Strength in Numbers

Studio B9 spotlights the art nexus of West End

Atlanta has no central gallery district or complex of studios, so its art scene lacks any real sense of a physical community. But it has a thriving spiritual one. Artists have created small communities of their own at galleries like Saltworks, with its cluster of works spaces, or in the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center's studios.

The B9 Studio complex in Atlanta's West End is a gated bohemia that offers a wraparound metal fence and ample work space for an informal community of five artists: Jeff Conefry, Kojo Griffin, David Isenhour, Lance Lamont and Charles Nelson. Housed in an epic warren of warehouse spaces in a dodgy industrial strip off Murphy Avenue, the studios' neighbors are freight trains, vacant lots and people who transport their worldly goods in shopping carts.

The artists who share the B9 space, whose work is currently on view at the ArtWalk at Lenox Square, couldn't be more different. Lance Lamont is the classic artist's artist in the lot. His abstract paintings executed on wood panels are founded on paint's tactile qualities and painting's potential for rich physical presence. The raised, splattered, accumulated gobs make his abstractions resemble moonscapes or some otherworldly topography done up in glowing, earthy colors of rust and molten lava.

Charles Nelson is an artist who has not only mentored a new generation of local African-American artists, but who has produced some of the city's most provocative and conceptual work about race and identity. He brings an intriguing mix of humor, provocation and anger to his artmaking. In Studio B9, however, Nelson takes a breather from social issues and takes a turn toward the personal and tender.

His "Digital Transference: Gretchen Hupfel" is an ethereal eulogy to the Atlanta artist who recently took her own life. "Transference" not only depicts Hupfel in a minimalist portrait, it also references her own clean, spare aesthetic. The work is the most fitting kind of tribute: restrained and clear-eyed but also remarkably telling and heartfelt. Using cut-up fragments of paper paint swatches, Nelson has assembled a Chuck Close-style, pixilated representation of Hupfel's face. Seen up close, Hupfel's likeness becomes hazy and the individual pieces of paper become distractingly visible. But seen from a distance, the portrait is immediately recognizable as Hupfel. "Transference" is a poetic metaphor for how we experience death. When loved ones die, the close-up, intimate perception of them begins to retreat and they become remembered only from a great, abstract distance.

David Isenhour, perhaps the B9 artist closest to Nelson in terms of content and execution, creates winking, piquant examinations of how our consciousness has been mutated and shaped by pop culture. There is an evolution to Isenhour's sleek, wry work in Studio B9, from the glossy, slick surfaces of his sculptures "Becoming" and "Secret" to the more subdued effect of "Bulge."

"Becoming" is an egg-shaped silver orb sprouting bulbous projectiles like some Invasion of the Body Snatchers life force rising to the surface. In contrast to that punchy, animated liquidity is "Bulge," whose cool matte surface signals a real change from Isenhour's previous work. Nevertheless, its bulging belly or breast protrusion shows the artist's continued interest in the intersection of growth, sex and metamorphosis that may be a product of sci-fi or something all too hormonally human.

On canvases shaped like one of Isenhour's cartoon thought bubbles, Jeff Conefry uses an earthy color palette to document a fragmented, driver's-eye view of Atlanta's cityscape of passing trucks and cars. The two large paintings on view at ArtWalk suggest a relationship between the city and the strangely formed puzzle-piece canvases, though the small sample of work on display here makes the relationship between form and content vague.

The superstar in this hive of activity is surely Kojo Griffin, not necessarily a star because his work is superior to that of the other artists, but because, as is so often the case in the art world, it seems to fit in so perfectly with the cultural zeitgeist. Featured in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, Griffin's disturbing paintings of animals and stuffed-toy creatures acting out often disturbing scenes of rage and grief exhibit an interest in violence that never sensationalizes, but forces us to look again at this ubiquitous presence. Griffin offers a humanist's response to an ugly problem that seems tailor-made for an age of fresh despair and exhaustion over problems that won't go away.

Studio B9 surveys a range of Griffin's styles, from the busy, worked-over surfaces of his early paintings with their intense hues and visual circuitry to his more recent, simple charcoal drawings on tracing paper. From ornate to stark, these works share an emphasis on loss: parents saying goodbye to children, a creature forlornly packing her suitcases for a trip. In this context, even the ordinary, innocent act of a father watching his child ride off on a bicycle into the distance suddenly seems revealing — a reluctant push into the dire realm of adulthood.