The 1996 Olympics was a tricky time for Atlanta. The city was forced to rapidly figure out how to accommodate a tremendous influx of people, and facilitate a wide range of new activities. The planning process required a complete reconsideration of how the city functioned: New buildings were erected while others were torn down, issues of traffic flow and parking needed to be addressed. Suddenly, the overall functionality of our urban space was on the table, as was Atlanta’s branding; the city not only needed to work, it needed to reflect the image of the cosmopolitan place we wanted the world to see as distinctly us.
Former Atlanta resident Jenene Nagy recalls and reopens these issues in her solo exhibition Phenomena, currently on view at Get This! Gallery [April 26-June 8, 2013]. The works utilize Atlanta city maps, both before and after the 1996 Olympics, as the framework for her graphite abstractions.
Nagy’s work draws out and celebrates the potential of both her chosen medium (graphite) and her awareness of audience. She maximizes the capabilities of both—the former’s simple, reflective, and responsive qualities allow for perfect case studies into an amorphous perception of space, and the audience’s ability to introduce variables for testing reinforce her medium. Where a viewer stands, the direction, speed, and frequency of their movements, how they focus their eyes—every component of the spectator’s presence becomes their method of engagement, activating the pieces in unique, dynamic ways.
In Phenomena, the graphite doesn’t merely serve as a tool for rendering the subject, but rather—by its inherent properties and the specific method of how Nagy lays pencil to paper—it becomes unto itself the subject for examining matters of space, light, and movement. Nagy isn’t drawing pictures of spaces; she’s using drawings to create them.
This isn’t Nagy’s first time assigning double duty to her media as both material and content. In the past, her work has used drywall and 2X4s for their perfunctory, real world connotations. Phenomena continues Nagy’s tradition of creating gracefully balanced art that’s conceptually subtle without being obtuse; nothing is random. Every choice holds meaning, but the execution is successful enough to not be desperately obvious. Nagy’s work doesn’t immediately announce what it’s trying to communicate, but for any diligent viewer, it unmistakably gets you there. To jump right to the point would be to tragically skip over the lovely slow burn of experiencing these pieces and having their complexities unfurl to us organically.
Flat, geometric spans of haunting and luminescent gray give way, upon closer inspection, to packed hash marks—tightly orderly and collectively comprising the larger shapes. The drawings are visible relics of the process of their creation. You can spend almost as long tracing every moment of Nagy’s time with them as she spent in their creation.
As a whole, the show serves as a testament to an intense period of interaction and discovery between artist and medium. The tedium and energy told in that story carries over into the gallery experience. The almost surprising realization that such a blocky overall effect was wrought through such painstakingly detailed work introduces a fun new layer of urgency to viewing the pieces.
The result presents a challenge to the audience: How careful can you be in your interaction with this show? How slowly can you move your body through the space? How effectively can you let your eyes become the “on” switch that activates work that otherwise sits dormant in the absence of moving eyes? Patience and persistence in observation are richly rewarded. The coupling of the frenetically energy infused into the pieces and the slowness of engagement required to take them for all they’re worth makes for a seductively tense viewing experience.
Like studying the behavior and composition of atoms in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the universe, the environment Nagy creates with Phenomena invites viewers to experiment with how space changes and operates from different perspectives, while the understated presence of the maps carries the conversation from the micro to the macro. And it’s appropriate to see this visual discussion happen in Atlanta, which is very much still evolving and finding its footing for conscientious use of space. This show feels like a much-needed beckoning to basics; a reinforcement of spatial fundamentals gifted to a growing, changing city.
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