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For Art's Sake - Beware the black clad

College art conference graces ATL with its presence

The sodomites are coming! The sodomites are coming!

Georgians bolted their doors and warned young children not to wander into the streets the weekend of Feb. 16-19.

No, the circus wasn't in town. Just the College Art Association, a 14,000-member organization of academics, art historians and artists from institutions like Brown, Columbia and Yale, gathering in Atlanta for their annual conference. The Marriott Marquis had not seen such a massive gathering of the libertine and black clad since Dragon*Con decamped there last September.

"For many years we did not come here because we did not go anyplace that had actively enforced anti-sodomy laws," says Susan Ball, CAA's executive director for 19 years. "And as soon as Georgia changed on that, we started pursuing coming here."

Of course, there were other reasons to keep the conference out of the South. The state flag issue for a time. And murmurings within CAA that Georgia's recent passage of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages should inspire a boycott.

Then there was the whole "problem" of the South itself, as one CAA member, who asked not to be quoted, confessed. The organization does deal with an elite Northeastern bias that tends to see anyplace outside the N.Y./L.A./Chicago axis as fly-over territory.

"I think the Civil War is still being fought," said former CAA President Michael Aurbach. "I think south of the Mason-Dixon Line in the art world is considered Bubba and things outside of that are considered serious."

Despite the potential for haughty dismissal of Atlanta's art scene, local art spaces fell over themselves in the weeks before the conference, setting up eye-catching exhibitions in anticipation of people like critic Donald Kuspit and artist Nancy Spero breezing into town. But several local curators expressed disappointment at the paltry numbers of CAA attendees who actually showed up for their exhibitions.

Some blamed the packed CAA schedule of symposiums and receptions. Others pointed their fingers at Atlanta's pitiful public transportation system and a lack of CAA shuttles to ferry participants to local galleries.

The annual meeting featured some of the surreal juxtapositions that conferences specialize in, in which a gathering of people united by highly esoteric interests meet under the generic canopy of an opulently ordinary downtown hotel.

While the radical disciplines of Marxism, feminism and queer theory filled the recirculating air, certain less radical convention clichés abounded: ugly free canvas bags bearing the CAA logo, PowerPoint lectures, cell phones emitting their technological burps mid-lecture. The contrast of the chandelier ornamented bourgeois-luxe surroundings often formed a humorous contrast to rabble-rousing discussion of Patriot Act fascism and shop talk about "phallocentric bias."

The CAA conference boasted engaging lectures, spasms of pea soup academic jargon, and discussion of issues of special interest to local art fans. The fascinating "Rethinking Andrew Wyeth" symposium, for instance, offered a preview of things to come when the High Museum inaugurates its new $130 million Renzo Piano-designed expansion with a Wyeth retrospective.

Norman Rockwell underwent a re-evaluation from kitsch to old master under curator Anne Knutson at the High, and Wyeth (whose exhibition will also be curated by Knutson) appears about due for a similar spit-polish. After being celebrated in the '50s as a modernist peer of Jackson Pollock, Wyeth has been written off by many critics and academics as hopelessly middlebrow and, in the words of a panelist from the University of Kansas, David Cateforis, "uncool." By that definition, I think we can safely predict that the Wyeth show will be a blockbuster.

At the CAA conference, there were great, impromptu moments of academic navel-gazing, like an overheard conversation held in the ladies room. A gray-haired woman held a flash card with a picture of a red bird up to her friend - who, mysteriously, also had a flashcard with a red bird - and stated, "We should be asking: Is this a red bird?" the woman trilled, excitedly. "Or is this a representation of a red bird?" To which her friend nodded, knowingly.

And there were run-ins with the law, too, though not for sodomy.

Reverend Billy, the New York performance artist who planned to stage an anti-consumption march through downtown Atlanta, was detained by Marriott security at a hotel coffee bar, perhaps for preaching within 10 yards of a corporate logo. Those things have rights now, I hear. Photographs of the melee suggest some kind of post-modern dinner theater: white reverend detained by black security in the "city too busy to hate" for spreading his message of "stop shopping." For crucial minutes there, the South's reputation seemed to be once again on the line as an oppressive state with a lousy sense of humor.

But a CAA official intervened. The good Reverend was allowed to proceed with his march, and the show went on.??



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