When “Art Against the Wall: An Artist Response to Civil Wars” was first announced by Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs as an exhibition that would commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta, it was described as a multimedia art experience that “looks not only at the U.S. Civil War but wars from a global and personal perspective, as well as their destructive and constructive consequences.” The highly ambitious nature of such an endeavor would be a challenge to any curator, but artist Radcliffe Bailey chose to take a stripped-down, highly personal approach to “Art Against the Wall,” which is notable for its strengths and weaknesses.
Arranged in ways that are intended to create an organic interconnectivity and conversation between historic artifacts and contemporary work, the success of the show often depends on what viewers can bring to it in terms of their own knowledge of history as well as some skill in decoding the curator’s reasons for his selections. Sometimes the work, which occupies both spaces of the 3,000-square-foot Gallery 72, resonates powerfully, as with the simple, eloquent display of a Buffalo Soldier’s hat from 1907 or an evocative collection of Stephen Shames photographs that depict the pride, defiance, and demise of the Black Panther movement in seven succinct images. For me, the latter captures the true essence of the exhibition’s theme, for what are Shames’s images but a record of an unofficial civil war of 20th-century America, a time when the mainstream media, law enforcement, and the FBI, with the government’s support, demonized and crushed the Black Panther movement. The most telling photo in the lot is a smashed, partially mutilated framed poster of Huey Newton. At first glance it appears to be a found object that an artist has treated with a stylistic overlay of broken glass and bullet holes … instead of the real thing.
But there is also work that creates a disconnect from this thematic approach because no frame of reference is provided other than a brief caption. For example, how does the raggedy top hat made of beaver fur, from Bailey’s own collection, relate to the big picture? Is it supposed to hold some symbolic significance that connects it to the black hat worn by South African artist Mohau Modisakeng in Inzilo, his hypnotic video performance piece?
The beaver fur top hat along with other objects in the same gallery are part of a configuration, with Modisakeng’s single-channel video installation as the focal point; it occupies an entire wall and sets the appropriate tone for the room. A ritual of mourning shot in slow motion, the artist goes through a series of movements—releasing ashes from his hands, removing pieces of charred debris that cover the lower part of his body. This sense of loss is reinforced, at first glance, by other artifacts and works in the room that seem to serve as a metaphorical shrine to the lives and civilizations destroyed by civil wars. But trying to glean a deeper meaning from the presentation is problematic when faced with a description that reads “Anonymous. Untitled, ND. Courtesy of the Jack Shainman Gallery” and the object in question is a carved human figure lying on its side in a state of repose. Is he sleeping or a genocide victim? What is the date and origin of the work? Without any additional information about the figurine, its true significance remains elusive and its inclusion in this meditation works on only the most generic level.
In his exhibition notes, Bailey states that his curation of “Art Against the Wall” is “not about me as an artist, but rather my movement within a time, with a people, the inspiration, the feeling. It is to be short, poetic and without explanation.” Bailey clearly wants the viewer to focus on the objects and form their own connections and meanings, but wouldn’t the on-site experience be even richer or more rewarding with some brief but informed annotation about each work?
Despite this complaint, most of the artifacts and art on display can be enjoyed and appreciated regardless of whether or not they fit comfortably into an organic grand design. The contemporary work is particularly compelling and includes E.K. Huckaby’s painting Tale of the Fallen with its Southern Gothic ambience of decay and death, Donald Locke’s Southern Mansions II, an acrylic with collage elements (photos, metal pieces) on plywood, and the elaborate wood and enamel creation of Ghanaian artist PAA Joe, who is considered the pioneer of fantasy coffin creations. His large sculpture is constructed in the shape of a walled fortress with interior buildings; the rooftop of one structure is lifted up to reveal a padded coffin beneath the open lid. Joe’s figurative coffins are celebratory in nature and often represent the earthly desires of the deceased as they journey to the afterlife. This particular work, however, does not appear to have been commissioned for a burial. Instead, it stands as a silent memorial to the victims of slavery who passed through the gates of Fort Good Hope–Senya Beraku, the name written above the fortress’s main entrance.
“Art Against the Wall: An Artist Response to Civil Wars” is on view at Gallery 72 through August 22.
Jeff Stafford writes about art, film, music, gardening, and other favorite topics for various digital publications.
If you plan to see “Art Against the Wall,” make sure you have an arrival strategy for Gallery 72, which is only open Monday through Friday from 8am to 6pm. MARTA is the best way to visit; the closest station is Five Points. If you insist on driving, your parking options are limited. You might get lucky and find a metered parking space on the street. If not, you could pay up to $10 at a lot that doesn’t offer hourly rates, only a flat fee. You will still have to navigate your way through extensive roadwork on the downtown streets before reaching the gallery and then you must pass through security and sign in at the. It is about as welcoming as going through a security check at an airport but since Gallery 72 is located on the ground floor of a city government building, that is to be expected in this day and age.