Most of the time we want meaning to be immediately clear to us. Things should not be ambivalent. The glass should be see-through. The two-way mirror makes us uneasy; those on the other side can see us, but we can’t see them – when we look into the glass, we are only given our own image back to us. If we are sighted, when darkness covers the world, we become anxious.
In a sense, objects remain opaque to us even though we can perceive them, know what they are composed of, and how they are produced. The object will always exceed our perception; we can only experience one side at a time. We surround ourselves with things. We feel that they are part of us. We attribute aspects of ourselves and particular sentimental histories to them. Still, they withhold something from us. When the hammer breaks, its usefulness dissolves and the tool becomes an impenetrable object taking up space in our world.
Places can be evasive to us as well. We land in an unfamiliar territory and the world has indeed become different. Even when we inhabit a place, get to know its streets, idiosyncratic landmarks, and affects, at some point, it shows us something of itself that we hadn’t yet noticed. Parts of it remain hidden from us.
The oscillation between the veiled and the disclosed resonates in a particular way within the context of the South. Here in Atlanta, something about the city is so open and accessible but, at the same time, closed off and enigmatic. Same goes for a certain kind of beauty that I’ve experienced amongst many works here. Vibrant colors entice. Beauty can be deceptive. Southern hospitality can be misleading.
Multiple works either currently or recently on view in Atlanta engage in the interplay of opacity and transparency. These works open themselves to the viewer while simultaneously refusing her gaze.
Most of the works in Morgan Alexander‘s solo show remembering, forgetting, and remembering again at Swan Coach House hide themselves behind a translucent veil; panes of etched glass create a barrier between the viewer and the materials underneath. For the works in the series no title – are these the voices of our departed, or is it just the gramophone?, the underlying material is reclaimed wood from out-of-commission beehives. At first I thought the title strange – what did the gramophone have to do with anything? However, at some point, I began to hear a buzzing in my head; maybe the bees had returned from their disappearance.
Alexander mentioned that for honey bees, empty space provokes anxiety. If there are unwanted gaps, the worker bees will fill them with bee glue, or propolis. Using this material, the hive seals itself off from the outside. The traces of propolis found in the works no title – are these the voices of our departed, or is it just the gramophone? signal space denied. Similarly, the sculptural works in the show, where have they gone? where are they going?, are closed off from their environment. Using a Japanese method of wood charring in order to preserve the wood from insects and fire, Alexander’s cypress beehives attempt to stand apart from what lies outside them; these hives want to rest in impermeability. However, no bees live here. Colonies have been vanishing. In a gesture towards insular preservation, these sculptures stand empty.
Alexander’s work that is moving in a new direction, away from the focus on the beehive, opens up space while withholding it. The works in the series no title – tokonoma are influenced by tokonoma, which means room and describes a particular practice in Japanese interior design. In this room, the homeowner displays aesthetic objects, but the tokonoma is not meant to be inhabited by people. no title – tokonoma (constructed drawing in three parts) seems to be these rooms in miniature. no title – tokonoma (constructed drawing in two parts) confronts the viewer with two kinds of voids. One is the darkness that swallows you. The other is almost celestial. This work is reminiscent of a painterly tradition which could include Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings or Robert Ryman’s white paintings, but witnessing these may be more akin to the paintings that live in the Rothko Chapel. Each of these parts invites the viewer into their depths while also pushing her out.
Micah and Whitney Stansell’s show Scarlet Air at Whitespace seduces the viewer into its multi-channel video and sound installation. Spliced between open-ended narrative scenes, displays of various objects resting on a bare mattress fade into vibrant pink, orange, red, purple, and turquoise hues. Rotary phones, VHS tapes from the 90s, a cassette walkman, an ashtray with a still smoking cigarette, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. We are familiar with these objects, though they appear out of place and are taken from our view. The color tones obscure these objects and they recede into a horizon of pure digital color. The void of the blue projector screen takes over.
Some of these objects pictured have become or are on their way to becoming obsolete. Channeling the 1990s, the Stansells present us with the heyday of late capitalism and disposability. The walkman replaced by the iPod, the rotary phone replaced by the cell phone and/or computer with internet access a la Skype/video chats.
Grounding these obscured and obsolete objects are picturesque and pastoral places. Many viewers attempt to identify the places that appear in the Stansells’ works, and I wonder why this is. What is it about these places that drives Atlantan viewers to locate them? The Stansells say that many people say that the places feel like where the grew up. These locations are familiar to people.
However, a few moments of disorientation disturb the narrative. The woman takes a walk with a man in the woods. On one of the soundtracks accompanying the film, their conversation is disrupted by tones. We get a glimpse into their dialogue, but we are denied full access. At another moment, a sharp jump from reality occurs. The protagonist lays back on a wrapped mattress, seemingly irritated by her job at a Value Village. When she hits the mattress, we cut to an aerial view; the mattress rests in a section of broken pavement in a parking lot. The woman looks up.
These are the compelling moments; perhaps what the voiceover soundtrack intends when she states “This is a falling action.” The narrative we’ve constructed in the particular place while watching the film breaks for a moment and we have to regather. The objects recede into the horizon and we are left with nothing to hold onto.
Abelardo Morell‘s newly commissioned work for the High Museum‘s photography series “Picturing the South” simultaneously summons into and rejects the viewer from the image and the imaged landscape. Using mirrors and other framing devices Morell creates a surreal environment. These techniques trick the viewer into thinking she is seeing the thing itself, though, she discovers, she is indeed not. Morell’s focus on the dense landscape of trees, different from many of the expansive shots the Stansells include in their film, disallows the viewer from entering the scene. As opposed to the woods walk in Scarlet Air, the viewer can’t picture herself in this environment. She is denied access. The trees stand apart from her. Layers of trees infiltrate each other – an interplay of inside and outside within the frame.
For each of these projects, the South appears as the aesthetic impetus. The Stansells claim that they couldn’t ignore the southern landscape and narrative; the countryside and the ways in which stories are told have forced the artists to consider them in their film and installation projects. For Alexander, both the cultivation and destruction of the land and traditions of the South beckon for a certain kind of aesthetic. He describes his interest in yugen, an element discussed in Japanese aesthetics meaning obscurity, dimness, mysteriousness. Perhaps in a more superficial connection, Morell was given the task of “picturing the South.” That said, the photographs making up that series vacillate between inside/outside and various layers in peculiarly different ways from the ones represented in the rest of his retrospective, suggesting that there is something about this place that calls for a different method of image-making.
I am still trying to decide what the aesthetically beautiful does for me. I am taken in by it though I usually prefer the raw and transgressive. Something that both repels and compels you. However, there is something to be said about the delicate and enchanting; it has the ability to keep more viewers within its throes. But, what does it mean to be seduced by a work? Instead of shaken by it? Which is more potent? Does it depend on what needs to be said?