For Art’s Sake - Beware the bovine

CowParade marches into Atlanta

This summer Atlanta will become the next stop on the CowParade, billed as “the world’s largest public art exhibition.” The project began in Zurich in 1998 and has spread to numerous cities since, including Chicago and New York. In Atlanta more than 200 life-size fiberglass cows will be decorated by local artists and businesses and then auctioned off to benefit two charities, the Southeast Division of the American Cancer Society and TechBridge, which provides technological services to Georgia charitable associations.

While some have heralded the CowParade as a way to increase exposure for the arts, Atlanta’s arts community benefits only tangentially from the project, which pays artists $1,000 to decorate individual cows, which are then auctioned off in October.

While the arts remain consistently underfunded in Atlanta, the CowParade is the kind of “virtual” art advocacy even city boosters and corporations can get behind: It generates tourist revenue and gives a terminally image-conscious city like Atlanta a sense of connection with the other big cities that have participated.

More than art, the CowParade brings to mind the Olympics, which also spoke in similar terms about enhancing Atlanta’s global status and generating tourist income but often demonstrated small-minded thinking and corporate greed in a bid to make a buck from that cash cow. Atlanta’s participation in the CowParade reiterates its terminal teenage neurosis as a town that courts legitimacy by nurturing insubstantial things like “image” while neglecting more lasting things like a fertile arts community.

But trying to tailor an individual artist’s expression to a manufactured fiberglass mold with no apparent relevance to Atlanta (beyond the embrace of meat-eating) seems a paltry way of recognizing the particular talents and achievements of the local art scene. And despite paying lip service to self-expression, the CowParade has already shown where its true interests lie: in upbeat cows like the red, white and blue “Americow the Beautiful,” the gumball machine cow, the Wizard of Oz and Gladiator cows of past parades. The CowParade reinforces an idea that art is all about pleasing, amusing and delighting viewers, rather than challenging them, as the refusal of a cow designed by PETA and the censorship of David Lynch’s cow from the New York CowParade proved.

Decapitated and pierced with knives, Lynch’s cow was deemed unacceptable for the CowParade NYC 2000. So much for artistic expression.

Like the CowParade, it is the showy demonstrations and big events that often command attention, but nothing demonstrated the eloquence of small, quiet endeavors as well as Atlanta College of Art student Hope Hilton’s recent thesis show The Turn of the Screw, which appeared, along with ACA student Anna Watson’s work, at Gallery 100. The show was a quiet protest against war using the material of family history, featuring small photographs mounted on wood in a shocking contrast to photography’s recent emphasis on monumental works.

The work centers on Hilton’s 20-year-old younger brother, Ryan, currently stationed in the Middle East and pictured in this heartbreaking series as an empty space in family photographs, his body carefully cut out and transposed to a map of the Middle East far away. Ryan joined the Marine reserves out of high school to pay for college and got out of boot camp the day before 9-11. Hilton began the work just one month ago, inspired by the sudden shock of her brother’s shipment to the Middle East.

“So it’s very personal,” says Hilton in a wavering voice. “I was trying to think of how I could share it with people because it’s really important to me that it be made real to a lot more people than it is.

“War happens to real people and it’s not just in the news,” says Hilton.

At the show’s opening Hilton braced herself for anger or arguments about the war. Instead, “I had a few people telling me they thought my brother was really courageous and that they were happy he’s in the military.”

Hilton found those comments especially ironic because, she says, “I know he’s scared to death.”

Hilton’s work will be featured in the forthcoming Atlanta Biennial at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center March 22-June 7, as well as in a group show at Grant Park’s new artist-run Dos Pestaneos Gallery in the Eyedrum complex April 5-May 8.

Another notable offering from the Atlanta College of Art is the gallery’s current group show Lick the Window, which continues through March 9. Featuring the deliciously silly, prankish and smart work of the 80-member Bordeaux, France, art collective Buy-Sellf, the show lampoons our slavish devotion to a vacuous global culture of blockbuster movies, Coca-Cola and video games. Like some cross-eyed love child of the avant-garde and pop culture, Dada and “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” this ultra-clever exhibition uses the material of the status quo to sucker punch the very culture it so head-shakingly inhabits.

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