Five works by five artists

5X5 takes a mostly critical look at our media-drenched culture

There probably isn't a better time to be a hip, contemporary gallery focused on African-American art in the Castleberry Hill neighborhood.

Slice, directly across the street from Wertz Contemporary, is a major weekend hot spot; the neighborhood is anxious to take its galleries to the next level; and with the Spelman/Morehouse/Clark Atlanta University hub nearby, there is a ready audience of scene-making gallery-goers on hand. The cachet of African-American conceptual art is rising, and Atlanta seems to be wising up to the value of howling at that ascendent new moon.

5X5 at Wertz Contemporary is just the kind of show that could draw on the growing neighborhood energy, with its conglomeration of work by young, politically conscious, eyes-wide-open artists. In a well-timed coincidence, three of the artists, Brooklyn's Mickalene Thomas, Memphis artist Lester Julian Merriweather and New York's Hank Willis Thomas, will all be featured in an upcoming show this November at the Studio Museum in Harlem called Frequency, curator Thelma Golden's latest coming out party for a new crop of emerging African-American artists.

Like the recent Maximum Flavor exhibition at Atlanta College of Art Gallery, which also featured Hank Willis Thomas and Mickalene Thomas, 5x5 comments on our blinged-out consumer culture.

All of the artists in 5X5 are African-American, and all of them, to varying degrees, offer critiques or a sensory immersion in the music, movies, Internet, newspapers, advertising and supermarket circulars that make modern consciousness feel like front and center on the New York Stock Exchange trading floor.

Artist Iona Rozeal Brown has shown her saucy, culture-tripping canvases in Atlanta before, most prominently at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, where her solo show examined the cross-cultural collision of hip-hop culture and Japanese geishas and samurai.

Brown's tiny gouache images in chocolate brown and white at Wertz Contemporary lose the Asian angle and hone in on the supremacy of style-as-identity. The people in her drawings rendered with fat, white lines and minimal detail are virtually featureless. Instead, it's the clouds of hair, jewelry, piercings, gold teeth and other ornaments that define them. A new kind of anonymity seems central to Brown's concerns. It is not invisibility that black people have to fear, but an identity reduced to brands, logos and the all-consuming bling.

Hank Willis Thomas continues the interest in identities colonized by false values in his acidic, magazine-slick riffs on sports and advertising. Nothing could make that point clearer than a photograph of a black male torso that has been scarred with little Nike swoosh logos carved into the man's flesh like the licks from a slavemaster's whip. The idea of a country founded on the labor of black people continues in "Discovery, American Express, Mastercard." Three iconic credit cards are embellished with images of beaten slaves and European colonialists to illustrate just what kind of brutal American history our monetary system rests on.

Lester Julian Merriweather, whose work appeared at this year's Atlanta Contemporary Art Center Biennial, also takes up the matter of the media in his spare drawings and mixed-media works done in a resonant palette of black and white. Evoking the vernacular of supermarket circulars and JCPenney catalog spreads, the drawings proclaim, "Complete Package $169.96" and "Lowest Prices Ever!" next to images of Caucasian and African-American people. No one, of course, measures their self-worth by the pound, but in many ways Merriweather suggests our media does such appraising for us in insidious, covert ways.

Mickalene Thomas explores self-appraisal through self-packaging by donning a costume in the tradition of Cindy Sherman or cultural chameleon Nikki S. Lee and inviting her viewers to let their stereotypical tendencies run wild. Dressed in a unitard that looks inspired by one of Eric Mack's canvases, a squash blossom gold wig, and a drag queen-worthy spackle of makeup, Thomas assumes a defiant, in-your-face image of black female sexuality that, depending upon your perspective, could be liberating, laughable or threatening.

Atlanta painter Eric Mack might seem like the odd man out in this company. His work isn't overtly political or conceptual. But if any artist conveys the head space of living in the media machine, it's Mack. In previous work, Mack's abstract mixed-media collisions of magazine and newspaper images, typography and grids of kinetic, wild-style color have suggested city maps, computer circuit boards and mazes.

What this new crop of work evokes most of all is a pu pu platter of cultural clutter and ephemera lassoed by the artist and remixed into virtuoso visual tracks. Mack is doing what all of these artists are doing: going out into the world and bringing back a sampling of what he sees. While many of the artists treat consumer culture as a fearsome contaminant, Mack shows that you can revel in it, too, and still dig the beat.

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