Down in A-town

Athens' art scene gets a boost from ATHICA

Athens is a town brimming with the multi-hyphenated: designers-academics-artists-musicians. It also has a burgeoning art scene due to its status as a creative hub on order of Brooklyn or Austin, Texas.

A promising addition to a scene already famous for its music is the new alternative nonprofit art space ATHICA (Athens Institute for Contemporary Art), helmed by a one-woman city booster, artist-writer Lizzie Zucker Saltz. Saltz envisions the 4,500-square-foot ATHICA space as a "community resource" modeled on institutions like Atlanta's Contemporary Art Center, defined by multiple perspectives and a desire to bring in diverse curatorial voices.

ATHICA is located in the shadow of a cement factory in an industrial fringe of town. It opened in February and currently features a photography show devoted to the architectural and psychological aspects of "house," documenting that concept with a surplus of tension and loneliness. For the most part, the tone of House: Ten Artists Photograph Domestic Architecture is austere and distinctly un-cozy. Atlanta artist Thomas Tulis' garishly lit suburban homes under construction or Todd Eberle's documentation of the sinister good-cheer of the Disney "Celebration" development mostly depict houses absent of occupants and rightly so. When people do appear, for instance the nuclear family unit standing on their pristine Celebration porch, the perfection of the surroundings tend to make them look like advertising props, a fictitious notion of "family" assembled for the purpose of selling the home site.

The overall impression of the show is that the ideal house is an empty one ... that the architecture is only utopian if the human element remains unseen.

House was curated by former New Yorker Carol John, who is now one of the renaissance citizens of the bucolic hipster enclave that is Athens. An organic farmer's market owner-designer-artist-art saleswoman who also runs the unique "drive-by" Arrow Gallery, John was attracted by this milk-and-honey boho paradise of Athens, where "you don't have to be an impoverished artist." John describes the mission of shows like House as a bid for recognition from a town known for its music, but not necessarily as a contemporary art hub. "Pay attention, we have some very good artists in this town," John says nonchalantly, her abundant enthusiasm for this growing art market kept in check by the usual laid-back, hippie-cool Athens manner.

Imi Hwangbo is a recent transfer to town, a sculpture professor at the University of Georgia's Lamar Dodd School of Art, who also has shown her work at Kiang Gallery. Not only is her work immaculate and serene, Hwangbo's studio is the "after" image in every slob artist mom's fantasies — swept of all clutter save the refined sketches and models of Hwangbo's sculptures-in-process. Her eerily liminal sculptures feel medical in nature, though they remain, the artist observes, "ambiguous on purpose." Working with an interplay of vividly tinted silicone rubber and steel, Hwangbo's shape-shifting red pessaries, spleens and hearts are filled, probed and pierced like organs under the surgeon's knife.

Though fire has more often seemed the province of men (think: firemen, fire breathers, stunt men, arsonists and Burning Man), a girly-fied fascination with the flame defines Fireworks, a show teeming with women drawn to the flame and a sprinkling of their sympathetic brethren. "Fire is exciting ... it's very dramatic," says the show's curator and retired real estate agent Lynn Gay, who works in the fire-related metals of bronze and aluminum and whose imagery runs to leggy nudes at the seashore, dragons and other mystical motifs.

Dressed in eye-gouging shades of tie-dye with a Parton-y trill to her voice, Gay explains that her daddy, husband, father-in-law and great-grandfather have all taken up the firefighting arts at some point in their lives. Growing up in East Point, the family engaged in the not entirely wholesome recreation of fire-watching, with the whole family loaded into the car when daddy got a call about a nearby conflagration.

Family members who did not become firefighters became hobby pyros like Gay and her daughter Jennifer, who both work with fire in their metal sculpture. The organizing principle of Fireworks is thus work "using fire or extreme heat," though there are also watercolors, paintings in acrylic that were not flame-made.

Beyond the benefit purpose of Fireworks, which raised $256 on its opening night at Art Spot for the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation (a percentage of sales go to the foundation), the show was the outcome of a continuing education course Gay attended at Georgia State's Edgewood Sculpture Studio --- where she met other firestarters, mostly nonprofessional artists working with a combination of metal and heat. "We are a fire tribe, I guess you could call it," says Gay.

House: Ten Artists Photograph Domestic Architecture runs through Aug. 10 at ATHICA, Chase Street Warehouses, unit 4. www.athica.org. Fireworks: Art Show and Benefit runs through July 29 at Tube Art Spot. 404.659.0088 x30 or www.tubeartspot.com.

For Art's Sake is a biweekly column covering the local arts scene.??

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