Currently on display at the Abernathy Arts Center in Sandy Springs is an exhibition that brings together nine relatively disparate artists under the loose theme announced by its title: PULSE: Artists Respond to Sound, Music, Rhythm, and Movement. While the premise could easily lend itself to multi-sensory installations, all but a single work is two-dimensional or entirely flat. While the Abernathy center generally shows the work of students and teachers involved in its programs, many of the artists in PULSE are locally well-established names including Don Cooper and Danielle Roney. Some of the work is highly enjoyable, but, ultimately, the show as a whole suffers for trying to be conceptually bigger than the Abernathy center is able to allow.
In an email interview, curator Lisa Tuttle, who also serves as the Fulton County Public Art Program education and outreach coordinator, said that she wanted the concept of PULSE to sync with the county’s programming for Dance Week, a performance series that continues through April 30 at multiple Fulton County venues. She added, however, that she didn’t want the connection to be too literal. To this effect, she made sure to include both “figurative and nonfigurative approaches” to the theme — and, in practice, the diversity of work in PULSE is commendable. Tuttle also said that the lack of sculptural work in the show was a decision intended to allow room for performances at Abernathy, where the “space is really very beautiful and well designed, so, hopefully, artists will continue to see Abernathy as a good spot to show.” The fact that PULSE spills into the center’s administrative and classroom space, however, is problematic, and at times detracts from the quality of the art.
For example, it’s not the kind of room that lends itself to video installation, yet the exhibition includes a work titled Wishes by Robin Bernat and Blake Williams. When I first entered the gallery, program director Lauren Bernazza had to wheel over a television on a cart and switch it on before I could watch the film. Wishes consists of a poem by Bernat, “Star-Crossed Lovers,” recited over alternating footage of a lone accordionist and dancing couples: “Like planets in retrograde motion / Moons eclipsed by larger bodies / Stars colliding like stones.” Heavenly bodies are an epic premise, and in the outsized, light-filled space I was sitting in, the film’s hushed tone felt stilted. I don’t necessarily expect that work should be created specifically for an exhibition, but I do expect the venue to consider how a video is going to be presented. In a large, bright room surrounded by multiple dominant canvases, it can be difficult to train your attention on a dark movie with laconic narration.
There are, however, plenty of appealing works in PULSE that succeed on their own merits. An installation by Ray Pierotti, A Chicago Suite of Six Dances, completed in 1990, is a series of six tiny prints in gray scale, reminiscent of newsprint. They are meant to be bound together in a formal-looking box, wrapped up like a present. The jazzy look and retro tone of the pictures, which evoke visualized patterns of choreography, make you think of a fun night out. Yet the presentation at Abernathy is awkward; the artwork feels suffocated and disconnected with its components on several different levels inside a glass case. I want to be very clear that this is neither the fault of the Abernathy center nor a misstep by the artist: It’s simply the downside of unlucky circumstance.
More successful are the exhibition’s large-format paintings, drawings, and photographs. Angus Galloway contributes two large drawings, each several square feet in size. These works effectively convey movement — filling these spaces must have been quite a process. They are incredibly visceral, with cochlear and ventricle-like formations flowing into each other, evoking the rhythm of the human machine. The lines begin thick and lush, quickly tapering off into delicate wisps within the same inch. The control Galloway exercises over his pencils is evident in both the minute details, where organic forms blossom under close inspection, and in the overall composition, which fits together naturally.
I also enjoyed Don Cooper’s paintings of concentric circles, which emanate outward from a central bindu. (Click here to read our review of Cooper’s 2010 solo exhibition at Sandler Hudson Gallery.) Cooper presents ten works at Abernathy, one big canvas and nine smaller watercolors on thick, handmade paper. It’s amazing to see how varied each of the watercolors can be considering that they are all concerned with the same subject matter. In half of these works, for example, colors clash as Cooper sets circles of blue inside of orange, its diametric opposite. Yet the consistency of continuous forms, each with a single point of origin, makes the contrast feel logical.
I don’t ask much from a group exhibition; all I want is to have discovered something worthwhile during my visit. There are a few ways in which this could prove true: Did the show introduce me to the work of an artist that I’m now thankful to know about? Did the curatorial design teach me something about how to approach art? Were any paradigms broken? An art show can effect a narrative or storyline just as well as a novel or film.
The Abernathy Arts Center is not easy to reach from intown Atlanta. Its distance, the construction disrupting the intersection at its location in Sandy Springs, and the lack of a clearly marked parking area and entrance make the venue difficult to find. It’s a hassle to get there, but I’m glad I went. Although PULSE has the necessary components, the execution stumbles due to the limitations of its venue. Yet this community-focused arts center has a big, attractive space inside and a lot of potential to grow. I look forward to seeing if future shows can step up to the challenge.
The exhibition, PULSE, continues at the Abernathy Arts Center through April 29, 2011.