Westside Arts District shows why gallery shows are still cool

Sheila Pree Bright, Untitled No. 10. Photo courtesy Sandler Hudson Gallery.

In an unfinished, unpublished draft for an article dated January 4, after stumbling through several false starts attempting to sum up the previous 12 months, I finally concocted an appropriate phrase to describe 2009. I called it The Year of the Ninja.

Last year we saw a steadily rising number of ephemeral performances and rogue one-night exhibitions—shows that strike unexpectedly before vanishing without a trace. From Lauri Stallings’s production of Rapt at the Woodruff Arts Center, to AXIOM’s Showtime at Edgewood and Boulevard, to John Otte’s weekend curation of Summer Falls at Whitespace, nontraditional projects were becoming so popular that the practice of showing normal exhibitions in normal galleries seemed to be going out of style.

My perspective has changed since January, however. The evidence I found during the Westside Art Walk this weekend at Kiang and Sandler Hudson and Get This! galleries, specifically, supports my suspicion that our galleries aren’t dead, but are as relevant as ever.

Pandra Williams, Radicis, 2010, installation view. Photo courtesy Kiang Gallery.

Rewards for visiting in person

Pandra Williams’s installation at Kiang Gallery is fresh, conceptual, and physically beautiful. Its scale is proportioned to fill the entire room. The piece is titled Radicis and is meant to resemble an impossibly large microorganism. During her talk on Saturday, Williams referred to it as a plant, but explaining it as the neuron cells of a cosmic giant would seem just a plausible. Its synapses fire in syncopated rhythm, like tiny controlled electrical storms.

Of course, we could have surmised that much by attending the opening reception, or by reading Jerry Cullum’s review or his essay on the work. But attending the talk reemphasized the fact that Williams’s sculpture is connected to solar panels installed on the gallery’s roof—this is art powered by the sun and nothing else. The sun!

Williams allowed us to peer inside the sculpture’s exoskeleton to see how its paper “skin” is bonded together, how the lighting and wiring is fixed inside, and how the work is hinged to the wall. Artwork should never be touched by strangers; this was an opportunity only the artist could provide.

Williams’s talk succeeded in demystifying her work in a way that was healthy and didn’t compromise its magic. We see that artists are human beings much like ourselves and, further, are professionals who are doing relevant work in the community.

Mystery special guests

When Sandler Hudson Gallery announced its programming last week, all we knew was that photographer Sheila Pree Bright would lead a panel discussion featuring “special guests.”

Would these individuals be fellow artists who would comment on Bright’s work? Or would they be sociology professors who could explain the cultural underpinnings behind gold teeth?

The suggestion called to mind the various guest speakers assembled by Fahamu Pecou for installments of his 15 Project at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center and for his one-night show at Get This! Gallery earlier this year. Those each included guests as far-ranging as poets, hip-hop artists, journalists, critics, and even social workers and community organizers.

But Bright surprised us this Saturday by turning the discussion over to three students, two currently in high school and one precocious young lady from Harlem who recently graduated from Clark Atlanta University. They were kids—yes—but they had sophisticated things to say about the communities where they grew up. The talk was primarily about guns.

Conversations inspired by artwork should never supersede or replace the aesthetic value of the art itself. Still, the discussion added human value to the experience and situated Bright’s photography within a properly activist worldview.

Gyun Hur's performance included nearly seven continuous hours of standing, sitting, and walking while cutting fabric with scissors. Photo courtesy Get This! Gallery.

Gallery space as a garden of ideas

Many performance artists excel through sheer audacity. During Shana Robbins’s talk at the Contemporary (another event on Saturday’s art-stroll agenda), powerful personalities such as Carolee Schneemann and Matthew Barney were cited as pioneers in the field.

Gyun Hur‘s performance of Thousand Kisses, In My Living Room at Get This! Gallery, however, is refreshingly low on drama. Instead of confrontation, Hur treats us to a quiet moment that is touching, even a little sweet, pushing the envelope of public-versus-private to the point of turning the envelope inside-out. The gallery environment simulates an evening the artist spent with her parents at their home.

This performance could easily have been done at night, or possibly outdoors. However, hosting it during the day removes the experience from that all-too-familiar party scene. Does artwork always have to be so epic? We don’t expect Hollywood-scale pyrotechnics when we visit the botanical gardens, do we? Hur’s exhibition is calculated for atmospheric reflection, like a garden of ideas.

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  • Alana Wolf
    July 27, 2010 at

    As much as I believe in bringing work into nontraditional spaces, it’s difficult to avoid the party-scene atmosphere that often overshadows the work on display at these events. That’s why I am excited that many galleries are doing a great job of raising the bar for what is possible in the white cube. Despite the popular logic that blames the economy (little risk in showing less obviously accessible work when no one is buying in the first place), galleries have functioned historically not only as shiny vehicles of commerce, but have had a role in bringing about discourse. When local galleries expand their programming as you describe, the arts community stands to benefit from the discussion and subsequent practices that ensue.

    I am drawn more to experiencing work that’s thoughtful and quietly compelling than to splashy spectacle right now. While I advocate working outside traditional formats, the gallery may be just the place for some of those moments to flourish. Galleries have much to offer, and they should absolutely take advantage of the opportunities to situate the work that is sheltered within their walls.

  • paul boshears
    July 21, 2010 at

    The two greatest places to appreciate Atlanta are the Westside Arts District, and Super H Mart. Always a delicious combination in these places.

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