and the larger gestures of her career, and I will heed the call to re-see the world, to watch the news for what it does not say, to view the world through which I live as a series of negotiations of power, privilege, and inequity, to work to reveal and realign my place within that world.
Howardena Pindell is on view at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art through December 5, 2015.
Entering whitespace gallery from the hazy, sweltering Atlanta noon, escaping the cascades of kudzu and endless advertisements of the coming millennials, I walked through a wall of cold air into the artist talks for Soft Eyes, a group exhibition curated by Pete Schulte. I was shocked into re-seeing by the spareness and order of the exhibition. The show, a translation of an online exhibition, realizes an austerity and distancing of the internet. The works resist easy entry, forefronting carefully crafted surfaces. Each artist works with a unique language that feels distantly related to others spoken around the gallery.
There are limitations to the digital world and distinct advantages to pulling these physical works together. Cracks and fissures form in the reserved surfaces, drawing in the viewer. The resonances arising from the juxtaposition of Julia Fish’s pieces slow the crossing of the threshold they span. The vibrancy of Andy Moon Wilson’s colors and dense patterns call from across the room. The friction Katy Fischer describes between the arrangement of her small paintings and objects and their highly-studied and finely crafted surfaces compels close viewing.
Soft Eyes rewards slowing down at these entrance points to extend our vision beyond the individual artworks. Each of the works in the show ultimately unveils a depth of care and time that results in their quiet, reserved surfaces. The time spent laboring over the work is evident in Leah Raintree’s finely detailed, topographic map-like drawings. Time invested generating an artistic practice blossoms in Amy Pleasant’s reinvestigations into moments of creation and life buried within her studio. Each of the artists has honed a language uniquely their own, singular in its application yet resonant with the other languages that fill the gallery. All of the works are deeply considered, and, as with the best translations, Schulte has allowed each work the space and time to breathe lives from the others that would otherwise remain unspoken.
In closing the artist talk, Hamlet Dobbins talked of art being a river of time — teacher to student, artwork to artwork — each arising from and forming the river. This analogy, reflected in the multi-generational, multi-relational show, is comforting, as summer heat continues with no end in sight. I need reminders of time’s continuing presence and slow passage — tardier sunrises, grey hairs that suddenly appear, the rise and fall of a dog’s breath as we sleep and wake to slow accretions of a life built together.
I continue to live with Soft Eyes, exploring the depths and truths contained within its layers, and I have begun to modify the analogy to think of art as an oceanic current, flowing through the dynamic ecosystems of the world, pushing and pulling bits of plastic and phytoplankton into and out of its flow, one part of a water cycle so vast and far reaching into our past and future we no longer know if we are clouds or raindrops or ocean water shaping the course of the world around us.
Soft Eyes is on view at whitespace until September 12.
The community & arts organization in Atlanta LiFT held its first Art Salon in November 2014 and has been holding them once a month since. The most recent, #CreATL, featured glass artist Marselle Harrison-Miles, R&B singer ASH who just dropped her first EP, The Perfect EP, DJ D LaShae, and the entrepreneurial initiative Human Capital Theory that focuses on community-building through sustainable economic development which encourages professionals to donate their expertise and services to fledgling businesses.
Each Salon, though there have been only five, draws a sizable crowd. (Let me tell you, it can get CROWDED!) I have been to a few of these events and know two of the founding members: Clint Fluker, who is also in my doctoral program at Emory University – The Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts – and Nasim Mahboubi Fluker. The third founder is Miriam Denard. Since I think what they’re doing is exciting and also historically important in terms of its relationship to and with Atlanta’s vibrant black community, I decided to get a conversation going with them. Here are the results of that discussion:
Meredith Kooi: What prompted you all to start LiFT?
LiFT Art Salon [Miriam Denard]: Plainly, I think Nasim and Clint, and at the same time myself, were all in need of something to DO. Something that wasn’t going to a bar or going to a club or a concert. Something that felt cool and fun but also mature and important and worth our time. So, when you sit there and think to yourself, “if there was something I could go to, some event that had other people that are like me, good music, and actually was about something that I’m into or that I care about, I would be there in a second.” So, when we all thought about the things that each of us are passionate about, LiFT came about. Music, Art, and Community projects each play a significant role in each of our lives so everything came together organically like that. It was like a marriage of all of our networks and passions. We always joke about how this is really about giving people something cool to do on a Sunday on Edgewood that doesn’t involve drinking and partying. There’s more to Edgewood than that.
MK: What are its main goals? What are you hoping to achieve?
LiFT [Miriam Denard]: I think one of our main goals with LiFT is to showcase local talent. Atlanta is known for a lot of things right now through the media and the music industry. But we feel…we KNOW that Atlanta has so much more to offer artistically than what is at the forefront right now. This city is full of incredible DJs and musicians, artists and poets, and really special and unique community projects and developments. So, if anything, we hope that holding these salons every month will raise awareness about the Atlanta that we all know and love and will give people a venue to showcase their talents and their positive contributions to society.
MK: What is the community you are trying to reach?
LiFT [Miriam Denard]: Our main demographic is young professionals. That’s who we are. We are all in our late 20s early 30s (actually I’m the only one in my 30s) and we want to give our friends and colleagues something interesting and different and fun to do. We also have a lot of friends or people in our network that are insanely talented, so we are also trying to reach out to them and give them a stage to share their talents. We believe that our generation, these educated, talented, engaged young adults who are seeing what’s going on in the world and wanting to do something about it, or are super passionate and talented at something and want to make a career out of it, need a catalyst. To us, the catalyst is getting all of this energy into one room and then just watching what happens. Hopefully the outcome will be something very important.
MK: What are the issues LiFT is trying/hoping to tackle? Your January salon #ferguson2ATL addressed the important issues concerning race and police brutality. In February it was #ATLsoulfoodie which addressed food, food access, and other related topics. Can you talk a bit about the politics of LiFT?
LiFT [Clint Fluker]: As an organization, we are concerned with helping to shape an Atlanta that is not only welcoming to artists but also encourages an exchange of ideas between artists and other professionals in different fields. It is important to remember that art fosters creativity and enables individuals from all walks of life to recognize the connections between us all that often lay hidden amidst society’s political structures. This is why we use a salon model. It enables us to provide a platform where people can relax in a creative space, participate in conversation about an intriguing subject matter, and hopefully meet somebody new in the process. The objective here is to foster a community of engagement where people gather to understand issues like police brutality and food access from an intellectual AND artistic point of view. So, in that sense, LiFT is a nonpolitical entity in that we shy away from making any explicitly political statements. Rather, our aim is to inform and inspire the people who attend LiFT events to continue conversations started at our salon and create their own mechanisms for change throughout the great city of Atlanta.
MK: Can you talk a bit more about the category of “young professionals”? Does this include the artists that show their work? Or does this describe the audience?
LiFT [Clint Fluker]: The category of young professional is a necessarily broad one for LiFT. We consider anyone with a youthful spirit and a desire to create something new in the city a young professional. Often, when we think of “young professionals,” we picture a 25 year old in a suit eagerly putting together PowerPoint presentations and attending mixers for networking purposes (we still do this ourselves…daily). These people are indeed young and professional, but it’s a very limiting view of the category. Activists, artists, students, and entrepreneurs are also part of this category, and we want to make sure that we attract as many different kinds of “young professional” people that we can. In a way, our salon format is designed specifically to break out of the “mixer” routine and attract young people to have conversations with each other for purposes other than professional networking.
Though the majority of people who attend our events are like us, between the ages of 20 to 40, we are just as interested in providing space for a graduating senior moving into the job market as we are for a retiree who has recently found the passion for painting. Our aim is to engage and encourage individuals who are taking steps in new and varied directions. Indeed our audience skews young, but our goal is to provide a family-friendly environment and we have found that families often bring their children to our events. Some of the most fruitful conversations at LiFT have been initiated by children still in grade school. Many of the most eye-opening questions during our salon have been posed by our more mature attendees.
MK: The first LiFT salons were held at the Atlanta Baha’i Center on Edgewood, right in the middle of a wild nightlife scene. What prompted the decision to hold them there? What is the relationship between the Center and the surrounding area?
LiFT [Nasim Mahboubi Fluker]: The Atlanta Baha’i Center is actually one of the older buildings in the Edgewood Corridor. It was built in the 1940’s by an African American Baha’i Architect and his son because during that time in Atlanta’s history, it was very dangerous for the interracial Baha’i community to meet in homes. As a result of numerous threats from white supremacist groups, the Center was built in the bustling African American business district. It was this rich history of creating inclusive spaces for progressive thought and building diverse communities that attracted us to the Baha’i Center.
On a more personal note, I am a member of the Baha’i Community, and my parents actually met in the Center in 1978. I personally think that faith-based communities have a role to play in contributing to positive community growth.
That said, as an organization, LiFT is a mobile entity. Our March LiFT, #CreATL was held at the Decatur ArtHouse, a great organization with an open floor plan that really allowed us to spread our wings in a new section of the city. We are grateful that they too have opened up their space to us as we try to bring the LiFT experience to new areas. We are very interested in partnering with different organizations around the city to get the word out about how important it is for young professionals, artists, and activists to work together on the issues facing our city.
MK: LiFT has only had a handful of salons so far, but you’ve been able to draw 150+ people to each event. Why do you think this is? What, if anything, have you homed in on that wasn’t already going on in Atlanta?
LiFT: I think Atlantans (especially 20-30-somethings) are thirsty for the type of space we have been able to create: a space that is inviting, creative, and at times challenging. We have found that by finding connectivity between the arts and social issues, we have been able to appeal to a wider audience than if we were just focusing on one or the other. We really wanted to create opportunities for young professionals and artists to dialogue because we found that these two communities were way too segregated. We just felt like in order to begin tackling some of the most pressing social issues in the city, we really needed to foster the nexus between creative energy and institutional knowledge. We are still trying to nurture more dialogue at our events – and our real objectives for LiFT are to inspire more people to take action and exercise agency in creating the Atlanta they want to live in. This sentiment [was] the impetus for our March Salon #CreATL.
MK: What plans do you have coming up? What else is on the horizon for you all? Also, what’s behind the decision to title each salon with the #?
LiFT [Nasim Mahboubi Fluker]: We currently have a few exciting partnerships in the works. We will be partnering with the Hammonds House Museum for a quarterly series starting this summer called #GetLiFTed. We are thrilled to be able to collaborate with such an important cultural institution in Atlanta. This partnership will also allow for our artists to have an opportunity to display their work as part of our #GetLiFTed campaign for longer periods of time. Currently, as a pop-up, the art goes up and comes down in an evening. Now, [with the partnership with Hammonds House], artists may be able to show their work for as long as a month in an actual exhibition space. We are experimenting with our event format so look out for brunches, garden parties, and even more intimate salon-style dialogue sessions popping up around the city. For those interested in donating to this campaign, they should visit our Power2Give site!
The hashtags are just fun – they help us stay clear about the monthly theme and help folks tag us on social media.
MK: I’m also wondering if you would add some sort of statement about LiFT’s engagement with race and particularly where you see it within the conversation surrounding/about African-American art and Black art or Black aesthetics. Clint, I remember you mentioning that you didn’t want LiFT to be recognized as being only a Black organization. What are your thoughts on LiFT’s position within the ecology of art and race in Atlanta?
LiFT: We explicitly, though not exclusively, highlight young black artists, activists, and entrepreneurs. A large part of the contingent that comes to our events might identify as black (we don’t know all of them personally), and we are happy for it. We market to them on purpose. We feel that this is a community that wants and needs to be engaged, especially considering Atlanta has a sizable black population and an incredibly rich history as it relates to civil and human rights issues, the development of black-owned businesses, and the forging of the country’s leading HBCUs [Historic Black Colleges and Universities]. However, we are not looking to carve out a place in the larger abstract notion of “blackness” or “black aesthetics.” There are people and organizations dedicated to that cause, but that is not our mission. We wish to engage people in concerns that go beyond just race, but also extend to varying socio-economic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender perspectives, and spiritual practices.
Which leads me to another point, we have attendees and have featured individuals from different backgrounds. Our planning team includes members from different backgrounds. Everyone is welcome to attend LiFT events and participate to the degree they wish to be involved. Thats what LiFT is really all about, its a welcoming place where people can gather and exchange ideas. When it comes down to it, we are really just giving the people what they want, and what we want. Its a ball! But, I don’t have to tell you that, Meredith, you have been to LiFT. Keep spreadin’ the word!
February: #ATLSoulFoodie with visual artists Gerald Lovell and Jurell Cayetano, DJ Jeremy Avalon (Werc Crew), food artists Jamila Crawford (Earth Candy) and Will Edmond (Werc Crew), and special guest Atlanta Mobile Market.
If someone slips on a banana peel in a forest and no one sees it, does anyone laugh?
The current exhibition at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center walks us dangerously close to the banana peel. We are the sucker about to unwittingly step onto the banana peel, and the audience waits with bated breath for us to make that final descent into unavoidable disaster.
Pratfall Tramps is a sprawling group show, filling the galleries and spilling over into the accompanying Gilda Radner Research & Translation Center. Entering the galleries, the curtain is lifted, setting the stage and revealing the impetus that gathers the seemingly disparate works together.
Jamie Isenstein’s Inside Outside Backstage Vase welcomes visitors to the space. From a distance the vase fills with vibrant, fresh flowers, but something is off. Some of the flowers wilt, revealing the perfect false blossoms and crumbling real flowers. A comically large, teetering stack of pancakes obscures Sara Greenberger Rafferty’s Performance Document: Self Portrait With Pancakes.
Isenstein’s Sand Lamp is funny as theatre of the absurd is funny. The joy and lighthearted moments of our lives, sheathed in the mundane, ready-made lamp shade burst from the sand that seems to entrap us, yet we cannot realize our electric cord still snakes to find sustenance.
Mary Reid Kelley’s Sadie The Saddest Sadist builds from the same tradition. The audio fills the space, looping just often enough to unobtrusively juxtapose its songs, chants, snippets of speech with other works. The mounting layers resist translation, but they create a new way of viewing the works, a shifting, performative veneer over the entire gallery.
As the best comedy does, the works reveal larger issues at work in the world. Greenberger Rafferty’s Testing I (Whisk), Testing II (Baster), Testing III (Spoon), Testing IV (Shotgun Whisk), and Testing V (Scoop) anchor the exhibition, upending the tools of performance and standup comedy. It elevates Martha Rossler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen to the stage, making explicit Rossler’s performativity and revealing a silence doubly loud for the lack of amplification and absent performers.
Tammy Rae Carland’s series of acrylic ladders Pratfall Effect lead nowhere. The glass ceiling is not a fixed height. It is everywhere and nowhere.
If someone slips on a banana peel as daylight savings time begins, how long does it take for them to hit the ground?
Just as the individual works in Pratfall Tramps seem slightly off, the exhibition as a whole does not sit quite right within the gallery. This shifting in the exhibition, however, opens the curtain to an empty stage. We have already stepped on the banana peel, and the embarrassing, laughter-inducing fall is inevitable. We are continually reminded that the exhibition is funny or deals with comedy – the bananas, the artist bios, the accompanying quotes, the title of the show itself.
The curator, Rachel Reese, writes, “Pratfalls—bodily or object-based—are funny because they are a paradox. While suggesting lack of control, there is indeed complete and conscious control at play: in comedy, the performer can rewire failure as success.” Similarly, the quote from David Robbins’s On Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy included on the title wall reads, in part, “Consider the fool. The fool is supposed to fail, that’s part of the fool’s function—his ‘project.’ And because it is to some degree his project, the fool in fact cannot fail.”
These statements foreclose our ability to interpret the work critically. The show prevents viewers from experiencing the humor in the work by insisting it is funny, that it is successful when it appears to fail. Even if we see the artworks or the artists’ “projects” as failing, seemingly out of place, or unsuccessful, we are told that is precisely when they work the best.
The insistence on comedy and the comedic connections underpinning the artists’ work disrupts the exhibition, jars us out of the moments the works immerse us within, lands us on our backs as everyone laughs. We do not need to be reminded how funny it is. The assertions and repetitions undercut the fact that it is a strong show that coheres on its own.
If I tell you someone slips on a banana peel, is it still funny?