Atlanta

Atlanta Biennial at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center

For the first time in nine years, the South has its biennial back. With the selection of thirty-two artists in the Atlanta Biennial (ATLBNL), the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center in Georgia continues a recurring exhibition, begun in 1984 by Alan Sondheim as a response to a lack of Southern artists in that year’s Whitney Biennial. Though Sondheim’s series ended in 2007, Atlanta Contemporary has revived it with a densely packed show of emerging and mid-career artists, all of whom share a connection to the American South.[1]

Atlanta Biennial, 2016; installation view, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Georgia. Courtesy of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Photo: Erin Jane Nelson.

Atlanta Biennial, 2016; installation view, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Georgia. Courtesy of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Photo: Erin Jane Nelson.

The purpose of many biennials is to offer a cross-sectional view of a segment of artistic practice. Since artists often act as vanguards in analyzing contemporary culture, biennials are often a useful tool to discover and explore pressing issues within a society and how artists respond to them. While some themes in the Atlanta Biennial are obvious, like the prevalence of racial disparities in the region, the curators seem less focused on selecting artists for their investigations of these specific issues. Instead, the show presents a loose collection of a wide range of media (including book producers, collectives, and self-taught artists) and thus reads more as a salon-style overview rather than a focused inquiry into the prominent issues facing the South—ones not dissimilar to those facing the country as a whole.

Atlanta Biennial, 2016; installation view, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Georgia. Courtesy of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Photo: Erin Jane Nelson.

Atlanta Biennial, 2016; installation view, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Georgia. Courtesy of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Photo: Erin Jane Nelson.

A striking omission from the show is the lack of wall texts to provide any context for the vast diversity of works on display. While wall texts are not a necessity in an exhibition, they can actively help viewers gain a better understanding of the works on view, especially in the realm of contemporary art. As Ingrid Schaffner writes, wall texts are “an opportunity to transmit insights, inspire interest, and to point to the fact that choices have been made. When there is no wall text, other assumptions are being made, which also need to be read critically.”[2] With the curators’ decision to eschew all wall texts, visitors must rely on their interpretations to gain any insight into the works.

Atlanta Biennial, 2016; installation view, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Georgia. Courtesy of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Photo: Erin Jane Nelson.

Atlanta Biennial, 2016; installation view, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Georgia. Courtesy of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Photo: Erin Jane Nelson.

Indeed, such a lack of texts does a disservice to some works on view. For instance, two sculptures from Jillian Mayer’s Slumpies series, Slumpie 2 – Day Bed and Slumpie 3 – Q Chair (both 2016), are large, vividly textured, haphazardly painted, and seem like furniture. Aesthetically, the works invite one’s curiosity, but many viewers will regard the works as purely formal exercises and miss the context of these objects, each of which is designed to prop up a person who is staring obsessively at a phone screen. Knowing this information, viewers can see the properly placed appendages on the sculptures as apparatuses to hold up users’ arms while they look at devices—a more profound understanding of the work. With adequate context, viewers can more capably grasp the works’ connections to a specific societal condition, such as an overreliance on technology.

Atlanta Biennial, 2016; installation view, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Georgia. Courtesy of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Photo: Erin Jane Nelson.

Atlanta Biennial, 2016; installation view, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Georgia. Courtesy of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Photo: Erin Jane Nelson.

While an interpretation of Mayer’s works may suffer due to the lack of context, other works stand out despite this absence. Stacy Lynn Waddell’s gold-leaf-on-paper works are a visual and thematic apex of the exhibition. Installed on a royal-blue portion of the gallery’s walls, her Landscape (Chain Link Fence View for W.S.) and BLACK LIVES MATTER (Transformation) (both 2016) read as rubbings of a chain-link fence and signs from the social movement, respectively, poignantly speaking to the racial disparities still prevalent in the South. Also striking is Sharon Norwood’s series of digital prints, The Root of the Matter (2016): into images of mid-nineteenth-century prints of white bourgeoisie scenes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection, Norwood inserts masses of hair-like lines as a symbol of a racial Other.

Atlanta Biennial, 2016; installation view, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Georgia. Courtesy of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Photo: Erin Jane Nelson.

Atlanta Biennial, 2016; installation view, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Georgia. Courtesy of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Photo: Erin Jane Nelson.

Though the exhibition excels at presenting a large number of artists who deserve greater visibility, it suffers due to the sheer number of works. Featuring multiple works by more than thirty artists, the exhibition’s walls are crowded. Larger works, such as Kalup Linzy’s touching The Queen Rose Family (2016–ongoing), can barely be seen apart from other works around them. Such proximity magnifies awkward curatorial decisions. For example, a viewer may group together one of Mayer’s sculptures, Waddell’s gold-leaf works, and a suite of video montages by Daniel Newman called Lost Flip-Flop (2016). These works, while intriguing on their own, struggle to effect any meaningful dialogue when seen together

While the exhibition is barely greater than the sum of its parts—a condition that could have been ameliorated with more contextual information—the Atlanta Biennial is a welcome addition to a region where visual arts can play a vital role in addressing societal problems. With its location and focus on collaboration, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center is a great home for a periodic exhibition, and a continuing biennial will benefit the area. The curators fulfill this iteration’s goals by showing careful attention in their inclusion of a diverse range of artists from the South.

The Atlanta Biennial is on view through December 18, 2016.

 

[1] The Atlanta Biennial was curated by Victoria Camblin, editor and artistic director, ART PAPERS (Atlanta); Daniel Fuller, curator, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center; Aaron Levi Garvey, independent curator and cofounder of Long Road Projects (Jacksonville); and Gia Hamilton, director, Joan Mitchell Center (New Orleans).

[2]. Ingrid Schaffner, “Wall Text,” in What Makes a Great Exhibition?, ed. Paula Marincola, (Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 2006), 156.

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