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A place to call home

Separation and security fuel Gimme Shelter

Gimme Shelter

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Maybe it's the behind-the-scenes knowledge that Gimme Shelter came together relatively quickly to replace another scheduled exhibition that gives an already spare show a thin, unfocused quality. Gimme Shelter feels like a meal whose courses tend to compete with, not complement, each other.

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Co-curated by Saltworks Director Brian Holcombe and independent New York-based curator Franklin Sirmans, Gimme Shelter refers to an idea of physical, literal shelter at times.

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But more often the exhibition addresses the metaphorical kind of shelter as less a place than a sense of well-being and security carried around in one's head. Several of the artists express a lack of national protection and access, suggesting the idea of being outside society, reinforced by the ethnicity and race of many of the artists.

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That concept is most visibly conveyed in the work of Conor McGrady. The former resident of violence-plagued Northern Ireland offers stark, cold, black charcoal drawings on white paper depicting destroyed domestic interiors with walls pocked by bullet fire and doors hanging ajar that shatter any notion of sanctuary.

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Another Saltworks favorite, William Cordova — known more for his drawings, a number of which are on view here — also references a literal notion of home in his small sculpture "The House that Frank Lloyd Wright Built 4 Atahualpa." Cordova's typically cryptic title links a 16th-century Inca emperor and the 20th-century architect.

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Cordova's work often plays into his personal heritage as a Peruvian-born, Miami-based artist and a sense of separation from the supposedly protective cloak of the American way. The tiny, bread loaf-sized house of balsa wood is displayed, like some of Cordova's drawings, at calf level, so you have to crawl through the rabbit hole and get down to the works' level. It's an interesting tactic: to force the audience to appreciate the humble, marginalized perspective the artist's work conveys. It's a work of small-scale craftsmanship and detail much like his minute but intense drawings. The little house has also been touched by the puniness of human scale. Its exterior has been scrawled with graffiti to suggest an assertion of individuality and passion by marginalized people.

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The concept of separation is conveyed even more emphatically in Brooklyn-based artist Wardell Milan's photographed sculptural collages where classical values are evoked in images of angels, eagles, architectural columns, "In God We Trust" messages and dead presidents. "Monticello" references Thomas Jefferson, a president whose "Great Man" status has been re-evaluated in the ongoing controversy over his relationship with Sally Hemings. In the image, a bevy of beefcakey African-American men are pictured amid classical flourishes to suggest the dual nature of American history, of aspiration to high moral values and succumbing to baser instincts.

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Milan's work gets some radical ideas across, though it's not an especially satisfying visual articulation. By contrast, Atlanta-based artist Charles Nelson's video work ensconced in the gallery's Project Room has a great DJ Spooky look in its mix of Fritz Lang's 1927 silent classic Metropolis, a contemporary soundtrack, and Nelson's overlay of Afrocentric graphics and images. Especially effective is the replacement of Lang's lady robot with Nelson's African sculpture droid. But the sense of African values inserted into this well-known silent film and what that says about Nelson's vision for the future becomes less clear as the work progresses and some of Nelson's visual focus dissipates.

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Nelson's video is joined in the larger gallery space by a brief eight-second piece by New York-based Leslie Hewitt featuring African-American artist Antoine Touze executing a methodical gesture somewhere between Tai Chi and slo-mo dance move. Despite his outwardly street-wise look, the gesture is a self-willed incantation of inner peace.

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With more cohesion in Gimme Shelter to back it up, Hewitt's work might register more powerfully. But overall, Gimme Shelter is disappointing, its potentially interesting ideas floating out there in the wind, without the proper conceptual shelter to protect them.



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