Gretchen Hupfel 1963-2002

I understand the airfoil but that doesn’t help when it comes to comprehending the miracle of lifting tons of metal into the sky. Airplanes are something like angels. As passengers, we are closer to heaven than we’ll ever get. This might explain why it’s particularly devastating when they crash to the ground.”

b> — Gretchen Hupfel

Before I ever knew Gretchen Hupfel, I knew her work first from the small group show Superhighway at the Georgia State University Gallery. Her black-and-white photograph of radio towers engaged in a delirious communication — sexual, frantic, maniacal — that astounded me. She somehow translated our communication delirium, the gotta-get-it-all-done frenzy of our modern lives, the invisible waves of sound all around us, and the stark, graphic beauty of radio towers, all into one image.

When I later learned about Gretchen’s schizophrenia, it made her work even more urgent. Her artwork was both an incredible defying of an illness that had her life in its grip, and a disturbing communication of all of the intangible matter — thoughts, worries, voices — swimming around in her head and filling the air. At the same time her airborne planes and skies filled with radio waves conveyed a kind of spirituality — of remarkable, ubiquitous things nearly invisible to our attention but exerting a powerful influence and interconnectivity.

Meeting artists can often be disappointing, but there was nothing anticlimactic or vain or simple or anything but remarkable about Gretchen when I finally did meet her. She was intoxicatingly hip and had the kind of easy, out-of-the-corner-of-your-mouth wit that was both thrilling and intimidating — a casual, unstudied eloquence that seems lost to another age of Algonquin roundtables and the memoirs of tortured writers.

Beneath what at first might seem like an aloof facade was a profound gentleness and kindness — undervalued qualities in a world bent on getting in the last word and egotistic one-upmanship.

I think it was hard to have a conversation with Gretchen and not be touched by something — by her fragility, by her insights, her originality. She was a vulnerable, in some ways tragic, person, but she cut a wide swath through life and through people’s hearts. Even before she died she was memorable.

On Saturday, Dec. 14, Gretchen went to a local firing range and shot herself.

In 2000 Gretchen was profiled in the pages of Creative Loafing where she discussed her love of Hartsfield Airport, whose planes were frequent subjects in her work. Encouraged to compare her photography to a musician, she chose Lou Rawls because his voice was “simple and kind of clean and pure.” Asked who would play her in The Gretchen Hupfel Story? “I would love it to be someone like Audrey Hepburn, but probably it would end up being Ally Sheedy who played that tragic drug addict in High Art,” she said.

Though Gretchen’s work was shown at prestigious venues like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and White Columns Gallery in New York, she remained deeply committed to the local art scene. She produced a video work with the Contemporary’s curator Helena Reckitt for this year’s Atlanta Celebrates Photography event, contributed work to the summertime Shed Space exhibition and countless group shows and even gave her time to gallery-sit at Eyedrum. As testament to her sense of charity and community, she volunteered with guerilla homebuilders to the homeless, the Mad Housers, and in lieu of Christmas presents this year, donated money on her family’s behalf to the group.

Gretchen’s early death is a loss not only for her family and friends, but for those who only knew her through her work and a world that will never know what she might have done next.

A memorial service for Gretchen is being planned at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. For details, call 404-688-1970, ext. 23.

The Contemporary has announced the participating artists in the 2003 Atlanta Biennial. The exhibiting artists are: Alejandro Aguilera, Calvert Brown, Jason Cochrane, Emily Diehl, Debra Fritts, Michael Gibson, Donte Hayes, E Hope Hilton, Loretta Mae Hirsch, Sara Hornbacher, Scott Ingram, Alexander Kvares, Lance Lamont, Donald Locke, Eric Mack, James Hiram Malone, Traci Molloy, Prema Murthy, Lourdes Perdomo, Julie Puttgen, Kathryn Refi, John Roberts, Carlton Omar Thompson, Larry Walker, Rusty Wallace and a possible additional artist who has yet to be named.