The last exhibition of the year at any institution typically takes one of two forms: either a serious going-out-with-a-bang curatorial gesture or, taking a nod from the particularly festive winter season, something lighthearted and convivial. More Mergers and Acquisitions, currently on view at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, is certainly intended to be the former: The show contains a few big names and several works that honestly shouldn’t be missed. Still, we have some doubts. Does it truly succeed as a serious statement about contemporary art? Further, is it a worthy sequel to last year’s grand finale, the original Mergers and Acquisitions?
Below you’ll find two separate reviews by Charles A. Westfall and Jeremy Abernathy. After several conversations since the opening, our viewpoints were created in collaboration while still maintaining our individual tastes.
Charles A. Westfall:
The problem with More Mergers and Acquisitions is that it comes dangerously close to being just another group show. The names are bigger, including artists like William Wegman, Joel Peter-Witkin, and Sam Gilliam, but the feeling is more like a juried exhibition than a focused curatorial effort. The problem isn’t the individual works, many of which are really worth seeing, but their collective inability to provide a convincing or compelling logic.
Symptomatic of this lack is the division of the show into four thematic groups: two installed in the main gallery and one in each of the two adjacent galleries. In one titled “Un-Natural,” for example, all the works share a floral motif. The themes make sense but fail to inform the work in anything more than a perfunctory fashion. The resulting schisms feel unnecessary and overly simplistic. At the end of the day it’s still every artwork for itself.
But before I get too carried away, let’s suppose, giving the benefit of the doubt, that More Mergers and Acquisitions was intended as an opportunity to cut loose, experiment, and try things out: a playful respite from the weightier demands of the remainder of the year. There is some evidence to support this.
For example, one of the more charming aspects of the show is the inclusion of a few inconspicuous photographs selected by artist Brad Tucker from curator Stuart Horodner’s personal collection and placed unassumingly throughout the galleries. The pictures are like little clues to the exhibition’s secret meaning. I originally thought they must have been the work of some interventionist artist who stuck them onto the walls when no one was looking.
Similarly, there is something perfectly, exquisitely juvenile about Joe Gibbons’ video, Punching Flowers. His body language combines flawlessly with the shaky camera work to exude a kind of infantile ecstasy. His antics are reminiscent of the most naive kinds of vandalism perpetrated by the angsty 12-year-olds in your neighborhood. Watching it makes you a little anxious for the same reason; there’s a sense of foreboding as you remember how quickly that kind of thing can evolve into something meaner, more serious, and more violent.
Ron Gorchov’s strange blue painting Shark is another work that catches you off guard. It has a very odd shape, like a convex oval with the top and bottom edges curving away from the wall and out several inches into space. Easily overlooked at the outset, overpowered by louder statements like Sam Gilliam’s Atlanta 2003 which hangs on an adjoining wall, the piece sort of sidles up to you over the course of the evening; every time you look around you notice it a little more, and it seems to look a little better than it did the last time. Before you realize it, you’re under its spell.
For a commercial gallery, a winter group show is a smart way to display a wide variety of art when you know people are out looking for that perfect artsy Christmas gift. But the Contemporary is an institution that’s insulated from those kinds of economic necessities. More Mergers and Acquisitions feels like a missed opportunity to make a statement at a time of year when statements are in short supply.
Whenever I read it out loud, the list of names, dates, and materials included in More Mergers and Acquisitions strikes me as doubtful, haphazard, even schizophrenic, while at same time mischievously ambitious, daring, and innovative. Grouped under the theme of “Familiar Faces,” a mixed-media work by Austrian painter Arnulf Rainer hangs in the same room as a painting of Osama Bin Laden by local artist Heidi Aishman and a nightmarish “portrait” of actress Farrah Fawcett by Curtis Mitchell. Like the rest of the show, the dates attributed to these works generally range from 1970 to the present day, while the media represented include paint, photography, a delightfully ridiculous video by William Wegman, and even lipstick, mascara, and other household cosmetics. The display strategy parallels the artistry of the disc jockey, where an assortment of sounds, styles, regions, and time periods are selected and reassembled into a new artistic whole (an aesthetic described glowingly by Nicolas Bourriaud in his book Postproduction). This is the logic that made the first Mergers and Acquisitions such a rewarding challenge, but it’s also where the current show falls short.
Each work was acquired from local artist studios, private collectors both near and far, and galleries and museums throughout the country. Some appear just as they would in their home environments; Joel Peter-Witkin’s enchantingly sinister photograph, Woman Masturbating on the Moon, retains the lavish framing and silk matting that were originally chosen by its owner, veteran art dealer Fay Gold. Others take more specific advantage of the space at the Contemporary. Brad Tucker’s Frame for a Face interprets the idea of framing in a wholly different light: Viewers who walk through the sculpture pass between two rows of latticed fencing. But—if you view the work from a distance—an optical illusion creates a 2D rectangle that “frames” the bodies of anyone standing within the fence. Similarly, the collaboration by Jiha Moon and Rachel Hayes (created specifically for the current show) descends from the skylight. The work comprises three oversized ribbons of stitched-together landscape paintings and abstract rectangles of fabric, tracing multicolored curves that connect the ceiling, floor, and the “window” carved into the wall by architects Bell and Yocum—a holdover from last year’s version of the show.
The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center earns points for a well-intentioned sampler of important trends over the last 30 years. Otherwise, something here feels static. The spatial organization tends to privilege a single work at the expense of others nearby. And nothing quite matches the playful asymmetry of the first Mergers and Acquisitions, where interventions like Bell and Yocum’s showed that Atlanta is capable of more artistic bravado, brutality, and beauty than what’s often considered par. While networking with collectors and sister arts organizations is certainly important (especially in a town so lacking in healthy inter- and intra-city communication), the Contemporary’s latest exhibit implies that it’s stronger at building coalitions than at developing exciting programming.