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Chaos Theory

Courting Disaster explores inhuman tragedies and human reactions to them

Those with apocalyptic leanings might see plenty of evidence in the recent daisy chain of tsunamis, genocide, earthquakes and hurricanes ending with Katrina that the world is undergoing a season of hellishly bad luck.

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Courting Disaster at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center addresses both the recent cycle of disasters and the attendant human desire to grieve and commemorate when tragedy strikes. It is often artists, after all, who act as our emotional and intellectual doulas, distilling and processing the tragedies that befall us.

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The trio of artists in Courting Disaster offer differing approaches to disaster.

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On the one hand, there are the explicit memorials represented in two installations created by Atlanta artist Donna Mintz.

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On the other are works by Atlanta artist Katherine Taylor and Houston-based Hilary Wilder that seem more about acknowledging the sensory impressions of disaster rather than creating some monument to loss. While Mintz evokes the emotional, reflective outpouring of poetry or requiem, Taylor and Wilder suggest something more cerebral and dark.

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Wilder's fierce, accusatory paintings, with their roiling, tempestuous surfaces, convey in color and form what must surely be the surreal quality of finding oneself in the center of a sudden cataclysm surrounded by grounded boats, piles of rubble and a roof torn open to reveal the sky above.

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Wilder paints scenes that hover between realistic and apocalyptic in her expert manipulation of toxic color and jagged, oppressive form. Paint is applied thick as taffy to replicate a pile of debris at the edge of a brackish, greasy lake in "Better the Devil You Know." Great, sweeping clouds of unctuous smoke turn daytime into night. Wilder conveys the violent and apocalyptic sensation of reality caving in and being replaced by a world that is unrecognizable. If any of these three artists gets you inside the headspace of being the victim of a disaster, it is Wilder.

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While Wilder evokes the immediacy of disaster, Taylor's somber black-and-white photorealist paintings speak from direct experience to the post-Katrina aftermath, though her interest in natural disasters predates Katrina. Her family was rendered homeless in the disaster and it is a remarkable testament to artistic restraint how documentary and contemplative her paintings nevertheless appear.

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The most arresting work consists of 100 small paintings, "Ground Losses (100 Landscapes)" depicting vintage trailers swallowed up in the floodwaters, belly-up cars and the displacement of human sorrow onto our metal proxies. The accumulative impact of the paintings suggests a cataloging of a tragedy that is not peculiar to Taylor's family but spread among many.

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The paintings could be newspaper documents of Katrina's damage, or the routine snapshots taken by insurance agents surveying claims. Mostly, though, they suggest the seemingly universal desire to comprehend a large-scale tragedy through the process of recording. Where Wilder renders the hot, burning-fresh horror of disaster, Taylor takes a distanced view more akin to numb, cottony shock.

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While Wilder and Taylor offer explicit, visible accounts of disaster, Mintz's self-reflexive work is about a battle waged within an artist's own head, involving the inherent difficulty in commemorating loss.

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In a dark alcove of the Contemporary, the strains of a funereal Philip Glass composition blend with 20 glass vessels hung from the ceiling in Mintz's installation "Lost." Within each vessel is a miniature white house immersed in water, which will subtly decay over the duration of the exhibition. The underwater houses decorated with faint handwriting (discernible words include "flood water," "lady in the attic" and "President") evoke immediate associations to Katrina.

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The use of language is one of the most powerful features of Mintz work; the fractured, hard-to-comprehend writing shows the difficulty of fully appreciating another's mediated, fractured pain.

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Dates and enigmatic phrases such as "when wishes alter nothing" also appear in scattered bits in the installation "Epigram." In that equally meditative piece, Mintz has stacked mossy rocks into a shin-high ring with a symbolic hole at the center. A Mark Strand poem on the wall testifies to the creative anxiety about how to memorialize immeasurable, deep loss.

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Mintz's biggest flaw is to aestheticize tragedy to the point of preciousness; to become fixated on the beautiful trappings of those glass vessels, tiny houses and funereal music in the way a bride loses sight of the marriage and can only think about the wedding.

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Though Mintz may falter in the material of her tributes (especially with the maudlin "Lost"), she ultimately triumphs in her conceptual insight into the frustrating inadequacy of commemoration.

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Art-making and memorializing share a similar desire, to create coherence and profundity out of abstract emotions and ideas.

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And in Mintz's fractured, small, abstract gestures — like a casserole delivered to a mourning neighbor — she clarifies what many of us have experienced: the desire to acknowledge loss and tragedy despite a feeling of inadequacy.

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Sometimes just making that effort is tribute enough.



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