Critic's Notebook: Curating the High's 'Sprawl!'

Michael Rooks talks about the process of selecting works to be included in the sequel to 'Drawing Inside the Perimeter.'

? Following up on the success of the 2013 exhibition Drawing Inside the Perimeter, the High Museum's Sprawl! Drawing Outside the Lines focuses on work by contemporary Atlanta-based artists. The new show expands the concept by featuring over 100 recently-acquired works by more than 75 artists (both ITP and OTP), including a title wall designed by Atlanta muralist Paper Frank. CL caught up with the High's Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Michael Rooks to chat about picking the works to represent Atlanta in the show.
? Tell me about the process of selecting work for Sprawl!.
? I visit artists' studios with Atlanta art consultant Marianne Lambert and art patron Susan Antinori. We call ourselves the "Three Amigos." We do studio visits every Thursday, about five or six of them. From those visits, I follow up with artists whose place in their career seems very serious and mature.
? But how do you hear about an artist before a visit?
? I ask artists to recommend other artists. I've always respected artists' recommendations about anyone else. When I visit with people and we make a connection, I'll ask if they know anyone else worth meeting and taking a look at.
? When you go to a studio and consider work, what are you looking for?
? I arrange studio visits with people whose work interests me. I don't go with the specific goal of buying something or acquiring something. It's not a transactional thing. It's about me meeting artists who are interesting and serious and who have a studio practice that's growing and evolving.
? Whose studio was the most unusual or surprising?
? I guess that would be Frank Dunson. He works out of his apartment. His day job is being Paper Frank. He works across the country doing big mural projects. He lives in a little one-bedroom apartment, and it's full of art. His walls are covered in painted images. What he does extends off of the paper and canvas and onto the walls. It's this environment that's just incredible.
? The work in the show seems really varied, but would you say that there's some sort of approach or style that these artists all share that's identifiably "Atlanta"?
? I don't know if I can say "identifiably Atlanta," but there are certain strands of influence that are perhaps unique to Atlanta. One of them is this sort of underground approach. There is now an underground here that's really vibrant and that's self-sustaining. It's like Chicago in the '60s. The underground there became known as the Chicago Imagists. They were doing something against the grain, figurative work that no one else was doing. Here, the underground consists of artists who are sometimes untrained, who also often work in the commercial realm — illustration, tattoo, murals, and graphic design — so those influences of commercial art are very strong. They're very comfortable crossing over, very ambidextrous.
? Do you have any advice for people who haven't really collected art before but might be interested in exploring this realm and buying some work by Atlanta artists?
? Be receptive to learning about what artists are up to and what the work is about. Go to galleries. Pay attention to the gallery system we have here in the city. It's small, but it's really vibrant and there are great things. I would say go to the Sprawl exhibition site where we have hyperlinks for all the artists in the show. Go to their websites and check them out. They're amazing, but they're a fraction of the number of people in the city making great work. Take a chance on buying something that may not be immediately appealing to you. Something that's immediately appealing may be just decorative, and you'll lose interest in it after a couple weeks. A really powerful work of art is something you can look at every day. I personally collect. My apartment here is full of art from Atlanta. I have things sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall in every room. I love coming home at the end of the week. I just sit there and have a cocktail and look at them. I don't have a TV so that's my TV. I just never get tired of coming home and looking at these things.

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