The South comes alive once again

The Atlanta Contemporary wakes up the Atlanta Biennial out of its 9-year slumber

Image TEA TIME: Sharon Norwood’s “The Fruit of the Matter V”Courtesy Sharon Norwood
Victoria Camblin and Daniel Fuller, editor at ART PAPERS and Atlanta Contemporary’s curator, respectively, found themselves deep in the archives of their new employers in 2013-2014 to learn more about Atlanta’s path to now. As non-natives, they quickly bonded over their institutions’ shared legacies. Both the Atlanta Contemporary (then Nexus) and ART PAPERS have been integral voices in the city’s arts scene since the ’70s — from providing a forum for exploring contemporary art to providing public programming to the community.

They both found reviews from the past Atlanta Biennials, plus a surprise — a response to the Atlanta Biennial called the Alternative Biennial, Camblin says, laughing during a phone conversation with Creative Loafing. The irony.

A biennial, an Italian term for every other year, is often a large-scale contemporary art exhibition aimed at highlighting new voices in the art world. Cities around the world have their own biennials, from Kingston, Jamaica to Berlin. The Atlanta Biennial was born out of need.

In 1983, the Whitney Museum released a survey of influential contemporary artists. Of the 75-plus artists featured, none hailed from or currently resided in the Southeast. The Whitney Museum Biennial is often regarded as the most important survey of the state of contemporary art in the United States.

As a response, Alan Sondheim, curator of the Nexus Contemporary at the time, created an exhibition on contemporary art emerging from the Southeast that same year. According to Camblin, the first Atlanta Biennial had a meager $800 budget and 55 artists on display, a feat in itself. Over the next 23 years until 2007, the Atlanta Contemporary switched up the ratios of Southeastern artists in its exhibitions, but the message was the same: to highlight an often-overlooked section of the country and its influential art.

Today, while more exposure exists, the region’s lack of representation continues to be problematic.

In 2014, the Met accepted 57 mixed-media pieces by 30 African-American artists from the region in an effort to highlight neglected Southern artists. “There is a renewed interest in Southern self-taught work, but in regards to new work coming from the South, much of the work is wrongly looked over,” Fuller says.

Camblin calls the new round of the Atlanta Biennial “an exercise in a little myth busting.” That myth being that the only way for artists to have a sustainable artistic career is to move to New York or Los Angeles. The exhibition aims to showcase these artists’ talents and the Southeast as a place of opportunity.

Camblin and Fuller stopped wishing for Atlanta’s Biennial to come back and got to work. But the question arises — why now?

She found herself discussing the Atlanta Biennial, and its absence, with folks who attended the first round of Atlanta Biennials and those who were new to the event’s history. “It was really a response to what we saw as an increasing urgency to have this,” Camblin says. “There’s definitely something in the air.”

Massive lists and conference calls took over all four curators’ lives for more than a year, including Aaron Levi Garvey, an independent curator in Jacksonville, Florida, and Gia Hamilton, director of the contemporary visual arts Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans. With the sole criteria that artists had to live in the South at the time of the exhibition, the curators tried their damndest to step away from Atlanta, avoid getting caught in the usual stereotypes, and look further.

“I think as the biggest city in the South, we sometimes think things start and finish here,” Fuller says. Fuller and the rest the team split to take trips to discover new talents, from Memphis to uncover an underground arts scene all the way to Florida to discover an artist with Caribbean roots.

The artists involved represent every state in the Southeast. The curatorial team tried to represent diversity of backgrounds of those living and working in the region.

This year’s Atlanta Biennial focuses on how the artists experience the South — whether they moved away, never left, or moved to the region in the last few years. One of the featured artists, mixed-media artist Andrew Scott Ross, was born in New York and now lives in Tennessee.

“The Southern landscape still affords me the space to construct a fortress for my imagination to run wild,” Ross says. “Space comes at the price of geographic connection — and for a moment, the Atlanta Biennial can become a bridge for a region that is always redefining itself.”

On the other hand, participating painter Ridley Howard grew up in Atlanta and recently moved back after 17 years in New York. He says he feels communication and access have made it possible for artists to experience their local scene and a much broader international community simultaneously.

“It’s an interesting time to think about regionalism and how that idea is changing, especially as the traditional art centers become prohibitively expensive,” Howard says. “I think this show will raise some of those issues.”

In the end, Camblin senses there’s a need for more events like this one in Atlanta that provide opportunities and connections to artists in the region and provide a new perspective to curators as well.

“We’re hoping that this brings Atlanta attention to artists that they haven’t seen before,” she says. “We’re hoping it brings regional attention to people that are working in Atlanta, and not just working as artists, but a few exhibition opportunities here that they might not otherwise have had. My hope is that this will create this themed exchange between different artists and also institutions and hopefully it has an exponential effect.”

ART PARTY 2016. $25-$50. 7 p.m. Sat., Aug. 27. Atlanta Contemporary, 535 Means St. N.W. 404-688-1970. atlantacontemporary.org.

Artists to Watch at the ATLBNL

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Stephen Collier

Born Biloxi, Mississippi / Lives New Orleans, Louisiana

There’s a certain duality that heavily influences Collier’s work; it’s a subtle balance between darkness and humor. His chosen materials are often a reflection of the concept behind the artwork.

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Erin Jane Nelson

Born and lives in Atlanta, Georgia

Nelson’s textile work is visually stunning. Using various fabrics, found objects, and imagery, Nelson keeps you captivated as you find all of the details in her pieces.

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Virginia Griswold

Born Petersburg, Virginia / Lives Nashville, Tennessee

Griswold’s sculptures are often distorted on purpose as she explores the notion of what’s natural vs. unnatural and how we follow these binaries blindly.

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Sharon Norwood

Born Kingston, Jamaica / Lives St. Petersburg, Florida

Norwood blends her Jamaican roots and issues with identity into her digital collage prints on paper to deconstruct her feelings about hair and socially constructed perceptions.