My initial impression of Embodying, currently on view at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (ACAC), came from an enticing look-see through the front windows on a rainy Monday. The galleries were closed, but Dana Schutz’s iconic work, also on display in a separate exhibition (click here to read our interview), whispered seductively from the neighboring room. Stephen Schofield’s free-standing sculptures loomed physically nearby, and in several teasing press releases that displayed the virtuous beauts hanging coolly in an anonymous gallery somewhere. They excited me.
Given the title and scheduled overlap with Schutz, I expected works concerned with the physical, corporeal stuff piled on top of other stuff, organized with cues to engage us in the strange interaction and dialogue that each of us has with bodies, our own and others’. Quality and interpretation of individual artworks aside, the title of Embodying seems like it was chosen after the fact to tie together a show mostly about identity and partially about a formal issue. The show’s statement doesn’t provide much insight into the intentions of individual works and the exhibition as a whole. As it turns out, the show explores representations of the male human chassis, exposes the work of three Artadia grant recipients, and ties together several works that deal with themes of gay identity.
San Francisco-based artist James Gobel, one of the aforementioned grant recipients, brags on the sartorial accouterments of gay men in a series of felt and yarn “paintings.” Gobel cartoonizes his significantly proportioned “bear” characters and poses them in decorative environments that cross-pollinate the oxymoronic combination of kitsch, the vanity of portraiture and self-promotion, and self-deprecation.
Joe Biel’s intricate drawings depict tiny dramas that take place in the expanse of his white pages. A costumed graphite cast teeters on wooden legs, innocently assumes roles where they fail, and exposes private parts in final acts of desperation.
Stephen Schofield’s sugar-hardened dancing bodies recall the work of Folkert de Jong. Schofield’s partner inspired the sculptures’ dimensions, and they pirouette with gravity-defying grace. The physicality of the fabric, along with its verisimilitude, gives the effect of clay or a firmer material, adding to their intriguing incongruity.
Allison Smith’s A Good Haul (Or, an inventory of objects found by Huck and Jim in the house that was floating down the flooded Mississippi River) goes a different direction. As the name implies, the installation is based on an excerpt from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Smith’s reconsideration of the narrative intentionally plays with the ambiguity of purpose of an antique object whose story can be deduced from context but whose history is suppressed. Like a prop stylist for a film, Smith uses the real patina of historic objects to iterate the story in a different medium with different conceptual demands.
Richard T. Walker is also fond of substitutions. Walker uses nature as metaphor, creating narrative situations that “reveal a point of confrontation between innate desire, cultural interpretation, and reality.” In Walker’s videos, heavily accented characters deliver romantic dialogues overlooking presumably romantic nature scenes. Successive Inconceivable Events plays like a screen-saver, panning through a sequence of shots of a desert scene while a narrator describes an absent character whose thoughts are “confused and agitated” because the “landscape is too beautiful.” Then, denoting a turning point in the story, the narrator intones, “He takes a long deep breath as he contemplated the actions that he knew he needed to take.” Suddenly, through a montage of cutaways, characters begin to emerge into various landscapes, each with a single instrument. In comedic fashion and in solitude, they begin playing along to a pleasant dubbed-in, bell-driven melody.
Similarly, in Walker’s video The Hierarchy of Relevance, after some folksy dubbed guitar strumming, a protagonist emerges into an natural vignette overlooking a vista and, with his back to the viewer, recites the contents of an unrequited love monologue, saying things like “I think you’re really beautiful,” “I think you make me feel isolated, alienated,” and “I thought there’d be a bit more warmth.” Strangely, with the pronunciation of “warmth,” the ridiculous yet symbolic nature of the protagonist snaps into place. The character’s heartfelt dialogue becomes inane because he is issuing it into the abyss of the other. No official verbiage or professional jargon can rescue him from repeating this unbecoming act. Walker’s work taps into a motif of figuration that highlights the relationship between how environments and individuals mutually create each other, while relying on difference and misinterpretation in order to function.
The exhibition Embodying continues at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center through March 20, 2011.