Visual Arts - Then and now

Transitions takes a CliffsNotes approach to the careers of six local artists

The crux of Transitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia is not apt to blow too many minds. Unless, that is, the wan idea of artists whose work changes a lot over time, or doesn't change much at all, sound like radical notions. The six artists represented in the show are homegrown Georgia artists whose work is represented in two phases: early pieces owned by MOCA GA and more recent works. Amalia Amaki, Linda Armstrong, Benny Andrews, Jim Waters, E.K. Huckaby and Philip Carpenter give a shout out to the home team with work that sometimes hints at a life's work but for the most part only scratches the surface in illustrating these six artists' careers.

Viewers are nudged in a chronological direction and encouraged to do a compare and contrast between past and present work that is in some cases rewarding, and in others, an intellectual dead-end. Transitions might have been a better forum for these individual artists had they been allowed to strut their stuff a little more and been given a broader representation of their output.

In some cases, an artist's work has remained largely unchanged, as with the dark, nostalgia-infused paintings by Atlanta's own time-traveler E.K. Huckaby. Huckaby's work in Transitions illustrates how much better the artist is when he sticks to a simplicity of content and form, and how much more moodiness is conveyed with a minimum of detail. A work like "Same Hour" (1994) profits from a nagging sense that something has been left out, that a huge narrative unfolds beyond the picture plane, a story that concerns death and dying, sickness and people who are only vaguely evoked in the image's empty hospital beds.

Like several other Transitions artists, Huckaby's oeuvre is represented with a paucity of works. One, a series of small paintings, is titled "Incorrigible" (2002) and features 18 individual candles that melt and flicker as time goes on in temporal works whose tarry, dense surface suggests an aged memento of the past.

Huckaby is one of the artists in Transitions who can nevertheless profit from a small sampling of work. In these two pieces, one can still grasp the fixations that have continually dominated the artist's work: an immersion in the past, an obsession with the ephemeral and a sense of loss.Unlike the consistency of Huckaby's work, Benny Andrews' Transitions images show a definite shift as the artist has increasingly abandoned the telling simplicity of his lean, angular ink-on-paper drawings for collage and color-infused work that is not always an improvement on his past output. In "Connecting" (1989), a barroom scene unfolds with Andrews' spare drawing style nevertheless conveying a maximum of individual personality as a lounge lizard-type makes half-mast dipsomaniac eyes at a curvy babe perched on a barstool. But some of this punchy, concise storytelling is traded for the vaguely poster-art feel of an image like "Museumscape" (2001) created as a promotional print for MOCA GA.

As if glorifying the institution that in turn elevated him, works like "Museumscape" and "The Point of It All" (2002) present the museum as a combination temple and town square, demonstrating the artist's movement away from the subtle ticks of the individual toward grand pronouncements about place.

While Andrews illustrates the common artist pitfall of reaching for more complex materials, colors and details as they advance, Linda Armstrong's "Fungi" (2002) proves how pared-down materials can lead to more direct work.

On paper tacked with pushpins to the wall, Armstrong has created imprints of mushroom "droppings" — Rorschach tests of these vegetable "personalities." The visceral red-browns of the shrooms and their smeared, leaky properties immediately suggest dried blood or menstrual fluids in images that clearly reference their fungal-origins or create more ambiguous stains that resemble lonely isles or tissue cultures.

These individual fungi could have easily been paired with Philip Carpenter's equally one-of-a-kind colored pencil drawings (1999-2002) of ordinary tools — scissors, a paintbrush, a wrench — in the artist's delightful portraiture of humankind's diligent, utilitarian helpmates. Stroking some innate pleasure button that thrills to flashcard-simple renderings of our everyday object world, Carpenter captures the sublime, perfect usefulness contained in so much industrial design.

For the most part, it is a pleasure to see local artists commemorated in such an elegant space, despite the often frustratingly slim representation of too many artists and too little work. And hopefully, with time, MOCA GA will become less reliant on continually asserting its own pedigree and identity by offering shows whose starting point is something deeper than spotlighting work from its own collection. As a central theme, that focus will eventually play out and grow tiresome, even if one applauds the effort to champion local heroes.

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