Visual Arts - Don't believe the hype

Pat Courtney pillories the culture industry at Sandler Hudson

Artist Pat Courtney is cranky. But cranky can be, in The Martha's parlance, a good thing. Cranky, in Courtney's terms, means she is still alive and kicking.

Though Courtney's Notes on Museums and Permanence appears at Sandler Hudson Gallery as part of Atlanta Celebrates Photography, it is as much about text as it is about image. The New York-based artist pairs photographs whose haziness suggests memory (the result of digitally printing 3-D photographs) with extended sidebars of text.

Her writing style is indebted to the Internet, the asides and pop-ups and labyrinthine circuit of information chug-a-lugging that characterizes life under "www." An idea introduced in her first several sentences, for instance, will often lead to a Web search that leads to a different idea. These observations-within-observations are like the reflective surfaces that dominate her photographs. They give a sense that we are privy to the addled, disjointed mindset of someone whose very thought process has been dictated by the frenzied pace of modern life.

The text deals, in terms both raging and wonderfully sassy, with the increasing commodification of modern life. On a micro level, Courtney is concerned with the commodification of museums; with how the rise of cafes and gift shops, mega-architect expansions and novelty all conspire to cheapen and degrade the art experience.

In "Not Only," which features an image of pedestrians reflected in a glass doorway, she remarks, "The once feared concept of the spectacle has been totally absorbed." In that image and many others, Courtney offers firsthand accounts in biting asides, footnotes and digressions on the Culture Industry as an industry first and foremost.

Her discussion of how an art world once deeply suspicious of flash and "spectacle" has now become devoted to those superficial qualities is on the money. With the allure of big money, art fairs, biennials and media hype, the art world certainly has been seduced by the spectacle.

In this and many other works, Courtney bristles with the irritation of an artist attuned to how fraudulent the world can be — how values of commerce and flash often eclipse meaning and depth. But she also bristles with that peculiar, prickly peevishness of a confirmed New Yorker watching the character of her city change. One of the most poignant works, "This is About," conveys in personal, nostalgic terms what has been lost in her spruced-up and gentrified New York.

But Courtney also has bigger fish to fry. In many ways, her exhibition is a skeptical, observant person's distillation of how the type of commodification she sees infecting the art world has also crept into many phases of modern life.

When Courtney is specific, she tends to hit her mark with greater frequency. She seems utterly accurate, for example, in her suggestion with "In This Age," that in a neurotic post-Sept. 11 age, nesting, domesticity and an increased consumption of household goods have become a means of staving off political anxiety. It's the kind of observation any of us could probably look around at our own world and see evidence of. "Intellectualism, long revered as part of the New York scene, has now been replaced by a fascination with home decor," Courtney notes.

But when Courtney goes macro, her ideas tend to crumble, dispersing into grumbling lefty buckshot, a rail against corporate forces that needs more detail, evidence and grit to compete amid a growing progressive dissent.

It is possible in a show like Notes on Museums and Permanence to admire the artist and the idea, without always admiring the execution. Courtney's grievances are worth noting, and paired with images that often fixate on a world closed to her — closed doors, reflective surfaces — she creates a powerful visual vocabulary via architecture. Courtney has created a critical record of a world of surfaces that proves she, at least, is not fooled.

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