Pangea at Beep Beep Gallery Calls for a New Generation of Arts Critics

Lance Turner, Channel with Blue and Pink, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 12 x 8 inches. Image courtesy Beep Beep Gallery.

Beep Beep Gallery’s wryly titled Pangea: World-Breaking Artwork for the End of Days 2012 is the latest in their annual series of January exhibitions, offering what they describe as “promising artists who are showing with us for the first time.” Pangea (also the title of a work in the exhibition by Lance Turner) is geology’s name for the primal, unified landmass, which has since broken into today’s separate continents by the subterranean drift of the earth’s tectonic plates; as this apocalyptic year of 2012 progresses, the work brought together in this combined seven-artist show will undergo its own continental drift, and the meaning of each individual artistic practice will become more apparent.

As it is, it’s hard to believe that the only limits placed on the participants was that they present “brand new work that pursues new directions for them as artists.” The theme of original unity and subsequent dispersion is dealt with directly by at least four of the artists in ways that almost imply a collaborative effort, though each pursues the topic in a dramatically different style.

Nathan Sharratt, True Story: I Was An Orphan. For Ten Minutes., 2011, stainless steel, 7 x 3 inches. Image courtesy Beep Beep Gallery.

Nathan Sharratt’s twenty-first-century update of 1980s text-based postmodern irony seemingly makes him the odd man out in this exhibition, except insofar as his quotations reproduced in stainless-steel plaques reveal the underlying patterns of contemporary media and the kinds of condensed confessions we have come to expect as the headlines on tabloids or the crawl on daytime TV shows. The titles generally (but not always) replicate the text, under the prefatory category of “True Story”: True Story: I Did Not Get Signed To A Major Label. Twice.; True Story: I Lost It At 13.; True Story: Jack Bauer Gave Me A Lap Dance For My 30th Birthday.

Sun Hong’s botanical abstractions are ink-on-paper drawings that link to one another in more than one direction, so that their various arrangements indeed have No End and No Beginning, as her title puts it. Their rhizomatic proliferation could be extended indefinitely as well as reassembled to reveal new patterns.

Sun Hong, No End and No Beginning, 2011, 16 interchangeable works ink on watercolor paper on wood panel, 10 x 10 inch individual panels, full size variable. Image courtesy Beep Beep Gallery.

Lance Turner, following a line of logic we associate with a variety of artists over the past two decades, puts it all together while keeping it all apart by juxtaposing a wildly varying number of styles of abstraction and representation in painting, from loosely rendered decorative patterns to a single image (of a young woman aiming a gun) that might ultimately derive from the panels of comic-book illustration or from the venerable example of preliminary sketches for larger paintings.

Kelly Cloninger allows her earlier Day-Glo pattern-and-decoration flowerets to morph into sensuous images of exuberant females immersed in masses of Day-Glo confetti. The painted images of confetti in turn become literalized in piles of the actual stuff scattered on the floor beneath the artwork.

Kelly Cloninger, Confetti Bath, 2011, acryla gouache and graphite on panel, 6 x 8 inches. Image courtesy Beep Beep Gallery.

Chris Parry’s black-and-white works on paper are a sort of goth-cum-tattoo-art mélange of skulls, snakes, Mardi Gras beads, and multi-armed allegorical figures robed like the mourning women on nineteenth-century tomb sculpture. Some of the imagery comes straight from the Symbolist Era of the Czech Decadence, although it has passed through some intermediary forms of art along the way from 1890.

Chris Parry, Savior, 2011, pen, ink, and wood stain on watercolor paper, 10 x 30 inches. Image courtesy Beep Beep Gallery.

Sean Abrahams presents a set of drawings that mostly turn the horror vacui of Tibetan art into the secular carnival of present-day popular media: smiley-face icons blend into friendly smiling skulls and floral-wallpaper patterns, and although the landscapes are filled with houses seen from the perspective of the Buddha palaces of mandalas, these are anything but dwelling places for sacred figures.

Chelsea Raflo returns us to contemporary media studies with her brilliantly rendered Untitled Stills from a Future Film. Though the title recalls Cindy Sherman, the photo-cutout dioramas are more like updates of Joseph Cornell (or of the cigar-box dioramas children across America once assembled in Vacation Bible School), combined with the storyboards used to map out scenes in moviemaking. The noir narrative runs in reverse if the four boxes are viewed left to right, leaving us to wonder whether this is a series of successive flashbacks or just a test of our ability to put narrative together from visually loaded fragments seen out of sequence.

The exhibition comes without supporting materials—no artist statements here, or even biographical sketches of the contributors—and I was left with the realization of why we need an under-30 Atlanta version of Walter Benjamin.

“Huh?” you may ask. So I will tell you.

Benjamin was an incessantly curious experimenter who alarmed his Frankfurt School superiors by combining whatever seemingly contradictory forms of analysis might shed light on the origins and meaning of both high art and popular culture, forms that few had previously considered in the same body of thought. He pondered the meaning of Charles Baudelaire as a poet of the era of High Capitalism; he also pondered the meaning of the emergence of Mickey Mouse as a fictional figure, and looked critically at how and why store windows in the arcades of Paris were arranged. He wrote about German tragic drama, and about children’s toys.

Chelsea Raflo, Untitled Stills from a Future Film, 2011, mixed media, 9 x 9 inches. Image courtesy Beep Beep Gallery.

Today we have academic departments that at least think they do all this, but we don’t have the kind of insider analysis that would allow me as a working critic to make sense of the seven artists whose work I have just summarized. I presume that these works of art stem from entire forms of popular culture that these artists and their contemporaries have known intimately from childhood onwards, just as Walter Benjamin and his readers knew the sources of the topics he recombined in his innovative forms of analysis.

Despite anthologies and even museum shows paying homage to the styles of art enshrined in Tokion and Juxtapoz, we still have no analytical categories that sort out adequately what are clearly several independent aesthetic currents lumped together under the art-movement category “lowbrow.” More generally, artworks deriving from comic books, tattooing, graffiti, video games, et cetera suffer from a lack of art-historical categorization made worse by the critics’ lack of familiarity with the popular media themselves.

So we need somebody who will take whatever analytical tools might be needed from the academic disciplines of history, psychology, and anthropology, and combine them with personal knowledge of what growing up with specific forms of popular culture does to the heads of the artists and audiences who consumed those forms and continue to consume them.

Such a critic could produce an intelligent analysis of the works of these artists and what they have to do with the question of where all of us are going in this (metaphorically and literally apocalyptic) year of 2012.

Sean Abrahams, Untitled 2, 2011, markers on paper, 18 x 24 inches. Image courtesy Beep Beep Gallery.

I have deliberately made reference to things that almost certainly did not influence the artists I’ve discussed—though they may have influenced the shape of their influences—in order to make clear how much we need a critic attuned to the myriad pop-cultural artifacts, phenomena, and experiences that have worked their way into the imaginations of contemporary artists. Though they are by no means the most complex example, tattoos are deserving of independent exploration—worthy of a critic who grew up in the quarter-century since the world at large realized that tattoos had turned into a hip but serious art form, a critic who also knows the history of how tattoo artists turned the genre into something more art-historically informed than it was in the 1940s. This critic should also know not only what visual sources inspired the new tattoo artists, but a bit about the uses of latter-day tattooing as an ironic riposte to the Modernist sneer, circa 1900, that frou-frou decoration in high-end design was as disreputable as the tattoos worn only by the lower and criminal classes (hence, too, the 1970s et sequentia revival of outright floridity in art and design as an act of aesthetic resistance that parallels the freshly reinvented art of tattooing). But most importantly, this historically-informed critic should be of an age to know these genres from decades of direct experience, experience that then can be adapted to theoretical purposes.

Then this as-yet-imaginary critic might be able to write a genuinely informed review of Pangea. For the aforementioned reasons, I am not that critic.


Pangea: World-Breaking Artwork for the End of Days 2012 will remain up at Beep Beep Gallery through Saturday, January 28, 2012. The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 6PM.


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Comment(7)

  • Nathan Sharratt
    January 23, 2012 at

    I think that fear of reprisal for artist/writers is a valid concern. It is also incredibly damaging. However, I really do believe there is a way to write critical reviews that aren’t negative, even if the work shown is evaluated as less-than-successful.

    Or, galleries and venues just need to be educated on how open and honest discussion is good for all parties involved. Self mitigation has greater negative consequences than outright censorship. It encourages mediocrity, which from my own anecdotal evidence, is a driving criticism of Atlanta art.

    I’m fully on board with BA in having a large pool of passionate writers to draw from, and there are many excellent articles and writers on this site. But one of the downsides to generalists (ie non-specialized art writers) is that they may or may not have all the tools that could be useful to an art writer. As such I think education is a benefit to the writer as well as the art they write about.

    I’ll add the caveat that criticism is not condemnation. Educating writers, artists and venues of this distinction can help in ameliorating a lot of the fear and soothing bruised egos.

  • Casey
    January 22, 2012 at

    I think that one of the many things BA does right is have a large and fluid group of writers, knowing that few if any rely on it for the pay, but do it out of love. I imagine this is pretty much true for writers everywhere. (I think there was a big stink last year about people writing for the HuffPo not getting paid at all – including big names like James Elkins and G. Roger Denson. Anyways, these two guys are professional writers and a good bit over 30yrs old, and of course, nowhere near Atl.)
    The is a problem with being an artist and writer: to write a negative review opens one to the risk of being disregarded as an artist by the gallery or organization that received the bad write-up. So, like Nathan alluded, there is a shyness towards the writing of such criticism…

  • Nathan Sharratt
    January 22, 2012 at

    Perhaps it’s time for some active nurturing of new (and existing) arts critical authors. Perhaps BURNAWAY and/or other Atlanta publications could organize workshops on critical writing or bring in well-known critics as guest speakers to offer insight and inspiration.

    I doubt we’ll see a “new wave” of dedicated critical writers. There’s just not enough money in it to make a living from. However, what may be possible is to nurture those with writing talent in other creative fields. Artists who also write, as Casey mentioned above, seems like a good place to start.

    Atlanta needs more critical writing, and less summary reviews. Our close-knit artistic community is our boon and our bane. Critical writers should know how to give the reader a deeper understanding of the art they’re writing about, without worrying about offending their friends who also happen to be in the show. Arts criticism is about the art, not the artist. Rarely do we see a reviewer take a position on whether he or she thought the art was effective, and why or why not in its particular context. Lack of education in the area of how to write an effective critical review may be the culprit. Some reviewers may not know how to critically evaluate an art or an exhibition, without coming across as negative. So they evaluate nothing and simply fall back on description, which is inoffensive and ineffective as a critical review. There are ways to evaluate art without attacking the artist. On the other hand, artists need to be receptive to critical reviews if we want out community to continue to grow and flourish.

    The aggregate effect is that Atlanta grows a stronger art community by retaining and nurturing its talent, which in turn creates stronger art, which then attracts new talent to our great city which makes Atlanta an artistic destination.

  • Casey
    January 22, 2012 at

    Wow! Bravo to BURNAWAY! for publishing an article that openly and directly criticizes itself. Isn’t this supposed to be Atlanta’s Online Art Zine that does just what Mr.Cullum prescibes?
    Perhaps under 30 is a bit of a bench-mark, since many of us just finish our academic careers around that time – and of course the academic insight is necessary for the type of criticism suggested above.
    I know that I have personally attempted critical analysis as prescribed, but also question whether I have the depth of pop cultural knowledge to do it justice. Perhaps one of the artists mentioned in this show could be that person(?)
    I know that Lance Turner has pages of critical analysis of his own work, including an essay on a tessellation of images from the movie ‘Terminator’ comprising a double portrait of Walter Benjamin. Looking at Turner’s website (www.lanceturnerpainting.com) may begin to give us a clue as to how to approach the task at hand. (Should I also mention the artist is 26 or 27 years old?)
    Another artist, not in this show, who has the potential for this is Joseph Karg, who was in a good place to be represented by Solomon Projects before it closed its doors (Ms. Solomon was selling his paintings, although not fully representing him.) His though-provoking graduate thesis paired the likes of Zizek, Lacan, Marcuse, and if I recall correctly, Adorno and Baudrillard in defense of his highly conceptual post-comic-book art mash-ups. Mr. Karg is now working for FX as a background artist on a cartoon– leaving behind the hit-or-miss pay opportunities of being an artist, or the ridiculously-low, 7-year-old-Chinese-sweat-shop-worker wages for critics.
    There are people doing this to some degree or another. When I presented at SECAC this year, a graduate student of Art History at UGA presented a paper on Lady Gaga from an art historical perspective… maybe that was too easy.
    What it will take is someone smart enough to write a worthy essay in enough time to warrant the low monetary rewards, or someone well-off enough to be able to spend the time required regardless of the pay.
    P.S. – Tattoos? Maybe we could say there is a return to the idea of a noble-savage, that sailors were some kind of pure-of-heart, proletariat art collectors?lol…

  • Casey
    January 22, 2012 at

    Wow! Bravo to BURNAWAY! for publishing an article that openly and directly criticizes itself. Isn’t this supposed to be Atlanta’s Online Art Zine that does just what Mr.Cullum prescibes?
    Perhaps under 30 is a bit of a bench-mark, since many of us just finish our academic careers around that time – and of course the academic insight is necessary for the type of criticism suggested above.
    I know that I have personally attempted critical analysis as prescribed, but also question whether I have the depth of pop cultural knowledge to do it justice. Perhaps one of the artists mentioned in this show could be that person(?)
    I know that Lance Turner has pages of critical analysis of his own work, including an essay on a tessellation of images from the movie ‘Terminator’ comprising a double portrait of Walter Benjamin. Looking at Turner’s website (www.lanceturnerpainting.com) may begin to give us a clue as to how to approach the task at hand. (Should I also mention the artist is 26 or 27 years old?)
    Another artist, not in this show, who has the potential for this is Joseph Karg, who was in a good place to be represented by Solomon Projects before it closed its doors (Ms. Solomon was selling his paintings, although not fully representing him.) His though-provoking graduate thesis paired the likes of Zizek, Lacan, Marcuse, and if I recall correctly, Adorno and Baudrillard in defense of his highly conceptual post-comic-book art mash-ups. Mr. Karg is now working for FX as a background artist on a cartoon– leaving behind the hit-or-miss pay opportunities of being an artist, or the ridiculously-low, 7-year-old-Chinese-sweat-shop-worker wages for critics.
    There are people doing this to some degree or another. When I presented at SECAC this year, a graduate student of Art History at UGA presented a paper on Lady Gaga from an art historical perspective… maybe that was too easy.
    What it will take is someone smart enough to write a worthy essay in enough time to warrant the low monetary rewards, or someone well-off enough to be able to spend the time required regardless of the pay.
    P.S. – Tattoos? Maybe we could say there is a return to the idea of a noble-savage, that sailors were some kind of pure-of-heart, proletariat art collectors?lol…

  • karley sullivan
    January 20, 2012 at

    I love Jerry’s “radical” honesty. Funny how it takes a life-time of experience to
    write in a manner that cuts to the core without seeming snide. So where are our
    knowledgeable “low-brow/tattoo” critics? Working their toes into the monolithic
    establishment, writing for Coagula (lol), sleeping off a hang-over or talking a friend through
    a crisis? Perhaps they are simply tweeting their opinions, and therefore losing them
    to the great maw of social utility, to be dug up later.
    There’s an awful lot of criticism for critics in the low-brow realm, I can imagine
    their hearts might be elsewhere for the time being.

  • Mike Germon
    January 20, 2012 at

    This is a great review as usual from Jerry. So articulate, yet self aware, he knows the boundaries of his own knowledge. I hope to see some good responses to this review.

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