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Flashback: Art Rocks Athens

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Art Rosenbaum, McIntosh County Shouters, 1983; oil on linen, 66 by 72 inches.
Art Rosenbaum, McIntosh County Shouters, 1983; oil on linen, 66 by 72 inches.

Trying to get a handle on the multi-tentacled festival known as “Art Rocks Athens 2014,” which launched on May 1 and continues through the fall at various venues, has been a daunting task due to the many organizers involved, each with their own thematic approach to the Athens timeline of 1975-1985.

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On the official “Art Rocks Athens” website, the mission statement is a simple declaration: “This is about Art. And Music. In that Order…” And while I have no problem with that approach as someone who lived there from 1973 to 1983, there are those who will argue that it was the music that came first. But if the B-52s had never performed in New York City in the late ’70s and created a major buzz among rock critics for their appearances at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, would the Athens music scene have ever attracted national attention and become a music mecca?

Cindy Wilson painting-ART ROCKS
Cindy Wilson, Untitled (By The Pool) , 1978; oil on board, 20 by 14 inches. Collection of Michael Lachowski.

The reality is that the vibrant subculture that emerged during that transitional time was an inseparable mix of art and music that grew out of an immersive social scene fueled by parties, the local club scene, and informal gatherings at bars with students and faculty mixing it up. But the scene was already percolating well before 1975, with roots extending all the way back to 1948 when Lamar Dodd was the head of the University of Georgia art department and his friend, Alfred Heber Holbrook, opened the Georgia Museum of Art, the official state museum of art. A popular misconception is that the collection is solely focused on regional art when, in fact, American masterworks by such artists as Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jacob Lawrence, and others are prominently featured in the permanent collection.

So it is only fitting that the museum is prominently represented in the “Art Rocks Athens” celebration with its exhibition “Shapes That Talk to Me: The Athens Scene 1975-1985,” an ideal entry point for anyone who wants to understand the creative forces that helped inspire the Athens music scene of the ’70s.

The show is co-organized by consulting curator Lynn Boland, Michael Lachowski, who handles public relations for the museum, and Betty Alice Fowler, GMOA grants writer. Lachowski (former bass guitarist of the Athens band Pylon) and Fowler were both University of Georgia art students during the ’70s and are unofficial historians of the scene.

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Comprising 10 works, nine of which were culled from the permanent collection, “Shapes” honors artists who were either on staff at the UGA art department in the ’70s or had a tangible connection to it, either as an invited guest (Philip Guston) or an artist-in-residence (Elaine de Kooning).

“So many of us moved to Athens, as I did in the early 1990s, because of what people in this time period did,” said Boland, who sets the tone with a painting that welcomes visitors to the show: James Herbert’s Wild Dogs, a feverish, powerfully rendered riot of color that the artist describes as “figurative expressionism.” Massive in scale with pronounced erotic elements, the painting is representative of Herbert’s work circa 1972, when it began to reflect his growing interest in highly personalized depictions of the nude form and sexually charged configurations.

James Herbert, Wild Dogs, 1972; acrylic on canvas, 80 by 150 inches.
James Herbert, Wild Dogs, 1972; acrylic on canvas, 80 by 150 inches.

Herbert, who is equally well known for his filmmaking and music shorts (the B-52s, REM, Limbo District), is also represented by a piece from the series 13 Galleries (1979-80), a collaboration with Scott Belville that incorporates doll house versions of Herbert’s paintings in a miniature gallery made of painted Masonite.

Often the artists featured in “Shapes” would draw inspiration from each other and even serve occasionally as the subject of each other’s work. Portrait of William D. Paul Jr. (1975) by Alice Neel, for example, is a depiction of the former director of the Georgia Museum of Art (1969-1980), who organized a retrospective of Neel’s work in 1975 when the artist, at the end of her career, was finally being recognized in the art world as an important American painter.  Known for her oil on canvas portraits, Neel’s fascination with facial details, body language, and physical characteristics that were sometimes overtly emphasized (such as the hands in the Paul portrait) often resulted in intriguing psychological profiles of her subjects.

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Alice Neel, Portrait of William D. Paul, Jr., 1975; oil on canvas, 60 by 40¼ inches.

A different and less stylized approach to portraiture is represented by Portrait of Richard Olsen, (1972) an intimate charcoal on wove paper by Robert Croker, which was one of several sketches Croker created during a week spent sharing studio time with his friend and fellow UGA instructor Olsen.

Other works on display include Horoscope Roman III, n.d., a minimalist bronze sculpture by John Kehoe, which is representative of his abstract approach to sculpting stone, marble, or metal. McIntosh County Shouters by Art Rosenbaum, who is also an accomplished musician and noted archivist of field music, pays homage to the musical traditions of a black community on Georgia’s coast in an oil on linen mural. And Latitudes #4 – Home is a cosmic explosion of color and form rendered in acrylic paint and applied plastic by Judith McWillie, a painter, photographer, and author who was among the first female art professors at UGA and is also an avid chronicler of African American art in the Southeast.

The best way to approach “Shapes That Talk to Me” is to think of it as a jewel box sampler of major influences in the development of the Athens art/music scene. Then, exit the museum, walk across the courtyard to the Lamar Dodd School of Art and see what the artists of “Shapes” inspired.

“Between Art and a Rock Place,” curated by Robert Croker, features over 150 artworks and displays an astounding range of styles and subject matter from art students who later joined bands (Cindy Wilson, Vanessa Briscoe Hay, Jeremy Ayers, Curtis Crowe), undergraduates who now enjoy careers as working artists (Rocio Rodriguez, Lamar Wood, Shelly Wischhusen, Neill Slaughter, Karen Stinnett, and so many others), and UGA art faculty, such as Harold Howe, Jerry Chappelle and Barbara Mann. Croker’s inspired retrospective truly captures the go-for-broke creativity and fierce desire for self-expression that defined that period. Was it a renaissance or a revolution? Maybe a little of both.

“Shapes That Talk to Me: The Athens Scene 1975-1985” runs through October 19, 2014 at the Barbara and Sanford Orkin Gallery, Georgia Museum of Art. “Between Rock and an Art Place” runs through July 19, 2014 at University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art.

Jeff Stafford is an Atlanta-based art and lifestyle writer.