The High draws a portrait of Atlanta

Drawing Inside the Perimeter creates a revisionist portrait of the city

A few years ago, the drawing show in Atlanta seemed impossible to avoid.

Almost every month in 2009 and 2010, Beep Beep or MINT or Young Blood or another gallery that you might have called “lowbrow” would be hosting another group show of local artists, usually loosely organized around a theme. Sometimes the theme would be so loose as to be almost imperceptible. Sometimes the work was dreadful and boring; other times, you might recognize some talent worth noting, an Ann-Marie Manker or Jason Kofke in the mix. The feeling was that almost anyone there could contribute — whether they were a SCAD student or a bartender or a musician with a visual streak — and that, sometimes, the work had been whipped together quickly. Drawing, that direct line to an artist’s vision, was the reigning medium.

The High Museum, the Southeast’s flagship of mainstream museum going, has made the curious and wonderful decision to open a local drawing show. In other words, it decided to do what the cool kids were doing a few years ago. This is unmistakably the baby of modern and contemporary curator Michael Rooks, whose red-baseball-capped presence at local gallery openings is as reliable as the red wine. Rooks arrived in Atlanta in 2009, right in the middle of the drawing show fever, and has since undertaken a great effort to acquire works by local artists for the museum under a very loose definition of “drawing.” With a generous gift from the late patron Judith Alexander and the helpful collaboration of independent curator Marianne Lambert, the result is Drawing Inside the Perimeter, a surprisingly unified portrait of Atlanta’s artists.

Take for example, the exhibition’s first and best focal point — a wall drawing by Rocío Rodriguez. At the same time that those aforementioned drawing shows were happening around or south of Ponce de Leon Avenue, Rodriguez was creating her first wall drawing at MOCA GA, a space comfortably tucked a few miles north in Buckhead. For an outsider, that distance might look like just a short drive on Peachtree. But anyone who knows Atlanta’s neighborhoods knows that the psychosocial distance between the two could be measured in light years. Yet, here in this exhibition is an ambitious, difficult, deeply abstract wall drawing by Rodriguez, just feet away from Harrison Keys’ ironically self-assured post-graffiti cartoons. Rooks has thrown the downtown cool kids in with the established uptown names.

The strange thing is that it feels coherent, like the document of a place that isn’t so dominated by insular neighborhoods and social cliques. Is a millennial graffiti artist like HENSE really working out similar ideas about mark-making in his bright mural opposite Rodriguez’s, who got her MFA the same year he was born? It’s a credit to Rooks’ smart curation that Drawing raises such questions, but he also achieves coherence with a selective editing that makes these artists look more similar than they actually are.

There are a few works by Radcliffe Bailey, an artist whose preoccupations with massive installation and assemblage sculpture (not to mention career trajectory) veer far from most of the other artists included in Drawing. (In 2011, the High mounted a solo exhibition of his work in a space that had been previously occupied by Salvador Dalí.) Yet, his unusually small collages included here fit neatly on the wall without breaking the flow of, say, Andy Moon Wilson or any number of other artists who often make the modest-sized works on paper that suit a drawing show. My knee-jerk reaction is to say that this is an illusion of regional coherence, hiding the fractious qualities that define Atlanta’s art scene.

Of course, it isn’t Rooks’ job is to be a documentarian. He has done an impressive job of sanding down the rough edges until they disappear, of carefully editing together works that draw a line through Atlanta’s disparate art scenes for a show that could never happen outside of a museum.

Those drawing shows have somewhat faded out of fashion. Young Blood closed its physical gallery space, Beep Beep mostly focuses on solo shows now, and the city’s younger crop of artists seem to be more compelled to make ambitious installations, sculptures, and environments, like those orchestrated by Dashboard Co-Op, than small works on paper.

As such, Drawing Inside the Perimeter comes at the perfect time for a museum show: when an era is over. It is wonderful to see our hometown museum add early pieces by Manker, Wilson, Keys, Kofke, and more to its climate-controlled collections, especially when most of those works were being shown in little, crowed, stale-beer-scented rooms just a couple of years ago. Even better that Rooks has found a way to connect that work with a broader picture of artists working in Atlanta. It might be revisionist history, but it is a pleasure to look at.