Residual Delicacy: Krista Clark in Atlanta

By July 25, 2019
Installation view of Krista Clark: Base Line of Appraisal at the Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia.
All photos by Erin Jane Nelson.

In the sweltering, crackling air of an early summer evening, I drove from the Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia to Atlanta artist Krista Clark’s Westview studio to learn about her ambitious exhibition Base Line of Appraisal, the latest addition to MOCA GA’s Working Artist Project series. Avoiding the deepening red of I-85, Google Maps sent me along a nearly hour-long route that wove down through the manicured lawns of Peachtree Hills, past the rapid development along Howell Mill, and south on Joseph L. Lowery Boulevard alongside Morehouse and Spelman, quieted through the summer, until I crossed I-20 and parked at an off-white church housing artists’ studios in the heart of Westview. Having come from the room-sized installation that looks, at first glance, like a build site in its early stages, the demolition, half-completed construction projects, and newly renovated buildings lining my route were set in sharp relief—development is the principal feature of Atlanta’s urban environment.

Seeds, a juried show. applications open through August 5 at Westobou Gallery, Augusta

The historically Black Westview neighborhood where Clark lives and keeps a studio is full of small arts and crafts-style bungalows. In 2017, when Clark spoke to this magazine about her then-recent move to the neighborhood with her husband, artist Michael Jones, she spoke about purchasing a house in “one of the last neighborhoods to be gentrified” in Atlanta. Just two years later, Clark’s studio now sits down the block from several ostentatious “new builds,” less than a mile away from the BeltLine and trendy watering holes such as Boxcar and Monday Night Garage. Over the course of our hour-long conversation in her studio, I saw an artist at a threshold: Clark is, at once,  contending with her evolving practice, negotiating our complicity in the urban environment, and responding to the site-specifics of Atlanta in the context of a broader nationwide housing crisis.

Clark’s Base Line of Appraisal marks another shift in her steadily evolving practice. Initially trained as printmaker at Atlanta College of Art in the late 90s, Clark’s early work was largely flat, focused on drawing and mark making. Following years moving between Atlanta and New York City through 2000s—picking up an MA from NYU and spending years teaching high school—she eventually returned permanently to Atlanta, earning an MFA from Georgia State in 2016. In recent years, her two-dimensional compositions have started to merge into physical space through layered assemblages and wall-tethered architectural installations. Occupying the large primary gallery at MOCA GA, Base Line of Appraisal is Clark’s first project on such a large scale and the first so thoroughly grounded in sculpture.

Installation view of Krista Clark: Base Line of Appraisal at MOCA GA, Atlanta.

While expansive, the space typically reserved for WAP exhibitions at MOCA GA presents a proportional challenge—one which Clark handles deftly in her installation. The exceptionally tall ceilings of the gallery tend to lure an exhibition’s real estate to the walls, not the floor. But Clark manages to take advantage of the ample wall space and create an immersive environment. At the opening for Appraisal, a friend commented that the installation was the best use of the space she’d seen: the work feels fully traversable, ingrained onsite, and largely in proportion to the high ceilings. While Clark may be relatively new to her sculptural practice, the composition of the installation-based exhibition demonstrates a precise spatial awareness and hints toward sculpture’s performative possibilities.   

Combining large-scale architectural installations and two groupings of drywall-canvas assemblages, Appraisal initially feels like a construction site—familiar at a distance but offering a slightly illicit thrill up-close. Though the wall works are likely the strongest in the show, the sculptural installations are where you can most clearly witness Clark stretching the boundaries of her sensibility. Clustered into four groups, these sculptures are united by several repeating elements, including rectangular concrete foundations presented in their setting frames, tufts of insulation, and the forms of walls and windows emerging from plywood planks. A blue tarp drapes elegantly across one structure and flutters in the subtle breeze provided by a nearby industrial-sized fan. Unmanipulated sheets of drywall lean up against walls, bearing blue lettering declaring them “Mold Resistant.” Viewers may follow a variety of  narrow paths through the space, changing their perception of scale along the way as works composed of layers of leaning windows and yet-to-be-hoisted beams appear to expand upward or retreat to the floor.

Clark makes no attempt to disguise the material—plywood is left unpainted, concrete unvarnished. Where construction material in a commercial or residential setting is often hidden or made inconspicuous, Clark instead draws attention to its ubiquity. In my favorite work in the show, two rectangular foundations are capped by large sheets of plywood. As if some invisible hand (of the developer or city or state) has pressed downward, the application of force has left grayish insulation surging from the seam, ringing each foundation. These modest details—such as the concrete crumbs around several of the foundations leftover from the in situ pouring—bring a kind of residual delicacy to the work’s heavy materiality. 

Installation view of Krista Clark: Base Line of Appraisal at MOCA GA, Atlanta.

Clark’s already busy summer includes the three compositions currently on view in Sandler Hudson Gallery’s group exhibition Recent Drawings. As in many of her earlier drawings, the impetus behind these works appears more observational, finding unique combinations for materials whose use is usually rigidly prescribed by the guidelines of the built environment. In line with these techniques, Base Line of Appraisal includes five compositions on thin sheets of drywall—each part drawing, part assemblage, and part sculpture—installed so that, from a certain distance, they most resemble abstract geometric paintings on canvas. To create these intricate compositions, Clark carefully strips portions of dry wall, revealing thin and chalky arches beneath and leaving trailing curls like peeling paint. In contrast with the artist’s sculptural works, her drywall canvases feel like blueprints or abstracted renderings of their three-dimensional counterparts. In Base Line of Appraisal, Clark translates her two-dimensional compositions into three-dimensional space while maintaining a sensibility that feels both essential to classic Minimalist sculpture and unique to her own practice.

Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez’s Casta Paintings on view at Halsey Institute in Charleston through July16

A viewer’s initial impression of sculpture often arrives as a puzzle of material and construction. Like Clark’s work, Donald Judd’s plywood boxes are materially obvious; there is no mystery as to their “thingness.”  But Judd’s works look nearly miraculously constructed (by studio assistants), revealing no visible hinges, joints, or glue. Considering Judd’s constructions produces a tension that requires a viewer to move around his boxes in pursuit of their secrets—forcing you to engage in the “theatricality” of the work [1].  Material obscuration and construction are not the principal tensions present in Base Line of Appraisals—both are laid bare in an act of exposure, yet Clark still manages to provoke a physical dialogue between body and object. Visible insulation, unset windows, and tangled extension cords provide access to an environment we see daily but to which we are denied entry. Clark grants the viewer access and free movement among sites which—when viewed on the street or in gentrifying neighborhoods—can feel colonizing, intrusive, and, in Atlanta, relentless.

In the middle of our conversation, Clark articulated the sense of heightened awareness I experienced on my trek from the museum to her studio: something about Atlanta’s identity as a driving city, where rapid vehicular travel is a necessity of cross-town movement, brings development and gentrification into a sharper focus. Framed through car or bus or train windows, Atlanta’s changing neighborhoods are always viewed in quick succession, bearing out the stark contrasts between crumpling blocks spotted with newly built houses and high-rise multiuse spaces alongside barbed-wire bound, long-empty warehouses (cavernous and ripe for yet another craft brewery) and the omnipresent BeltLine, all in a single trip across the city.

Installation view of Krista Clark: Base Line of Appraisal at MOCA GA, Atlanta.

Base Line of Appraisal clearly attempts to grapple with the implications of gentrification in Atlanta, but it would be a disservice to confine its concerns to a narrative about rapid development. As with the best work about the built environment, Appraisal considers the weight of architectural forces on the individual, community, and state. Similarly to Julie Mehretu’s grand swooshing marks—which indicate spatial movement, structural form, and the transmission of information—Clark’s decidedly subtler lines suggest the edges and boundaries that affect everyday space.

Rife with references both ancient and complex (arches abound) alongside gestures that are decidedly more modern, the foundations assembled in Base Line of Appraisal suggest the contemporary complexities of rapid development and the long history that precedes it. Wealthy white men have been laying concrete foundations over indigenous lands since the Romans invented the stuff, a history Clark acknowledges. Concomitantly, concrete can also be profoundly, beautifully molded, qualities that are ably demonstrated by Clark in a stack of eight carefully poured, thin concrete slabs. As in a long drive through Atlanta streets, repeated arches, doorways, and windows send the viewer down channels and paths, recalling the empty arcades of paintings Giorgio di Chirico made as he grappled with the changing structure of post-WWI Europe. In some ways, Appraisal constructs a similarly haunted site. 

The Working Artist Project fellowship includes a substantial stipend, and Clark was frank about the experimental opportunities this budget afforded. Her regular Westview studio is relatively small and primarily dedicated to making paper-based works, so she added a temporary secondary studio for this project. Constructed partially on-site and in her secondary studio, the installations’ construction and arrangement are the result of both calculated improvisation and logistical necessity. If there is a weakness in the project, it is in Clark’s hesitancy to manipulate materials further, which occasionally leaves the work feeling slightly superficial, but this clearly just the beginning of a new phase in her practice. In the museum and in my conversation with Clark,  evidence of an artist who is pushing herself beyond established boundaries and renegotiating her chosen themes emerged with thrilling force. Base Line of Appraisal frankly addresses a state of possibility, and Clark is herself perceptive about coming to the edges of fresh awareness, patiently and elegantly scaffolding new ideas and forms.

Krista Clark: Base Line of Appraisal is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia through August 24. Her work is also included in Recent Drawings, on view at Sandler Hudson Gallery in Atlanta through September 14.

[1] Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” 1967.

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