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Between the Lines: Youth movement

At play with artists Zach Johnsen and Charlie Owens

Brooklyn artist Zach Johnsen and Atlanta's Charlie Owens are artists with one foot firmly planted in the lowbrow traditions of comix, anime and urban art and another tentatively tiptoeing into the gallery. The latter world often demands more: more focus, more content, something to distinguish the artist from all the countless aspirants doodling bubble-letter tags on walls and sneakers. Foundation One's director, Ivan Annikov, wants to bring a West Coast, Juxtapoz vibe to Atlanta, and it's a worthy goal for a city that could use more ear-to-the-street, youth-oriented galleries to balance out the established traditional and contemporary spaces.

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Foundation's latest, Between the Lines, therefore is a bit of a disappointment for an art space whose last show, of local artists John Tindel and Michi, was a great, pulled-together and visually compelling installation of that much-exhibited artist team's work. You can't swing a cat in Atlanta without hitting either Tindel or Michi, but La Calaveras Pop showed they still had some surprises in store and could bring a polish to their artistic collaborations that hasn't always been on display.

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One of Between the Lines' biggest problems is an imbalance in the artists' abilities and sensibility, with Johnsen's technique and ideas looking far more developed and thoughtful next to Owens.

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Johnsen's work seems very much a product of the artist's New York reality and city life's claustrophobia. His work can be incredibly misanthropic, though that misanthropy can range from disgust at humanity's moral failings to a sadder, defeated anguish. He paints, draws and has created an installation piece in wood for the show, but it doesn't take long to figure out that Johnsen's greatest interest and skill lies in his watercolor and pen-and-ink drawings.

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The most interesting piece is a collage of sketches and watercolor drawings running along a low wall in the gallery like some grocery corkboard filled with pushpin fliers and announcements. It is here you can see the range of Johnsen's abilities, but also some of the inconsistencies in his work. Johnsen, like Owens, is drawn to a cartoony, graphic array of forms – creatures shaped like wads of chewed gum with lasciviously grinning candy-corn teeth, deformed hunchbacks, bats with human hands – that crop up throughout the show like some personal variety show of recurring characters.

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There is a tension in the work between the immaturity of many of those Star Wars cantina-style forms and the maturity of Johnsen's social commentary. His humans and animals suffer in a world plagued by greed, toil and misery signified by the artist's trope of his creatures perpetually lugging an enormous bundle of branches. But you get the sense that some of Johnsen's more cartoony shapes, with their one-note monstrosity, are holding him back, catching him up in a gimmicky expression of worldly vice and squalor. It's a shame, when other pieces so nicely synthesize the artist's interest in socially engaged subject matter and Gothic, imagination-tweaked realism. On Johnsen's wall of pushpin images, there are several such arresting images, such as one untitled work where a little girl with her back to us is being watched by two unseen, shadowy forms. "Liberation Army" is a fluid, kinetic drawing of an animal army of cats and hyenas, bats and warthogs united in a parade of self-determination that shows the fragility mixed with social critique that gives Johnsen's better work its power.

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Owens is a more problematic case, an artist so entrenched in his own graphic obsessions that he can feel like the 2007, skate-culture answer to the babe-obsessed Patrick Nagel. Owens' primary obsessions are street-savvy vixens, many executed on skateboard decks with come-hither almond eyes, bared navels, tattoos and skull belt buckles. In contrast, his big-eyed, stout, Sunday-funnies-style men are lumpy losers.

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The only time Owens seems to break away from his formulaic kit bag and inject anything close to humor or nuttiness into his work is when his loser guys take on the big-eyed torment of Margaret Keane kiddies, prisoners and drunks in striped pajamas weeping fat, sad tears. If Johnsen could stand to take some of the animated forms out of his work, Owens could stand to get something wittier and more self-aware into his mix of sex and violence.



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