Atlanta

The 5th Of July at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center

The symbolic charge of “the day after” marks itself as an interval structured by ambiguity as opposed to closure—a time of wake-up calls, hangovers, regrets, and comedowns. In science fiction, the phrase often suggests the apocalyptic nightmares of a world threatened by total disaster, while in revolutionary politics it articulates the call to reality after the collective euphoria from battle has worn away. It is this landscape of post-event fallout and failed achievement that undergirds The 5th of July, an exhibition at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center curated by Daniel Fuller. Fuller gathers a diverse group of artists from across the United States who work in an equally diverse range of media, united by their unique “explorations of failed promise.”[1] Invoking the day after America’s national celebration of independence, and the traditions of spectacular neighborhood firework displays, street parades, picnic banquets, and other forms of gluttonous consumption that define the holiday, Fuller asks us to be attentive to the ways in which celebration is often followed by its opposite.

Installation shot of ‘The 5th of July’ (Far Left: Katherine Bernhardt’s Cantaloupe, iPhones, Nikes and Capri Suns (2014), Acrylic and Spray Pain on Canvas, 96 x 120 inches). Image courtesy of The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (Atlanta, GA).

The 5th of July, 2016; installation view, far left: Katherine Bernhardt. Cantaloupe, iPhones, Nikes, and Capri Suns, 2014; acrylic and spray paint on canvas; 96 x 120 in. Courtesy of Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

In many ways, the desire to cultivate an uneasy dialectic between celebration and despair is what animates the vast majority of contemporary art—a lesson learned from Pop Art, which seized upon the slick, disposable, literal image-culture of the postwar era in order to point to the anxious cultural desires at the core of capitalist consumption.[2] This tension between transcendence and travesty is at the core of modernism. And yet, despite the exhibition’s many rhetorical prompts that ask viewers to hold these works together under themes of regretful failure and empty promise, I was struck more by the ways in which certain works of art seemed to struggle under this narrative. If anything, there are moments within the show that resound with an optimism and euphoria that are difficult to ignore.

The inclusion of a constellation of garish name-brand logos and sweet consumables might point to the depressing core of disposable modern life, yet Katherine Bernhardt’s electric orange and pink cacophony of Capri-Suns, cantaloupes, and Nike sneakers, Cantaloupe, iPhones, Nikes, and Capri Suns (2015), rattles with a repetitive patterning that seems to celebrate brashness with humor and joy. Bernhardt’s jazzy color harmonies and playful rhythms of pattern speak less of conspicuous consumption and more of the formal history of modern painting through their cheeky merger of decoration and consumer kitsch.

Installation Shot of ‘The 5th of July’ (Far Left: Chris Wiley’s Dingbat (38) and Dingbat (37), Archival inkjet prints mounted on aluminum in artist frames with Ettore Sottsass aminate, 43 x 29.5 inches). Image Courtesy of The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (Atlanta, GA).

The 5th of July, 2016; installation view, far left: Chris Wiley. Dingbat (38) and Dingbat (37); archival inkjet prints mounted on aluminum in artist frames with Ettore Sottsass laminate; 43 x 29.5 in. Courtesy of Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

While there are excellent examples of sculpture included in this exhibition—Robin Cameron’s collection of delicate and fragmented ceramic object–sculptures and Charles Harlan’s monumental Tire (2015) stand out—the strongest work comes from the photographic and filmic work on display. Unfortunately, many of the photographic works are placed at such distance from one another that visual resonances are nearly unable to occur across the vast expanse of the gallery. Lucas Blaylock’s archival inkjet print 4-box (2014), with its slick and seductive surfaces and ontological exploration of the real and the imitative, seems excommunicated from the main gallery, which hampers a potentially juicy dialogue with Chris Wiley’s series of “dingbat” prints, their bright, flat planes of color and mass-produced surface textures reveling in their silliness on the white-cube walls. Alex da Corte’s three-minute film Chelsea Hotel No. 2 (2010) takes the dialogue a step further by squeezing and smashing cheap, processed junk foods such as white bread and artificial food coloring into a balletic montage that is uncanny, disgusting, and sublimely beautiful. These artists are engaged in a productive discourse on contemporary photography and asking difficult questions of the image in a world where formal properties are structured by spectacle and kitsch. Rather than the nostalgic failure of image-making in an era of permanent “post”-positions, I see euphoric, productive moments that prove beauty and meaning are still possible.[3]

Installation Shot of Alex da Corte’s film Chelsea Hotel No. 2 (2010). HD Video, color, sound. 3:07 minutes. Image courtesy of The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (Atlanta, GA).

Alex da Corte. Chelsea Hotel No. 2, 2010 (still); HD video, color, sound; 3:07; installation view, The 5th of July. Courtesy of Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

While The 5th of July succeeds in asking us to think through a diverse assemblage of aesthetic choices and cultural themes that resonate within the current landscape of contemporary art and our current fixation on the role of popular culture, consumerism, and the legacy of the found object, the constellation of differing projects and positions seems to resist a strong curatorial perspective. This is a well-worn criticism of the group exhibition—that the desire to create interrelations between a group of artworks exchanges coherence for multiplicity. While one might be able to see a certain irreverence and playfulness across the spectrum of these artists, this does not an exhibition make, particularly when the theme is not strong enough to provide either a foundation or a fence. Despite the power of the individual works on display here, the overall exhibition never shapes that energy into anything usable for the viewer.

The 5th of July is on view at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center until May 1, 2016.

[1] An excerpt from the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center’s curatorial statement for The 5th of July reads as follows: “This show is about the day after—the day after the neighborhood block parties’ the day after when the smoke and smell of sulfur linger…each work is unified in its exploration of failed promise of the day after.” See: https://atlantacontemporary.org/exhibitions/the-5th-of-july.

[2] For more on Pop Art and the structural violence at the heart of its many presentation techniques and strategies, see Hal Foster, “On the First Pop Age,” in The New Left Review, no. 19, Jan–Feb 2003, 14-31.

[3] One of my frustrations with the ACAC is the shape and scale of the gallery, and the awkward ways in which the gallery walls divide the space. While the works chosen for this exhibition were not petite, and thus deserve ample areas of viewing space, the richness of each individual work would have improved with a more intimate sense of proximity to surrounding works. I felt that the intervals between works frustrated my ability to see works “speaking” with/to one another.

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