Visual Arts - Locals only

Atlanta Biennial's broad reach nets a mixed bag at the Contemporary

Sirmans has made an obvious effort — in an art world often hung up on young, trendy, Next Big Thing artists — to represent mature, culturally diverse and self-taught artists, as well as a range of styles and media, from drawing, sculpture, video and painting to formalist and conceptual work.

But the Catch-22 of showing such a broad range of artists and styles is how frustratingly scrambled this Biennial feels. With its discordant mix, it's often hard to get a sense of the real connective tissue beneath Sirmans' desire to be inclusive.

Sirmans has managed to sniff out an impressive number of Atlanta's established and rising talents, including, among others, Sara Hornbacher, Donald Locke, Hope Hilton, Michael Gibson, Kathryn Refi and Alex Kvares, as well as some promising, exploratory work from Emily Diehl and Rusty Wallace. But there is also a fair amount of mediocre work that may not be the best representation of either the artist in question (several artists are underrepresented with just one piece) or the local art scene.

Not that there aren't serendipitous and inspired choices. For instance, the placement of Larry Walker's and Eric Mack's works on opposite walls of the main gallery draws out fascinating differences in their approach to the modern, post-industrial fracas. Walker's street scenes littered with pornography, want ads, lost pet notices, advertisements and movie posters is a culture of disturbing overload — a bleating mania that suggests an artist critiquing the comparable effect on our brains.

But in the equally frenetic melee of Mack's collages, the effect is quite different. In Mack's cool, controlled grids, reminiscent of colorful roadmaps or computer circuitry, he suggests a completely different vantage. Mack approaches the same mania with a sense of wonder. He displays a higher comfort level with technology and the psychedelic blur of a culture on overdrive, which underscores a distinctly generational divide between the two artists.

Such compelling juxtapositions often give way to chaotic ones, like Scott Ingram's amusing use of the humble material of nail polish to offer a conceptual response to heroic art history as he paints his own Revlon-"redrawings" onto pages torn from an Ellsworth Kelly catalogue.

But placing that work next to Debra Fritts' terra cotta and wire sculpture "Crown of Birds" is like a wedding reception DJ'd by a manic-depressive, jumping from John Cage to Dolly Parton. In the same room of shocking tonal shifts is Traci Molloy's "Day 3220," whose somber qualities suggest one of Billie Holiday's subdued ballads. In this series of digital prints, whose dark backgrounds give the sense of a stormy sky, Molloy has imprinted the images with row upon row of days from 1 to 3,220, like some endless scroll or tombstone inscription. The work is a haunting meditation on time and fate with echoes of the sentinel-like, eternal tone of Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The only real negative in this compelling work is Molloy's placement of a row of schoolroom desks in front of the images — which gives the piece a didactic quality that takes away from its portentous tone.

There are interesting strains of a continuous engagement with art history in this Biennial from Ingram's riffs on minimalism to Sara Hornbacher and Prema Murthy's fugues on traditional oil painting. Housed in an ornate gold frame, Sara Hornbacher's motion picture imagery in "Frames of Reference" seems an answer to painting's quandary of how to activate a static picture plane and give the illusion of life.

With its ironic use of that gilt frame, Hornbacher's work also complements Murthy's gothic black velvet inkjet prints populated with twisted, fleshy forms that have a vague resemblance to both the fictitious animated bodies of video games and the cherubs and maidens of oil paintings. Murthy's work treats the mutability and bodily chaos of cyberspace, finding a shared interest in exalted states and physical excess in the traditional and the technological.

Murthy's emphasis on mutation and radically altered bodies works well with some of the most disturbing and richest work in the show, hung in the Contemporary's small rotunda gallery like a sullen teen consigned to the curatorial time-out chair.

Underscoring similarities in subject matter and style, Sirmans has hung work by Loretta Mae Hirsch and Alex Kvares on the gallery walls so they blend together in one tapestry of embarrassment, sex, mutation, degradation and neurosis.

Merging the medieval and the contemporary, Kvares' heavy metal Bosch drawings stress boils and pustules, baroque penetrations and disembowelings, and a landscape of sexual perversity with references to R. Crumb, Mad magazine and Hogarth crossed with the world's most sociopathic teen.

Hirsch's similarly sexual and shocking drawings, far less ornamental and obsessively detailed than Kvares', suggest a girl's-eye spin on similar concerns, with strains of fashion illustration, Edward Gorey and Egon Schiele creeping into the cathartic exorcisms of the fantasies and fears of being female.

But in general this Biennial is too unfocused and too eclectic in ways that create a jarring sensory clash. The show may well highlight the diversity of artists in Atlanta, but it is hardly the ideal forum for their talents.


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