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Origin of the species

Andrew Ross goes primitive at MOCA-GA

A founding member of the playful Atlanta arts collective Dos Pestañeos (Spanish for "double wink"), Andrew Ross has always made droll humor a component of his work.

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Though Ross currently attends graduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago, he has returned to town to strut his usual whimsical and technically accomplished stuff in a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia.

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Curated by Joey Orr, Origin is a continuation of the artist's interest in secret worlds often outside our direct observation, whether the ancient civilizations buried beneath our feet or the hidden world of insects and animals who live among us.

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In the video work "Then and Even Now (Habits)," Ross shows earthworms squirming from a mass of random bodies into perfectly formed circles. And in a large photograph of a hairless ape from the St. Louis Zoo, Ross illustrates his interest in the animal world as a place of order and meaning, with poignance and proximity to our own human circumstance.

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But it is the centerpiece of Origin, called "Caves," which packs the biggest wallop. This awe-inspiring installation continues Ross' interest in the intersection of nature and culture but kicks them up to a new level of technical and conceptual accomplishment.

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From a distance, "Caves" looks like some metaphor for writer's block. The gallery floor is littered with a mass of crumpled papers. But venturing in, hunkering down, getting down on your knees, or even on your belly is necessary, and a physical prostration soon rewarded.

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Art often challenges in intellectual ways, but Ross' Origin is a physical challenge too. You return to the posture of childhood (a time of life from which Ross clearly draws much of his inspired mix of innocence, fun and curiosity) and days spent creating elaborate psychodramas with plastic soldiers or dollhouses.

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Beneath the clusters of paper in "Caves" is a secret world. Ross has cut tiny human figures (modeled on his own profile) no taller than a toothpick out of white paper and posed them beneath or on top of or within the "caves" formed by the crumpled paper.

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Ross' lilliputian figures sit around campfires, battle with spears, have sex and practice spirituality and art. Viewers may be tempted to see these people as Native Americans, though Ross says he was after something more ambiguous — a universal, nonspecific idea of the ancient.

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You could call those figures the "real." Because in addition to those people are two other, more ephemeral worlds. Ross has also cut silhouettes of the people out of the mounds of paper. And those cutouts, when combined with spotlights on the gallery ceiling, create yet another world of people in shadows on the floor. It is as if Ross has evoked in those shadows an ethereal spiritual life, or the traces of humanity found in writing or art or cave paintings. The shadows evoke the most creative sides of humanity; the worlds of imagination and metaphor.

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The work is remarkably sophisticated. It suggests in this trio of forms — cutout, shadow and figure — a kind of shorthand for language and the interplay of signs and referents that define how we communicate.

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But provocative ideas about language and communication are not the only rabbit in Ross' hat. As satisfying as the ideas contained in "Caves" is, the form of the project inspires shivers of pleasure at their miniature perfection.

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Ross cuts out each individual branch on his delicate lace-work trees, cuts tiny details of dress and physique into his figures and, in one swamp scene, has crafted individual blades of grass not much thicker than a single fiber of yarn. His creations are so delicate they conjure up the bit in Annie Hall, where Woody Allen blows his cool by scattering lines of cocaine with one sneeze. Ross' fragile metaphor for history and for ancient cultures could be extinguished like a candle's flame.

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Like the past, "Caves" is easily destroyed.

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Though our impulse is to perpetually move forward and not look back, Ross' fragile, imaginative, poetic project reminds us of the power of the elemental, the original.



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