John Otte’s Zen Dixie, a Playful Bridge Between Atlanta and New Orleans

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Zen Dixie neon sign by Karen Tauches (installation detail). Courtesy the curator.

After walking through the Driver Phillips Studio to see Zen Dixie and talking with John Otte, the curator, I gained a sense of what he was trying to emphasize in the art world: play and wonder. The exhibition offers a collection of talented and mesmerizing works without the pretentiousness that often surrounds visual art, giving artists and art lovers alike the chance to have a little bit of fun.

Re:Focus a photo exhibition on view at Swan Coach House in Atlanta through October 27

(For another perspective on John Otte’s curating, click here to see our video filmed in New Orleans last year during the Prospect.2 biennial.)

Zen Dixie installation view including both video and physical artwork. Photo courtesy the curator.
Zen Dixie installation view. Photo courtesy the curator.
Zen Dixie installation view. Photo courtesy the curator.

Coming back to Atlanta after living in New York, Otte returned to the scene as a DJ. His penchant for good music transcend to art as he mixes old and new in a multitude of styles and mediums.

“I was excited about Atlanta; there was an influx of new people between 1992 and 1996 that created a really magical period here,” Otte said during an interview at the Driver Phillips Studio. “There was a lot of homegrown stuff in Little Five Points and Cabbage Town. I was DJing on Sunday nights doing Psycho Disco, which was this mélange of music from jazz to Latin to funk to hip hop.”

When the Olympics came to the city, however, Otte watched as the personality of Atlanta moved out in tandem with the construction: everything flattened. Otte eventually left for New Orleans as well, but not without the persistent urge to return to his hometown frequently. While much of Atlanta’s cultural makeup was dismantled, with its reconfiguration came the opportunity for rebirth and innovation.

Kelly Taylor Mitchell: Kin, Spirit, Seed on view at Westobou Gallery, Augusta

“Out of these destructions, these tragedies, these upheavals, come creative things,” Otte explains.  “I saw what happened to New Orleans with Katrina in 2005, and that was a heavy price to pay, but out of that has come a real burst of energy from the art world.”

Nina Schwanse, Civil Realness: Grant vs Lee, video still.

While New Orleans’s creative renewal is in large part in reaction to the destruction left by Katrina, Otte recognizes the same potential in Atlanta, and explores it in his current exhibition. Zen Dixie at the Driver Phillips Studio, a Cabbage Town home, has a healthy mix of past and present that is mirrored by the works now on display inside.

“We saw the space’s crumbling plaster walls as an opportunity, not something to cover up,” Otte said. “Rather than try to plaster them over and try and hide it, we tried to emphasize what was here, while creating something new: remixing and re-patterning.”

Within the gallery space is a mixture of video projections from New Orleans-based artists, found objects, borrowings from private collections, as well as works by Atlanta’s own talent base. Whether it is the lack of white walls—or the neon-infused, make-up-heavy video that asks, “Why are there no Ivy League colleges in the South? Is it because you Southerners are so blooming ignorant?”—Otte’s spirit for embracing creativity and throwing out the rules is quite palpable.

“I just wish that people would become more playful and introduce contemporary art next to something really old, or even a replica and just play with its fakeness—just deal with it and have fun with it,” said Otte. “I see people in New Orleans having a lot of fun with their collections already, but I don’t see them embracing contemporary art the way I would like. I think part of it is that they don’t see value in it, and I think, if they saw it next to one of their pieces that they know is valuable, they might see it differently.”

With the continued migration south of many artists and the rise of a new generation of creatives, Otte sees this time as an open door for New Orleans and Atlanta to make their mark. It’s a moment when all can take advantage of the New Orleans city campaign: “New Orleans: You Are Different Here.”

“I think with both [New Orleans and Atlanta], one of their primary strengths right now is that they are far enough away from the art capitals that they can make their own rules,” Otte said. “I see people wanting to follow the rules of New York, Los Angeles, and London, and I think, ‘No, you don’t have to do it that way, because if you do it your own way and make it up as you go, then that will give you your identity.’”

Otte sees the possibilities of what is to come if the current trend of change continues in the two cities he adores. By establishing themselves as artful cities, they can play as a go-between to other more recognized art capitals, bringing further recognition to art that is produced here and collectors who would have remained with their New York staples.

Otte’s current exhibition, Zen Dixie, closes July 15, 2012, at the Driver Phillips Studio, 323 Berean Ave. SE. On Saturday and Sunday it will be open from 11AM-5PM.

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