Visual Arts - Man of steel

Metal sculptor debuts subversive masterwork

When Clark Ashton thinks, he thinks monumentally. The Decatur sculptor-cum-theoretician suggests Noam Chomsky with a blowtorch and has the subversive folksiness of certain Southern men whose good humor is laced with mordant critique.

For the past five years, the 44-year-old artist has labored like any 9-to-5er on the workaday wheel. Only Ashton isn't being paid for his labor — he's turning his energies into an enormous piece of yard art that articulates his certainty that Americans are being deceptively charmed by a malevolent combination of capitalism and religion.

Ashton's eccentric form of protest is an epic iron and steel structure he unveiled on that most accursed of teenage holidays: Friday the 13th. He bills this epic sculpture, "The Infrastructure of an Uncertain Future," as "a monument to the 20th century, an artifact of fantasy, and a foreshadowing of future collapse and mutation." The Barnum-worthy hype is in many ways deadly serious for Ashton, who has even self-published a book, It's Later than You Think, dedicated to his theories.

"I know it's funny," says Ashton, "but at the same time it is honest-to-God real solid philosophical stuff. Because when you study belief systems, what they're about is relieving our anxiety that comes about because of our cognizance of mortality."

Plunked in the yard of his Decatur residence (3162 N. Druid Hills Road), "Infrastructure" resembles the post-apocalyptic remnants of some grim factory. That resemblance isn't coincidental: The work is a visual commentary on the potential disaster of a society founded on unchecked waste, gluttony, destruction of national resources, greed and the woeful hell to pay later.

Ashton's front yard, aka The Commuter Gallery, is flanked by a Mad Max-meets-Tim Burton fence decorated with vultures and various Cubist creatures of Ashton's invention, including the both pitiful and horrifying "eelmen" and "sperm skeletons." The fence is Ashton's sardonic first defense against a parade of 9-to-5 lost souls on their morning commute down the "mechanical river" of North Druid Hills Road.

In the rear of the house, the commentary continues in a carnivalesque nightmare resembling an eviscerated pipe organ, "The Superstructure," which Ashton says is about the "super-sizing" of America. Evoking both cathedral and factory, the work projects up to 35 feet in its most violent assault upon the heavens.

Ashton's subversive folk environment pokes fun at how easily the American institutions of industry and belief manufacture consent. When Ashton, the ultimate visionary artist, was unable to secure funding for this enormous project, he decided to undertake the work in his yard on his own dime. Ashton's original proposal was to create "Infrastructure" on the Georgia Tech campus, where he served an artist residency. Unfortunately, such institutionally funded phantasms did not come to pass. It's probably all for the best, says Ashton. "I just like having the stuff here. I don't know what I would do if somebody really wanted it."

Fortunately, Ashton continued on his path regardless. The kind of iconoclast who enlivens the scene with his mere presence, Ashton actually lives up to the legend of artists who create works of scathing rage and protest despite a lack of support.

The art of movie matte painting receives an extraordinary tribute in Chronicle Book's The Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting by Mark Cotta Vaz and Craig Barron. This 287-page wonder (including a CD-ROM) documents the art form from early efforts like 1933's King Kong through the luridly beautiful, cotton candy sunsets in Gone With the Wind to the surreal advances in computer-generated digital effects in films like Castaway.

While the more recent matte painting shown in Invisible can often have the Hieronymus Bosch-meets-heavy metal vulgarity of black velvet paintings, this copiously illustrated book is in every other aspect sublime, a treasure trove for the techie wonks as much as for film history buffs and art aficionados.

The associations Ann Stalemark creates in her artwork are as subtle and delicate as the work itself. Stalemark's solo show Batter at artshow (314 N. Highland Ave., 404-524-1244) may not always offer clarity, but it does something far more interesting as her strange combinations set off inexplicable emotional triggers.

This 23-year-old Atlanta College of Art student makes work that references femininity, the body, reproduction and menstruation with the most intoxicatingly scrambled semiotics. Her "sketches" of the female body made from yarn, thread, fishing wire and delicate imprints of color are both tender and disturbing. Her photographs of a baby's body are singularly disquieting and lovely, provoking an uncanny shiver for the way they investigate the gender ambiguity and otherworldly mystery of children.

The show runs through Oct. 12.


For Art's Sake is a biweekly column covering the local arts scene.??