William Downs works In Unison with his peers

The group exhibition offers an indirect portrait of an artist

Over coffee on New Year’s Eve, a rare slow day at Grant Park’s Octane, artist William Downs spreads his arms wide and, with a huge grin, refers to himself as a “spiderweb ... there are lines that go all over the place.” For the past 20 years, the Atlanta College of Art graduate, class of 1996, has spun an uncanny art-world web, organizing shows in Atlanta, Baltimore, and New York, and has made the acquaintance of artists in cities as far as Kawasaki, Japan. His latest exhibition, In Unison, at Get This! Gallery marks his return to Atlanta and attempts to provide a visual explanation of his career thus far, without using a single piece of his own art.

If you can judge a man by the company he keeps, perhaps an artist’s work can be appraised by his circle of compatriots. In the planning stages of In Unison, Downs operated on this principle, pulling together a crew of other artists who either work in music or with art spaces. Though these professions are disparate, Downs sees them as integral to the exhibition as a portrayal of his own background. Growing up, his family was active in church choirs which instilled a lifelong passion for music (though these days you’re more likely to find him listening to Prince than singing gospel).

His adult years suggest a compulsive need to organize group shows, though he’s careful to note he “organizes” rather than curates (his partner of 10 years, Amy Mackie, is a curator whose résumé includes high-profile positions at the New Museum in New York and Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans). Before Downs even graduated from ACA, he and classmate Jesse Cregar started organizing shows in what is now the Highland Bakery. From 1993 until 1997, they organized more than 20 group shows, bringing together work by other ACA graduates as well as graduates of SCAD and Georgia State, essentially displaying the extent of Downs’ network at the time.

These days, his network includes art friends from graduate school at the Maryland Institute College of Art as well as his years of gallery work in New York and his career as an art educator. Their disciplines range from drawing and painting — Downs’ own specialties — to photography, sculpture, and sound. Though the artists in In Unison have dissimilar practices, Downs sees associations in terms of linkages. While his coffee grows cold, Downs mentions that he met Kentucky musician Will Oldham, whose photography is in the show, through Black Lips manager Brian DeRan. Oldham’s fundraising activities post-Katrina reminded Downs of Los Angeles artist Eve Fowler’s work with queer artist collective Lesbians to the Rescue (LTTR), and Derrick Adams’ work with the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, which was started by Adams’s uncle, Def Jam founder Russell Simmons, bringing us back to music.

Is your head spinning yet? From piece to piece and artist to artist, In Unison works as a game of association, a six degrees of William Downs. Though the connections are a multilayered blur of professional and personal relationships, the works also have visual links. DeRan’s painting “Untitled” features a somber blue eye that gazes at the viewer from a face made of pink diamonds. Its proximity to “Archetype 2” by Michael Gibson causes a faint eye to appear within the radiating silver lines in Gibson’s painting. The linear strokes of silver are in winning relation to “Math (Suit),” a floor sculpture by Alyse Ronayne. The show is a surprisingly cohesive mix of media and subject, as multilayered as its organizer.