Matt Haffner's got street cred

Artist's solo show celebrates the seamy side of Atlanta life

In artist Matt Haffner's work, Atlanta is a rich urban tapestry teeming with interesting people and places. It is the stomping ground of graffiti artists and street ministers and other denizens of the dusty street corner. Haffner's the guy you need driving taxis from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to give visitors a little atmospheric detour on the way to their Buckhead hotel, to let them see Atlanta isn't reducible to the city of malls and cul-de-sacs it's often billed as. A former street artist, Haffner is interested in the emotional nature of city life: all of the things that occur as you're walking the streets and watching the strange, fascinating parade of humanity and the palimpsest of architecture scroll by.

Like Tom Waits caterwauling about the seamy side of life, Haffner has material aplenty in the pawn shops and check cashing emporium-pocked streets of Atlanta, which he takes as his muse in Just Across the Tracks at Whitespace Gallery. In the exhibition's most arresting works, cut-paper city landscapes dramatically juxtapose black human silhouettes in the foreground against ghost-like white buildings. Swaths of marbled khaki paint set off the paper elements and suggest Atlanta's ever-present smog-alert skies. The pieces feel as iconic and pared back as a classic Timex watch or a vintage Thunderbird. They are silhouettes of the economic margins, of guys taking an Everclear nap against a brick wall while two wayfarer hipsters roll their suitcases along, looking for lodging in "A Little Lost."

Haffner's images have the clean lines of road signs, but that surface simplicity is deceptive. His work scrubs out the extraneous and hones in on the telling details that illuminate the big picture. His minimalist buildings and people overflow with visual information, from the tiny security camera over a pawn shop door to the pair of sneakers flung over a neighborhood's telephone wires to the set of a man's jaw who's been arrested by two cops in "Put it to the Curb." The work is dipped in authenticity, with the occasional spasm of Haffner's more hyperbolic film noir fascinations. In "Holding it Down," three Reservoir Dogs gangstas lean against a vintage sedan, as if waiting for some heist to go down inside the restaurant behind them. In the background another demi-criminal spray paints a splash of pink on the side of the building.

Haffner supplements his elegant, stand-alone cut-paper pieces with equally provocative, more personalized portraits of city life. In his idiosyncratic approach to portraiture, he juxtaposes video of city streets with oversized images of the men who dwell there. His billboard-scale foam board cutouts of down-and-out residents are screwed to the wall, gazing down like ambulance-chasing lawyers and local news personalities. Behind those jigsaw puzzle cutouts of world-weary men are Haffner's videos documenting cinder block mom-and-pop stores and the ambient noise of passing cars and voices.

An entire gallery wall of small silver gelatin photographs documents the other people Haffner encounters on the street: grinning children, gentrifiers in sunglasses, grandmothers, angry young men. The series, titled "Talking to Strangers," is the one misstep in an otherwise exceptional show. The documentary photographs show a purity of spirit in wanting to capture the spectrum of urban life. But they read as far too conventional and literal, and make you long for the cutout, abstracted, and oh-so-telling details that define the rest of Just Across the Tracks.