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Un/Natural Selection explores the cost of progress

Atlanta is a city rushing so rapidly and dramatically toward change, its residents often fail to think about what kind of future they are rushing toward.

This cataclysmic transformation occurring right under our noses has been documented before, but the artists in Un/Natural Selection at City Gallery Chastain narrow their gazes to the smaller, less obvious details and bring a romantic, plaintive sense of loss to bear on the cold ugly reality of "progress."

Birds are the oft-invoked victims of the interloping bulldozer and land-surveyor in Un/Natural, which lends a slightly childlike perspective to the show. It responds to the sense that freedom and flight, represented by the bird, is undercut by the cement and steel bludgeons of developers.

Jill Larson's not entirely satisfying work -- an assemblage of found nests coupled with photographs of their decaying former bird occupants -- is representative. In work that references Sue Coe, M.C. Escher and Art Spiegelman, Matthew Sugarman's "Lost Horizon" also suggests an ecologically minded, innocent's gaze in a lithograph of a bird dressed in bridal garb set against a scorched landscape of decapitated trees and dead animals.

Un/Natural jumps off from Charles Darwin's notion of natural selection, paraphrased as "the survival and reproduction of a species based on a natural hierarchy," by show curator Tim Hunter. The implication in Hunter's group show is that nature has been upset by human intervention, which is not carrying out some natural law of survival of the fittest but willy-nilly razing everything not human in its path.

Some of the artists have a better grasp of the subtleties implied in Un/Natural Selection, like Lisa Alembick, who relates the notion of humankind's methodical weeding out of "weakness" to the Holocaust. Unfortunately, the pile of plaster bird casts heaped on the gallery floor does not necessarily fulfill the artist's intent as expressed in the wall text.

Other artists are less bound by the specificity of Darwin's idea of evolution. In sculptures like "Fecund" or "Terre," Michael Murrell commands attention with the grand scale and refined execution of the works, though the effect is something like performing a showy drum solo instead of harmonizing with the other artists.

Curator Hunter's work is comparably slick, with an additional blast of humor. In "Golden-winged Warbler," he offers a series of postindustrial Audubon "prints" in 33 paintings of a variety of bird species rendered in asphalt

on square slabs of concrete. The implication is that the only palette with which we can still envision our natural world may be a chemical, human-made one.

Sculptural works are especially noteworthy in Un/Natural as in Kyle Dillehay's creation of a leaf "prosthesis" rendered in bronze, which the artist has attached to a pre-existing tree limb. The work is a shrewd commentary on the human propensity for "fixing" what isn't broken and imposing human creation upon a natural one.

Like other group shows with a top-heavy roster of artists approaching a broad topic, there is a scattered, unfocused tone to Un/Natural that suggests the dissonant chaos of a newly formed band in its first garage rehearsal. The small Chastain gallery also tends to fill up quickly, and the clutter of 10 artists confined to such a relatively small space can be overwhelming, making it hard to focus on connections between the works.

But Un/Natural also features enough original and often visually striking work to quell misgivings about weaker offerings, of which there are a fair number.

Combining photos of her developer-transformed neighborhood along with diary-text that describes her feelings about encroaching suburbia, Julie Stuart's approach feels more suited to muckraking journalism than this particular gallery context. Though Stuart's science fair aesthetic leaves something to be desired, her passion is tangible and the works end up being more transgressive, personal and emotionally loaded than the more "cerebral" but oblique work by Angela Willcocks or Larson, for instance.

In some of the most engaging work in the show, Stuart charts the devastating incursion of developers into her former forest and farmland sanctuary north of Atlanta. As the city's spreading typhoid of concrete and tract homes begins to bleed into Stuart's leafy paradise, the artist recounts her feelings of queasy powerlessness in text and photographs. Few will be unmoved by, or unfamiliar with, the feelings of regret, nostalgia and plain nausea that accompany watching one's surroundings change from green and vibrant to characterless and vinyl-sided.

What emerges in Un/Natural is a sense of how terribly disinterested we as a culture have become in the idea of nature. Instead, the artists in Un/Natural suggest that rather than cherishing and learning from difference, we have lost interest in a world that won't conform to our narrow vision.

Un/Natural Selection runs through March 7 at City Gallery Chastain, 135 W. Wieuca Road. Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. 404-257-1804.

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