TindelMichi takes its Baptism by Fire

The collaborative duo has no use for Southern cliche in this Barbara Archer exhibition

Southerners John Tindel and Michi Meko have a shared history. They’re roughly the same age, both grew up and went to college in Alabama, and they now both live and make art in Atlanta. Under the name TindelMichi, they share the canvas, too, together mining the visual and symbolic lexicon of Southern history. In Baptism by Fire, their current show of paintings and sculpture at Barbara Archer Gallery, the duo presents a revised vision of Southern heritage, unwilling to pander to the either/or extremisms of Dixie-cratic patriotism or cloying Civil Rights depictions.

Images alternately hide in the corner of their paintings or splash across the middle, overwhelming the viewer with visions of plantations, lawn jockeys, and riverboats. Iconic symbols — catfish, gourds, cotton, and crows — bear weight in the paintings, blending into a larger narrative. The assault of imagery in the paintings nicely mimics the billboard culture of the car-centric American South.

Graffiti-like phrases such as “envy,” “slop surrealism,” and “cotton belt route” further accentuate the superimposed quality of the works. Some are scribbled on top of the painting, almost narrating it. Often they even title the work, such as in “Date Night,” where the phrase is emblazoned in pink underneath a light-skinned woman with an elaborate coif. Others are more descriptive and carefully designed, such as the 3-D clip-art aesthetic in “Dixie Playboy.” In this font, the words “what wondrous love is this” are scrawled above the intricate geometry of a stylized catfish.

A few of TindelMichi’s busy, symbolism-laden paintings feature the disembodied heads of African-American figures reminiscent of the plethora of Martin Luther King Jr.’s statues and murals found around Atlanta in which his bust looms like a beneficent Big Brother. “Detritivores of a System” edges close to cliché, showing the face of a black man in the right-hand corner and, on the other side, the torso of a young black kid whose lower half dissipates into a giant cotton flower. The potential lameness of glorifying anonymous men and women reduced to a representation of their race is tempered, though, by placing them among the swirling symbolism and groundless atmosphere in the heavily decorated paintings.

The artists reset the pace of the show from this modern, urban context with their sculptures made of wood and metal. Like something found propped in a barn, “M. Dixon” is a massive work in which slats made of dresser drawers and window shutters are flanked by rusted tin. A portrait of a black man in uniform, modeled as a Civil War tintype, appears on a wooden plank, seen through a dangling chain that also obscures a pair of white doves. Birds reappear in the two other sculptures as creatures who make a home wherever they can, with crude nests made in plows. But in “The Bird Kachina,” feathers emerge from a glass bottle filled with what appears to be bird bones — almost like a warning to those who have found freedom.

John Tindel and Michi Meko, a white man and a black man, circumvent the textbook versions of slavery studied in school, which glaze over its cultural implications to emphasize only that we ended it, and the often saccharine abbreviations of Civil Rights imagery. Rather than thinking of these intrinsic facts of Southern heritage as something that happened long ago, that we can only reflect upon, TindelMichi reintroduces it as a cultural weight carried into the present.