If it was curated and installed in a radically different fashion WAVES: New Paintings by Peter Polites at the Millenium Gate Museum could be conceptual and surreal in a really good way. Imagine an entire gallery full of nothing but tightly painted images of waves. But alas, this show is outrageously straight forward and traditional. And when you add the greater context of the venue—the “museum galleries” below the Millennium Gate—the whole experience turns into unconscious kitsch. In fact, that alone is a good reason to go see it. This show perfectly illuminates two of Atlanta’s clashing art cultures: the style of international contemporary art and what many locals prefer as classical taste.
A wave is a powerful archetypal symbol; presented as an image in multiples, it has the potential for vast poetic punch. With these waves, the artist might easily reference recent political movements currently rippling out into the world. Indeed, these are stormy times: Between the Occupy Wall Street movement and climate change’s rising ocean levels, to reference two easy examples, the artist could certainly extend the metaphor that a variety of socioeconomic and environmental waves have hit the American shore. (The fact that the galleries are below street level only adds to a sense of impending floods.) Alternatively, this same symbolism might take an entirely left turn to comment on new age spiritual aesthetics, replete with breezy soundtrack and meditation pillows. Unfortunately, no one at the Millenium Gate has made use of this auspicious alignment of metaphor, image, and political climate. Oh well.
Instead the artist keeps it strictly apolitical, emphasizing in big vinyl letters that this is a show about “emotions and personal events.” And so we meet an organization and an artist wholly uninterested in engaging with contemporary art practices. A professional architect, Peter Polites has made very sincere oil paintings about his love of the state’s landscape. He believes that the “environment has profound effects on behavior and well-being.” In and of themselves some of the paintings are a total pleasure to experience in person. The digital representations do not do them justice, as one must really stand in front of pictures like Rembrandt’s Wave to appreciate how the light filters magically through the water.
The moody ocean scenes are indeed emotionally potent, almost to the point of being cliché. But they are also kind of terrific that way, and sized just right. I can’t decide if I like the elaborate golden frames or not; they make me think of Paul Thek’s classic gold frames with picture lights attached to the top. In the gallery called the“19th Century,” Lemon Lime Morning, Summer Morning Moment, and Morning Burst are ecstatic in color, atmosphere, and expression of light. I especially like the two transcendental paintings that depict a single wave. (As I said before, a whole room of these would be just tremendous!) Less successful is the blue-skied and cheery Clear Horizon. Also in the back gallery, positioned next to a large bust of George Washington in a central grotto, are painted scenes from Tybee island. Here, Polites unfortunately veers away from a literal repetition of waves and spreads out into the watery grasslands. Although I rather like Dock’s Edge, a very romantic painting of the sun-drenched Georgia marsh, I would have preferred the artist stuck to waves.
Overall the works are reminiscent of nineteenth-century painters like luminist Martin Johnson Heade whose neon-sunset palette expressed an intoxication with nature. (Heade’s paintings can be seen locally in the High Museum’s permanent collection). From the 1850s on, Heade increasingly documented tropical paradises like Florida and Brazil. He painted more than 40 images of hummingbirds and countless exuberant flowers. I find his paintings, as well as those by his good friend Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church, to be truly psychedelic for the nineteenth century. Is Polites headed this way too?
Perhaps in reaction to the impending loss caused by the industrial revolution and America’s incredible natural environment, the nineteenth century saw hundreds of painters go directly into the sometimes wild and dangerous countryside to document what cultured city folk could not readily experience in person. (There was no color photography). Deemed less valuable and refined in comparison to European paintings of the time, the raw landscape became a subject that American artists were largely moved to represent. As time passes the sheer volume and romanticism of this nineteenth-century American generation becomes increasingly significant as an art movement. I keep waiting for a new movement of contemporary artists that refuse to paint landscapes from photographs and take directly to the woods en mass, making images the old fashioned way—with the body and the mind. Perhaps Polites, even though he paints from photographs, is the tip of the melting iceberg in ecologically fragile times.
George Washington, by the way, is included in the Millennium Gate Museum because he “toured Georgia on several occasions and was particularly fond of Savannah.” His inclusion reveals an aspect of the museum itself, which is devoted to a strangely edited version of Georgia History. Affectionately coined “The Gate,” Atlanta’s own bizarre piece of retrotecture stands like a giant mushroom in the middle of disneyesque Atlantic Station. Included in the space below the gate are snippets of American Indian History, King George, Maynard Jackson, and a full Girl Scout uniform worn by a famous Georgia scout mounted with paraphernalia in a vitrine near the entrance. A certain promotion of aristocratically-tinged Georgia geography and architecture sets the tone. This is what you walk though on your way to the WAVES exhibition. Rodney Mims Cook, the architect, president of the National Monuments Foundation headquartered at the Millennium Gate, and personal friend of Polites, presents an almost perversely idealized history, largely white and well-to-do. Cook proudly states that the museum is “designed to feel as if you are in Georgia’s living room,” with the double parlor of plantation times, crammed with ornate molding, chandeliers, and columns. Indeed, this is a perfect setting for traditional landscape paintings.
Perhaps I am not the right person to review this show, as my inclination is to prefer contemporary art aesthetics even, when referring to history. Somehow, I just can’t see past the missed opportunity to make a conceptual piece out of Polites work, especially given the context. Many contemporary artists delve into America’s past (Allison Smith and Sharon Hayes, for example), in fresh and even humorous ways. But WAVES is void of winks or cutting analysis. Utterly without sarcasm, it emulates, replicates, and unabashedly loves idealized classicism, and as such, intends to be taken quite seriously.
The exhibition remains on view through November 5, 2011 at the Millennium Gate Museum in Midtown Atlanta, 395 17th Street in Atlantic Station. Extended hours for WAVES are Tuesday through Friday from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm and Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm; closed Sunday and Monday. Museum admission is $10 with discounts for seniors, students, and children.