Alternative approach 

Contemporary unleashes gallery artists to mixed effect

Anyone who's seen the director's cut of Apocalypse Now knows that total freedom does not necessarily equal greater art.

And so it goes with Under Different Circumstances. A provocative mix of nine gallery artists were judiciously selected by independent Atlanta curator Lisa Kurzner, who asked them to create artworks for the physically and creatively expansive Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

The premise of the show is that in a gallery setting, artists are often inhibited by the need to make salable work, while in an alternative art space they will frolic with reckless abandon. While some of the artists in the show may undo a couple more buttons and reveal some creative decolletage, only a few run naked with a new sense of unfettered artistic freedom.

Stewart Helm is one of those creative streakers. His work provides a shocking illustration of the difference between the commercial gallery and the alternative art space, as well as the censorship artists sometimes impose upon themselves. Helm is represented by the established Galerie Timothy Tew in Buckhead, whose clientele would surely back away slowly from Helm's "The Grotesque Geography of Atoms." Composed of 226 drawings in shades of bile and dried blood, the work presents a litany of medical grotesqueries and matters both fecal and reproductive.

While Helm's example demonstrates some of the limitations a gallery setting imposes, there are also distinct advantages. Gallery solo shows demand a honed, thematic continuity, which a one-shot sculpture or video work in a group show like Under Different Circumstances doesn't allow. For instance, Imi Hwangbo's monumental sculptural work "Blesse" has a striking physical authority, but it lacks the thematic resonance of her previous work at Kiang Gallery. Mike Wsol typically creates well-executed, subliminally wry sculptures that show how our world of golf courses and ornamental flowers are expressions of nature born of a rigid, controlling human system. But those ideas do not emerge here in his single sculpture "Habitat."

There are interesting connections to make between several artists in the show who deal in a similar repertoire of reigned-in emotions and silence. Sheila Swift's allusions to memorial photos and silent film convey a melancholy mood of loss and mortality. They find a visual echo in Patrizia Guerresi's photographs of hooded female figures and in Greely Myatt's Sheetrock wall embedded with closed-lip zippers.

One of the exhibition's most successful projects are sculptures by Julia Venske and Gregor Späenle. Using hard, inflexible marble, the artists craft witty, nutty, globular forms that hang tumescent from the gallery walls. Their tongue-in-cheek "Wurst Series" are fat dangling pendulums that suggest pork wieners or the bulge in Schwarzenegger's pants.

While Venske and Späenle's work nearly giggles itself off the wall, John Daniel Walsh's video installation "Hallucinations and the Real" -- the most intellectually demanding work in the show -- is a sober statement about life in a visual culture as a kind of perpetually distracted madness. Walsh's rapid-fire succession of visuals projected onto one side of two frosted Plexiglas screens recall the apocalyptic slideshow of A Clockwork Orange. Walsh juxtaposes snippets of popular music, absurdly banal images and grim text suggesting excerpts from a therapy session or drug-induced nervous breakdown. He manages to convey how little space we have for true contemplation and self-knowledge in this engrossing barrage of stimuli.

If any of the artists achieve the goals of Under Different Circumstances, it's Walsh. He has used this opportunity to channel all of his energies into a single, fully realized, complex work that suggests he has not only exceeded the limitations of the gallery space, but of his own creative boundaries.



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