Fantasies and nightmares

Atlanta Biennial 2001 combines the whimsical with the disturbing

Toy soldiers and paper dolls. Graffiti, comics and messy craft projects. Animated films, storytelling and a raft of hand-folded boats. That's what this year's Atlanta Biennial is made of. With a title taken from the lyrics of a classic lullaby, When the Wind Blows at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center presents a view of the world that reinforces a contemporary cultural truism: We don't want to grow up, even if we have seen the underbelly of childhood.

Art as a sign of the times is a role played out in most biannual showcase exhibitions. Last year's Whitney Biennial, with its first display of new media art, is an example of how the New York exhibition focuses on developments in process as much as conceptual shifts. The 2000 biennial also drew in more artists from outside New York. The Contemporary's curator Teresa Bramlette followed suit, choosing artists beyond the usual 100-mile radius of Atlanta for the 2001 show.

This year's display is distinctly more thematic than the 1999 Local Figures. Bramlette originally intended to develop a drawing-based exhibition, but as she began to select artists, she saw fantasy world connections and expressions of childhood desire among the artists' works.

When the Wind Blows includes drawing, painting, sculpture and video as well as installation. An over-the-top project by Mark Guilbeau and Rian Kerrane best reflects the exhibition's gestalt. Their "False Security of Overconsumption" is an irresistible Land of Make-Believe.

Two artists from Charlotte, N.C., crowd a room with the flotsam and jetsam of a child's imagination, complete with a bridge, a lookout tower and suspended objects — a tricycle, a globe and plastic guns, a stream of naked baby dolls and a whirling fleet of portable mixers. Thousands of plastic army men play war on the walls and cover a hanging sphere. Ropes, strings and electrical cords crisscross the space mechanically connecting one element to another. A flotilla of newspaper boats sails under the bridge. The cluttered obsession encompasses a sound track, more electrically kinetic sculptures and an observation camera that projects the visitor onto a television monitor suspended in a cage overhead.

The writing is on the wall (literally) in one line of the poem they have written there: " ... one thing leads to another." "False Security" looks like a rough-cut model of the World Wide Web. "Both of our languages are incorporated in this playground. The objects and imagery present the world that created us," says Guilbeau.

Such visible thought patterns tying one object to another are echoed throughout the show. In her teenage-year drawings, Atlanta artist Kathy Yancey built a dream universe on paper. She combined pencil drawings and paper dolls with collaged Easter egg foils and bits of feather to concoct a series of characters and histories. While surprising in their global consciousness, her female heroes developed along accepted standards for girls — growing up, getting married and having children.

Macon-based Robin Starbuck is more critical of those guilt-ridden stereotypes. In her semiotic study of vintage children's books, she explores the way behavior is coded in language. The message in Starbuck's monotype transfer drawings feels dry and outdated next to the color-drenched paintings of Samantha Simpson. Without a word, the Philadelphia artist has created a smart cast of sharp-toothed mouse girls that belie and indulge in the feminine. She has one over on the Powerpuff Girls. The scenarios depicted in airbrush ink on paper communicate the artful cunning of truly empowered females.

Mischo McKay, who lives in Athens, shows a set of intricate pen-and-ink drawings that dwell in the darkness of unattractiveness. His protagonist is a patched together Ugly Little Doll shown in a series of ignoble moments. Visual references to "The Elves and the Shoemaker," "The Nutcracker" and "Corduroy" appear, though this misfit doesn't get a fairytale finish. In fact, the story never ends; McKay has animated the unfortunate boy doll on dreamspan.com. (Aptly included in the exhibition are excerpts from Dreamspan Inc.'s Short Attention Span Film and Video Festival.)

McKay cleverly interprets the angst and pain in the life of an ugly child. At least on paper, he avoids the raw physicality that often preoccupies the young. Not so Angela Willcocks, whose dimensional "drawings" mean to dig up disturbing thoughts. The Atlanta-based artist has grown from making whimsical allusions to pregnancy, birth and motherhood to a less comfortable conceptual space.

In one corner of the gallery, she, too, constructs a world. Stretched gut, hairballs, clothes dryer lint, a bit of felt and sequins figure in. Hair cuttings work as paint and texture. There are allusions to Rebecca Horn's art in the fallout of blue dust and hair that lie beneath these wall sculptures. A line of blue-tipped plastic whatsits climbs from floor to ceiling in one spot. A nearby assemblage touts a cluster of freaky phallus symbols, rubber finger guards with hair popping out the ends. Willcocks' mix of science and the self has an off-putting effect.

Another odd vision comes from Ryan Berg. He brings his mix of ceramics and amateur craftwork to the subject of 1970s teenage daydreams. The atypical ceramist from Tampa, Fla., constructs a gaudy interior landscape with painted wood cutouts and greatly embellished household lamps. In his wickedly funny hands, glam rock meets the Wizard of Oz. A satyr becomes a satire. Pinocchio and Porky Pig are beheaded and made into lamps while still bleeding. Inspired by Dr. Seuss and rock bands, the exuberant set-up is definitely the creation of one gnarly dude. Berg's may be the most inventive look at what he calls the "useless, pathetic fantasy" that comes with youthful bravado.

Neater, cleaner artmaking is the rule for other contributors, whose works are less connected to childhood discovery than to a growing adult sense of identity. Didi Dunphy, an artist from Athens, imagines a place where art history is feminized. Shaping both intimate and wall-sized color studies and grids from Naugahyde cushions and embroidery floss, she avenges the scorned traditions associated with women's creativity. Atlantan Arge represents his gay world in colorful caricatures that spin off larger-than-life friends and "The Jetsons" cartoons. Woodstock-based Scott Murphy shows spare graffiti portraits made with stencils and spray paint on paper. Safe inside a gallery, his art reveals the maker's vulnerability.

"I like to surprise each time," remarked Bramlette of her curatorial efforts. "I wanted this show to be funny and friendly, provocative and bright. I like work with a sense of humor in it, but I also like the fact that it's somewhat subversive." Does the 2001 Atlanta Biennial reflect the best artists in our universe and the freshest ideas as they emerge? Not entirely, but When the Wind Blows cleverly uncovers the dangers in our quest for the happily ever after.

Atlanta Biennial 2001: When the Wind Blows runs through June 2 at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, 535 Means St. Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. $3 general admission, $1 students and seniors. 404-688-1970.??

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