Cultural exchange 

Works by German arts educators tread familiar ground

Parallels, the current exhibition by German artists at the Atlanta College of Art Gallery, means to connect the cultural centers of Atlanta and Berlin. As a visual liaison between Berlin's Hochschule der Künste (University of the Arts, or HdK) and ACA, it is incredibly obtuse. There is no way, with this exhibition, to determine the points of commonality between the institutions other than a shared focus on artmaking. As an introduction to five artists who teach at HdK, the show succeeds, though not without difficulty, because the juxtaposition of their work is physically jarring.

George Baselitz has his own separate "room," formed by a temporary cement block wall that cuts across the gallery at an angle. He enters the gestalt of his large-scale paintings by composing them on unstretched canvas on the floor. He literally turns the psychology of painting on its head with "Elke Si Riposa," which features a young girl's head, upside down, with great pink blooms encircling her profile.

The artist joins other contemporary artists in mocking the cerebral subtext in art with a painting in which he scratches out the word "Sigmund" with thin black marks. Beneath the name, a curious hand reaches toward a small hole at the center of a furry black space.

Visitors rounding the central floor-to-ceiling wall (constructed last week by Atlanta College of Art students) will come upon the stark installation work of Christiane Möbus. The wall provides the backdrop for her morality play. On the left end of its white expanse, a stuffed chamois (a goat antelope) hangs by the horns from a dark metal bracket, its rear hooves almost grazing the gray floor.

Taxidermist specimens always illustrate what is unnatural about civilization. This one speaks to German culture specifically. The chamois is a national icon in Germany, and a tuft of the animal's fur is used for a traditional hat decoration. This beast -- displaced, stuffed and displayed -- represents the universal, though somewhat familiar, nature vs. culture dialectic.

Dieter Appelt's two-dimensional bodywork forms a cross on an adjacent wall. His sense of humanity's connection to nature contrasts with Möbus' view of the sacrificial beast. On the left, a series of photos in metal frames picture what might be an archaeological storage site where bones are indexed and stacked. In a column of photographs that spans the center of the wall, the artist places his pigment-covered hands within a similar framework. Five black-and-white photos laid out horizontally on the right picture a younger Appelt in raw natural scenes, his nude, prone body masked in layers of mud. By exposing himself to the elements and placing his corpus in visual rapport with humankind's past and present vulnerability, the artist makes his own body a symbol. That aesthetic practice has a long history in contemporary art.

Another wall of the gallery holds a series of seven red photo portraits. Blown up and tightly framed, these are manipulations of artist Katharina Sieverding's passport pictures. Her successively altered visage reveals bestial possibilities, as the nose takes on the indentations of a snout and the eyes become triangles. Her treatment of identity issues is diluted by its fragmented presentation -- only seven of 16 images in the series are on view.

The semiotic work of Lothar Baumgarten is as full of obsessive process as it is devoid of emotion. Parallels includes excerpts from his Carbon project commissioned by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Photographs show train tracks and stations as they crisscross the American landscape. An intersecting wall text names interconnecting rail lines. His book installation documents how intently the verbal architect studied the cultural form and meaning of our railway system -- an incredibly dry topic when the element of humanity is omitted.

Worldly, mature artists, Appelt, Baselitz, Baumgarten, Möbus and Sieverding exhibit notions about artmaking that we've seen illustrated by their contemporaries here in Atlanta. In that respect, Parallels does initiate a dialogue about the insular world of art and ideas. Hopefully, future academic and aesthetic exchanges proposed for HdK and ACA will challenge artists from both sides of the ocean to develop fresh aesthetics.

Parallels continues through April 29 at the Atlanta College of Art Gallery, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. Tues., Wed., Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri. 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sun. noon-5 p.m. 404-733-5050.

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