For Art's Sake - Art anxiety

Notes for the virgin viewer

When you are a regular art-goer, it's easy to forget how intimidating an art gallery can be.

Recently, I recommended a painting show at Fay Gold Gallery to my neighbor. I thought he might be interested.

He hesitated. He wanted to know if the gallery would give him any flack for going in just to look.

That wasn't the first time I'd heard about this phenomenon of art anxiety.

Bill Bounds, who operates the Ty Stokes Gallery in the ground floor of his Castleberry Hill home, remembers a time when he was a banker in Dallas. Friends at the bank heard that Bounds went to galleries, and they asked to accompany him on his treks, as if they needed someone to part the wild jungle fronds to this threatening, foreign lair.

That's why Bounds was so intent on making his own space a welcoming one.

It's a pity that galleries, which constitute so much of the cultural fabric of the city, are so often fraught with the kind of anxiety that keeps potential art lovers and buyers away.

There is no denying galleries can be daunting spaces, from the design of the spaces to the staff attitudes.

For instance, there's the ubiquitous gallery architecture of reception counters: You can't even see the gallery worker behind them. You feel like an East German approaching the Berlin Wall.

Then, there are the confusing variations in gallery operation. Some galleries offer the name and medium the artist is working in directly on the wall. Some provide wall text as well. But at some galleries, you must hunt down the list of artists to find out who exactly is responsible for the work on display. Some galleries provide price lists, while others, especially nonprofit art spaces, are reluctant to sully their hands with the dirty business of money.

Admittedly, there are numerous opportunities for faux pas and confusion. Many Atlantans undoubtedly stay away from galleries because they are afraid of looking stupid.

It's a shame.

There's a range of intimidation factor at local galleries. On one extreme, there are the "show me the money" galleries, where you are unlikely to be acknowledged by the staff of glamourbots behind epic barricade desks. On the other hand are galleries like Thomas Deans & Company, Alcove and Eyedrum, which exude a "come one, come all" ambiance and present exhibits that are accessible and accommodating to all kinds.

Friendly or unfriendly, Atlanta galleries remain one of the cheapest ideals in the city. Virgin viewers have nothing to fear but fear itself. After all, free gawking is one of the few egalitarian pleasures left in an increasingly money-driven art world and in a city where everything is for sale.

So just walk in, look around, and act like you are supposed to be there.

SPEAKING OF ART ANXIETY, on May 12, Atlanta College of Art graduating senior Heidi Geldhauser presented her thesis exhibition at Gallery 100 in the Woodruff Arts Center. Entitled Fluff, the installation consisted of a giant wedding cake and piles of plates on a banquet table.According to Geldhauser, the piece was about the anxiety that ambiguous situations provoke and that the gallery setting can intensify.

Geldhauser says she hoped her show would inspire some questions from viewers. "The weird tension between: Should I eat this? Should I not? Is it sculpture? Is it real?" she says.

At Geldhauser's opening, viewers whose sense of decorum was finally overridden by desire wound up eating the cake, breaking several plates and smearing cake on the gallery wall.

But several days later, when the gallery was briefly unattended, someone entered the space and broke almost 200 plates in a destructive free-for-all. The incident took Geldhauser's intellectual provocations to a nasty, literal extreme, leaving the artist demoralized and possibly out $600 if she couldn't find out who did the damage.

The Case of the Smashed Plates illustrates a bizarre instance of discomfort or anger with galleries and artistic ambiguity. But it also has a happy ending. The Atlanta College of Art agreed to pay for the damages, and its Office of Student Affairs launched an investigation into the vandalism.

Atlanta is represented in the upcoming issue of New American Paintings, a Boston-based publication. The issue centers on 40 Southeastern artists, and among them are 11 Atlanta-area artists, including Laura Bell, Lloyd Benjamin, Christie Blizzard, Steven Frenkel, Lisa Holland, Shara Hughes (who is featured on the cover), Alex Kvares, Rocio Rodriguez, Anna Scarbrough and Katherine Taylor. The magazine hits newsstands mid-June.FELICIA.FEASTER@CREATIVELOAFING.COM

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