For Art’s Sake - For the people

Youngblood stays true to its grassroots origins

After six years in existence, Youngblood Gallery still maintains the scruffy aesthetics of a baby Eyedrum, looking as if it’s just woken up from a monumental night of partying. That rough-around-the-edges vibe comes with a defiant artist-centric approach evident in its youth culture-friendly embrace of graffiti, graphic novel and anime influences and its very un-tony exhibition strategies.

In a refreshing break from the expense and salesmanship of slickly framed works, many of the pieces in the Grant Park gallery’s current group exhibition The Animal Show (through Jan. 26) are simply tacked onto the walls, like a kid’s drawings displayed by a proud parent on the refrigerator. That humbleness of means is completely in character with work that exhibits a no-nonsense politicized undertone of concern for animals as the most vulnerable and exploited among us.

Stand-outs in the Animal Show include Ryan Lincicolm’s poster art of humility bordering on self-abasement, which depicts the artist as a squirrel monkey. The work not only typifies the “they are we” subtext of the show, but it creates an oddly delightful and apt physical metaphor for a certain lanky, plaid shirt-wearing subset of sexless, vulnerable slackers. Katie Malone’s murky, purposefully garbled paintings of a “Flamenca with Bull” reference a certain retro ’60s-style hotel art, but her work moves into darker territory in her portrait “Roped Calf.” Too bad there’s not more of the artists’ work on display, which might give a better sense of where exactly they are coming from.

Youngblood’s pricing system may be the space’s most democratic, grassroots feature. The Animal Show proves Youngblood as one of the few venues in town where art is priced within an affordable range for day-to-day art audiences and other artists rather than for the elusive, imagined collector. While art has become an increasingly inaccessible status object among its own constituency, the range of works in Animal, many hovering in the $40-$70 range, meant a plethora of red “sold” dots.

Deanna Sirlin’s colorful paintings, which have been translated onto enormous transparencies, are the focus of the current Saltworks Gallery show (through Feb. 8). Lovely but strangely dispassionate, the work seems distinctly out of character with the overall brainy tone of previous Saltworks shows.

More interesting are the pieces arranged into mini-solo shows in the gallery’s warren of back rooms, including the austere, elegant works by Christopher McNulty and Mike Wsol. McNulty’s imperfectly crafted rulers and other humbly made objects offer precise and pared-down meditations on human fallibility. Wsol’s splendid, elemental sculptures riff on the perverse architecture of modern life. “In-feed” shows the sprinkler systems and other mechanics beneath a golf course-style design in the most witty and minimalist terms.

Some of the show’s most adventurous work is owner/curator Brian Holcombe’s “Waiting Compartment I,” a small room that becomes a human cage and sensory deprivation chamber when outfitted with a white “love seat” facing maddeningly white walls. Commentary on the banal architecture of our office spaces and waiting rooms, Holcombe’s interplay of disorienting white walls and white noise “Muzak” provides contemporary ennui with a tranquilized Kubrickian ambiance. Time stands unpleasantly still. The room’s rock hard bench, its anti-focal points of white and fluorescent light, and the ceaseless, droning music suggest some way station on the long, slow train ride to death.

Texas-based artist Michael Ray Charles has become something of an authority on issues of race as seen through the imagery that makes up our checkered American history. Charles’ wry/scary paintings of re-contextualized Sambos, Mammies and other racist caricatures draw from advertising, the circus and minstrel shows to pillory the bizarre and warped representation of African-Americans.

Charles served as a visual consultant on Bamboozled (2000), Spike Lee’s own commentary on the racist imagery of the past about a newfangled television minstrel show. Charles will appear in Atlanta at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art Feb. 6 at 6 p.m. to discuss race and representation in a symposium titled “Beyond Bamboozled.”

Speaking by phone from Austin, where he teaches at the University of Texas, Charles expresses his continuing interest in the Bamboozled-theme of how history is recast in new clothes for the present’s uncritical digestion.

That desire to deny history, says Charles, may be on the rise due to African-American gains. Rising prosperity and middle-class contentment can mean that “there’s an ability to relax and let your guard down and you don’t see how more of the same is being repackaged,” says Charles.

“What my work does expose is the continuing struggle that goes back thousands of years, with difference and the construction of the Other.”

For Art’s Sake is a bi-weekly column covering the local art scene.