For Art's Sake - Heed the call

Reverend Billy preaches an anti-consumerist message

The show-biz affectation. The swagger. The hair. Who hasn't cruised the late-night highways and found themselves mesmerized by the charisma and cock-of-the-walk confidence of Christianity's gaudy showmen?

Reverend Billy (aka Bill Talen), a veteran of San Francisco's avant-garde theater, is a 52-year-old performance artist and activist who knows very well the can't-help-but-gawk effect of the TV preacher man.

For the past eight years, Reverend Billy has been tapping into that inherent outrageousness by assuming the guise of a fire-and-brimstone preacher with a holy rolling delivery and a Wayne Newton pompadour. Reverend Billy is a modern-day David beaming a rock at his corporate Goliaths - companies such as Starbucks, Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble.

"In the Church of Stop Shopping we think the real fundamentalist church in this country is the transnational retailer," says the good Reverend, speaking via phone from his New York apartment while packing for a soul-saving trip to Frankfurt, Germany. "They have four Starbucks within walking distance to the theater," he says with gleeful expectation of his imminent engagement with Europe's corporate culture.

Every preacher has his bugaboo: rock 'n' roll, feminists, the Teletubbies.

Reverend Billy does, too. The contemporary blight that really gets under his skin is the "fake bohemianism" of Starbucks. The Reverend says the chain has managed to bogart all of the hipster cool of jazz, the Beats and expatriate coffee culture and repackage it as a steaming cup of yuppie brew.

"Coffee has an actual revolutionary history and to use that to make people depoliticized so they're refusing to think about what their $4 is doing, that's very sad."

Starbucks isn't exactly a fan of the Reverend, either. A court order bars him from coming within 250 yards of any California Starbucks.

But the lack of corporate support for his mission doesn't dissuade the Rev. B.

Short-circuiting the easy exchange between consumer and God Retail is his goal, and if the suits can't take a joke, so be it. He will continue his street theater mock dramas and corporate interventions at chains across the country to shake Americans out of their lethargy.

Reverend Billy will bring his anti-consumption message to Atlanta as part of the citywide culture-palooza, the College Art Association's annual conference, Feb. 16-19. The Reverend will lead a Stop Shopping parade Sat., Feb. 19, at noon from downtown's Marriott Marquis, along Peachtree Center Avenue, to the Georgia State University Student Center.

To see the best current solo show dedicated to an influential African-American artist, you're probably going to have to go a little farther afield than the High's The Art of Romare Bearden (through April 24; www.high.org), a respectable tribute to that artist in keeping with the museum's emphasis on noncontroversial work by dead people.

But drive a couple of hours on I-20 and you'll find a truly subversive exhibition by renowned conceptual artist Kerry James Marshall at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Kerry James Marshall: One True Thing, Meditations on Black Aesthetics (through April 24; www.artsbma.org) features installation, sculpture, photography and mixed media works informed by the Chicago artist's desire to bring race to the front burner of the art world's concerns. The real standouts in this provocative show are Marshall's gorgeous, oversized paintings featuring pitch-black African-Americans. Marshall says he uses that signature inky color to leave no doubt that "blackness" is his subjects' primary concern.

Birmingham's embrace of contemporary art was apparent from the diverse crowd that gathered for a Saturday morning lecture by Marshall in a packed auditorium. With his sardonic laugh and infectious enthusiasm, Marshall delivered a rousing introduction to his work, including a discussion of how the foundation of his art making was laid by public school teachers who cared enough to nurture his work beginning in kindergarten.??

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