Morbid reality

Images of death and violence repel and compel at The Contemporary

The twinned exhibitions Masking and Rear Window compose an arresting show with lousy timing at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. It is a shock gumbo of Klansmen, lynchings, concentration camps, charred corpses and car wrecks.

The subject matter of Masking/Rear Window will be old hat to viewers who have a passing familiarity with art world trends in taboo photography. Books like Luc Sante’s pioneering Evidence and a number of publications of vintage medical and crime scene photography exploring the intersection of true crime, abject imagery and photographic history have laid the foundation for the Contemporary’s shock art.

For the uninitiated, Masking/Rear Window certainly has the power to shock, not only for its raw imagery, but because of its disconcerting clashes. For instance, the throbbing electronica emanating from Rico Gatson’s video piece “Kindred” bleeds out into the gallery, which is hung with Andres Serrano’s enormous photos of “Klansmen.” The atrocity’s disco clash of sexy beat and frightening images is one of those exhibition happenstances that create an unplanned aura of discomfort.

Likewise, the intimidating, ad-quality glossiness of Serrano’s photos of hooded cross-burners next to historical documents of lynchings, crime scenes or the Holocaust, secreted away in the gallery’s side alcove, perform a creepy call and response of aesthetic, even glamorized, hatred and its dispassionately recorded consequences.

The sheer range of imagery may strike some as more sensational than critical, as it attempts to include every permutation in the taxonomy of lurid. But despite an often absurdly ambitious desire to investigate hefty concepts like voyeurism and racially motivated hate crimes in one fell swoop, Masking/Rear Window (and two strong accompanying installations by local artists Charles Nelson and Jerome Moorman) is essential viewing.

One caveat emptor for Southerners who may have grown a little weary of the region’s patented status as the nation’s brackish gene pool: Though the “Klansmen” series or James Allen’s lynching photos unearth the secret shames of a nation, they also perform a kind of regional self-flagellation familiar to local culturati. It’s a “we’re not worthy” exorcism that courts the condescension of the New York art world by genuflecting and offering up the region’s historical travesties for appraisal. Such reflexes suggest that what Atlanta may lack in contemporary art street cred, we can make up for by courting legitimacy through an implied put-down of our audience and venue.

The weird juxtaposition of Serrano’s enormous Cibachromes and Gatson’s African masks in Masking might initially seem a weird match with the raw disclosures of Rear Window, a kind of historical survey of photography as a form of visual assault. It features mid-century New York shutterbug Weegee’s blood-stained sidewalks and California police photographer Mell Kilpatrick’s car smash-ups. But the dialogue of hidden, implied violence in Masking paired with the explicit revelation in Rear Window turns out to be quite canny and lucid. An appeal for unmasking, Rear Window asserts that you cannot hide or look away from the ugly facts of our base impulses, neither the Dauchaus nor the crime

scenes nor the certainty that some day we will all be taking that long dirt nap.

Featuring an array of Georgia boys, the “Klansmen” series (the first local showing of this powerful work) is an older Serrano project whose voluminous details only become apparent when the work is seen live. In person the works are startlingly layered. Initially intimidating, the hooded figures loom out from cavernous black backgrounds. But upon closer inspection, there is an air of despondency — almost a costume of personal or economic hardship — reflected in the garments themselves. Some are expertly tailored, with neatly stitched eyeholes and pointy hoods, while others are sloppily executed, like the difference between homemade Halloween costumes and those pathetic plastic Yogi Bears and Darth Vaders bought at Wal-Mart.

Serrano is a skilled button-pusher trained in advertising’s lexicon whose now, almost-laughably sensational “Piss Christ” and elegant “Morgue” series use photographic convention (saturated colors, epic-ness) to potent effect. Creating bodily responses of fear and disgust, Serrano adds a chilling jolt of nightmare to advertising’s seductions. The work is remarkably subtle and admirable for making neither victims nor bogeymen out of these men, but instead casting the cold, illuminating light of pure documentation on a taboo subject.

If the thesis of the show could be simplistically stated as an argument for our innate morbidity, the assembled evidence is certainly convincing — from the postcards traded in 19th- and early 20th-century America of lynching scenes to the war “souvenirs” discovered in a local artist’s family attic. While the show doesn’t convince us that either Southerners or Americans are an especially morbid culture, it does suggest that we are deceitful or immature in our curiosity about death (a situation that may now be markedly changed by the events of Sept. 11). We prefer to rehearse our mortality from a safe distance, in crass entertainment and maudlin true crime reenactments.

These photographs also suggest that earlier generations not only had more first-hand knowledge of death, but that their responses — repugnant elation in the lynching photos, or sensational curiosity in Hiroshi Sugimoto’s wax museum images — were as historically determined as our own, different responses.

On display are a number of small black-and-white amateur snapshots found by local artist Benjamin Jones in his father’s attic, that show the grisly scenes of body disposal and death at Dauchau after the camp’s liberation. Though the images are gruesome, they nevertheless illustrate the human impulse that should never be assumed to be the sole province of entitled artists or professional collectors to record even the ugliest truths so they will not be forgotten. The various high art examples aside, the traffic in morbid reality is a lowbrow business, whether Weegee’s or the Victorian funereal portraitists, and to tut-tut those impulses and claim them for the “theoretical” work of cultural critics is an obnoxious concept.

The show has, at times, the airless but also revelatory sense of things taken from the cultural attic. Just as the soldier collects unbelievably horrific images — perhaps to remember — our culture needs to collect souvenirs of our secret life. Images of our potential for degradation and hatred are as necessary as images of beauty to reassure and celebrate the best human impulses.

As one visitor to Manhattan’s Ground Zero wrote in a recent New York Times letter to the editor, visitors to the site were chastised and told by police: “This is not a tourist site.” But the impulse to see evidence of death is not simple, morbid tourism. It is a deeply human response to see a reality our sanitized, orderly culture denies.

Masking/Rear Window and Solo Projects (Charles H. Nelson Jr. and Jerome Moorman) run through Jan. 12 at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, 535 Means St. Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. 404-688-1970.??