Elsewhere is a quiet, underwhelmingly beautiful show, a “sophomore” effort by curator Shinique Smith (herself an artist of some note). Dreamily, Elsewhere pines toward nature and away from urbanism. (Of course, it’s funny that most of the artists in the show choose to live in the largest metropolis in America ….) From its location in densely suburban Atlanta—a spacious town that still has the potential to develop into a truly “green” city—Saltworks Gallery seems to be initiating a trend of shows curated by emerging non-local organizers on the international scene.
Among other accomplishments, Smith’s work was included in the influential UnMonumental: The Object in the 21st Century at the New Museum which infamously confronted the art world with the hubris of materialism (“crumbling symbols and broken icons”)—just before the collapse of the economy last fall. UnMonumental set an authoritative tone with its calculatedly anti-archival, junkyard program. At Saltworks, Elsewhere treads on idealistic territory “adjacent” to UnMonunmental, albeit in a consciously naive sub-genre that is a petite, more traditional, and much less boisterous collection of two-dimensional works.
Elsewhere’s answer to the city woes of overdevelopment, gentrification, and loss of spaciousness is to escape to nicer, pastoral places.* Erika Ranee’s paintings, for example, are chunky gardenscapes of Edenic figures, gold leaf, shellac, and acrylics in purple, brown, green, and the most amazing pink. Sean Ryan’s white canvas drawings of clouds are so subtle they’re almost invisible. And Mickalene Thomas’ wonderfully messy collage landscape is … not for sale. Modern landscapes, literally grayed with concrete, commercialism, bureaucracy, and the rapid pace of technology, are transformed by the imaginations of Elsewhere’s artists. Some are hopeful; some play dark and funny tricks. They choose imagery from a slowed-down, undone playground, where nature has grown back or is hiding—a place that is markedly not in the real world.
Jane Benson’s hysterically green Library of Eden is a collection of altered travel books standing open on a table. She similarly alters a good number of travel postcards, displayed far below eye level in a truncated white turnstile on the floor. Her technique is to paint-out the buildings, cloaking their forms with a blanket of hazy green brush strokes, making Manhattan into an island mountain and reducing London to a mass of funky green clumps (not unlike a kudzu takeover). The same follows for Hong Kong, St. Petersburg, Florida, etc. Interestingly, Library of Eden dates from 2000-2002—that is, before 9/11. In still more painted-over photographs, Justin Anderson’s felt-backed Polaroids are luscious treats of obscured landsape. And Jennie C. Jones’ two lyrical looping drawings made from audiotape show a damn good use of “dead tech.”
The most moving work, however, is Christine Bailey’s Kanin, a video documentation of a “found” virtual landscape.** Artworks made from Second Life environments may be getting a bit cliché, but she selects a fine 20 minutes of someone else’s animation depicting an empty snowscape. The installation of the video image is similarly well-achieved—the walls of Saltwork’s “back nook” are painted black with a reversed white box for the projection, making it seem like an inter-dimensional window containing a slightly moving image of an evergreen tree.
*When I spoke with Smith, she rejected the label of nostalgic, but instead prefers romantic, quaint, and even (confidently so) sentimental. She did not think of her artists as escapists, but people who create fictions of parallel universes to visit and enjoy.
**Bailey is an interesting artist, and not from New York (she’s from Baltimore). Two recent projects are appropriation experiments (in corporate lobbies). In another project, she “curated” a show using three phony identities which were all actually herself.
Elsewhere will remain on view at Saltworks Gallery through June 6.