Gallery a go go 

Felicia Feaster hobnobs with artists and hopscotches to openings high and low

It's 6 o'clock on a breezy March night, and I'm in the last place I'd normally look at art: a gallery opening.

Critics aren't necessarily fixtures at openings -- boozy, crowded, intensely social affairs where art tends to recede into the background behind networking and partying. That's not true only in Atlanta.

"Mostly, it's not about seeing work," says Village Voice art critic Jerry Saltz. "It's about seeing people seeing the work."

click to enlarge A moneyed crowd and notable contemporary art are always a draw at the elegant Trinity Gallery, bustling for the March 23 debut Buckhead Gallery Tour. - JIM STAWNIAK
  • Jim Stawniak
  • A moneyed crowd and notable contemporary art are always a draw at the elegant Trinity Gallery, bustling for the March 23 debut Buckhead Gallery Tour.

Openings are social events, cheap dates, a chance for 9-to-5ers to lap up the city's cultural nectar. They provide an opportunity to meet artists, talk about ideas, drink, gossip and look sophisticated.

Together with a companion craze -- neighborhood art walks -- they represent an aspiration in Atlanta's fractured art scene to forge a community out of chaos.

For the galleries themselves, openings offer a chance to ply potential customers with wine and cheese, and perhaps entice someone to come back and buy. For artists, they're a chance to talk about their work to potential buyers and bask in the all-too-rare limelight after lonely hours in the studio.

In a distinct break from habit, I haunted openings from Buckhead to Grant Park for three weeks. I soaked in the ambiance, and I hoped cheap wine and too much driving wouldn't kill me. It wasn't easy. But it was fun: It gave me a chance to reconnect with the people and galleries that make Atlanta's art scene such a disorderly collage of wealth and poverty, intellect and affectation.

MARCH 2

Turner First Thursdays

Downtown Art Walk

As darkness encroaches and office workers flee their glass hives, I move against the flow, venturing into downtown for the First Thursdays Art Walk. It's one of several such events that allow galleries to fling open their doors in unison in hopes of pulling in a bigger crowd.

A self-guided tour inaugurated in 2000, First Thursdays is one of the truly walkable gallery strolls because the participating galleries are arranged in a tight cluster.

But "walkable" in a car-centric city like Atlanta is a relative word. Inappropriate footwear choices suddenly reveal themselves. The light wanes. Men grow frisky.

"You look goooood," a scruffy middle-aged man coos as I pass, reminding me that I am deep in the grit of downtown, after-work Atlanta, when the pleasures and perils of city life are accessible to anyone willing to get out of the car and hoof it.

There are certain common features to big-city downtowns, whether it's Manhattan or Calcutta. Assaulting food smells. Horse manure in the streets. Discs of spittle and tar-blackened gum pocking the landscape like urban sarcomas. Turner First Thursdays are an opportunity to take in not only art, but the funky and not uncolorful experience of city living so often missing from our car-encased daily lives.

My peers on Peachtree are Japanese tourists and Middle American conventioneers who venture tentatively from their downtown hotels to strap on a feedbag at one of the theme restaurants lining the street. Attempting to bait the hook, a line of Hooters waitresses have assembled by the restaurant door to entice passersby with a hootin' and hollerin' cheer. Is that art?

Turner First Thursdays couples a come-one-come-all open-house attitude with a paradoxical degree of inaccessibility that assures you must really want to see art to make this scene. My first stop, SunTrust Plaza, is in after-business lockdown, so patrons have to ring a buzzer and plead "gallery opening" for the kindly wizard behind the curtain to offer admittance. At the Atlanta Public Library, featuring work by the collective Sistography, your bag will be inspected before you enter.

There are human obstacles, too. Outside the library a demonstrative young couple is using the sidewalk as their personal Chevy backseat. A tattered man leans toward his companion with liquor-pickled conspiratorial closeness.

"Whaddaya, a drug addict?"

It beats the bourgeois sameness of a lot of openings, I think to myself.

Couples milling around the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia's satellite gallery at SunTrust Plaza feel like an after-work crowd. Most make a beeline for the bar.

The bountiful spread may be part of the draw at MOCA-GA. Around the corner, at the Museum of Design, there's just one lonely gallery-goer and one desolate bottle of Merlot available for self-pouring.

At the Arts for All Gallery in the Fairlie-Poplar district, I run into an old friend, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center's Stan Woodard. Woodard's a heavy user on the openings circuit, but even with Stan now in tow, I have difficulty locating the next stop, artist Paige Harvey's studio on Cone Street. We join a friendly couple also bagging game on this urban art safari and locate the nondescript door to Harvey's building.

We huff with a spirit of convivial adventure up the stairs to the airy studio, where the intimate group includes a microbiologist, and a criminal defense lawyer who happens to be Bruce Harvey, the artist's husband. Suddenly, openings seem like a good idea, a chance to meet people you might ordinarily not meet and to commune over a mutual interest in art.

The esprit de corps dies fast at our next stop: the Fort Knox of the hard-to-crack First Thursdays venues. Perched atop the Westin Peachtree Plaza, the Sun Dial restaurant features a regular rotation of curated exhibitions in its Paint in the Pods series.

It feels like a Prohibition speakeasy. We approach the pretty receptionist, utter the secret word "art" and are directed to a velvet rope where we join a line for the elevator. We chat with a trio of men in identical blue shirts. They're in town for a convention, they say -- something about "component technologies." When we've served enough time, the receptionist upgrades us into a more free-range purgatory between the rope and the elevator doors.

When I finally make it to the top and spy actual art, I finally understand the elation immigrants must have felt upon first glimpsing the Statue of Liberty.

click to enlarge Gardner Gallery draws a large, diverse crowd for its Spring Group Show on the Buckhead Gallery Tour. - JIM STAWNIAK
  • Jim Stawniak
  • Gardner Gallery draws a large, diverse crowd for its Spring Group Show on the Buckhead Gallery Tour.

MARCH 4

Young Blood Gallery & Boutique

Unpretentious, hip, but not intimidatingly so, the 9-year-old Young Blood sits in a still-clinging-to-badass segment of Grant Park. Young Blood is often more cutting-edge than any other intown gallery. Co-founders Maggie White and Kelly Teasley crystal-balled the culture jamming thing, the indie craft phenomenon, California lowbrow, the resurgence of graffiti art and other trends that one day will be appropriated by high-end galleries. One of those trends is work created by collectives of young artists.

Golden Blizzard, a cutely cultish eight-member art collective, is headlining tonight's opening. Team member Alex Kvares stands outside the gallery, a vision in his Royal Tenenbaum-style sports-geek sweatjacket and ironic bling. The "GB" logo is embroidered in sparkly gold on his white wristband.

"Thanks for coming," purrs his colleague, Ellen Black. Souped up in a customized nurse's outfit, she joins other collective members who are posing for pictures in their gold-on-white uniforms next to a conceptual spread of white food: yogurt-covered pretzels, macaroons, white sandwich cookies.

"Is it part of the project?" I ask my companion, who's also reluctant to touch. Finally, someone breaks the ice by grabbing some food. Eating, rather than pondering, is the appropriate response.

Golden Blizzard collaborates on drawings that somehow incorporate both the feminine yin of small furry animals with a masculine yang of oozing pustules, sex organs, blood and death. Gallery-goers have to bend at the waist and crane to see the tiny drawings on display. They move slowly to the left like a geriatric conga line.

Best of all, the usual uptight, stuffy mood of an "art opening" has been traded for one of freewheeling quirkiness. As I leave, banjo player Thomas Barnwell is still picking bluegrass -- uncharacteristic for an art opening -- from his rocking chair perch.

MARCH 7

Octane Coffee Bar & Lounge

Regulars hunkered over their laptops look slightly mystified by people milling around in tight clots inside the west side java hut.

Such is the double-duty fallout of a gallery opening staged at a busy coffee shop for religio-folk artist and Hollis Gillespie posse member Grant Henry, aka Sister Louisa. With a hoop skirt of acolytes at his side and his paint-smeared shirt declaring "Let Them Eat Cake," it's easy to finger Henry as the artist.

The exposed brick walls have never looked better than now, graced with Sister Louisa's appropriated wood-framed works. Henry paints whimsical blasphemy over paint-by-numbers-style portraits of praying Jesuses and Southern ladies in towering beehives.

Henry tells me Jim and Tammy Faye's son, Jay Bakker, is a fan. That's almost as good as God's approval.

In keeping with the Southern kitsch theme, Henry offers a break from the usual cheese cubes and wine. He offers a spread of angel food cake and deviled eggs.

The laptop crowd that's just here for coffee and a peaceful place to peck away looks increasingly put out by the art aficionados, who throw shade over their tiny tables to get a closer gander at the God art.

"God I Wish I Could Quit You," one blares. "God Bless Our Crack House," says another. Henry's selling his work in Antichrist sums, from $66.60 to $266.60, though, as the price list notes, "Salvation: Free."

MARCH 9

The Swan Coach House and the Bennett Street Carnival Promenade

This could be the 1950s. A waiter comes around with trays of mayonnaise-laced finger sandwiches. Spinach dip and crudité sit on a table.

Every man over the age of 35 looks dapper in a sports jacket or suit. All the women seem to be immaculately turned-out blondes with perfect newscaster-meets-Grace Kelly coiffures, outfitted in stylish suits, and sporting great accessories and important pocketbooks.

At some openings, civility plays second fiddle to the free wine and the running of the hors d'oeuvres. But this event nestled in Buckhead's rolling estate district has the aura of a garden party where the craziest thing that could happen is the wind blowing off someone's hat.

The crowd is on the thin side tonight, and there's a reason.

"My little ladies are all at the opera," says Swan Coach Gallery curator Marianne Lambert, referring to the gentle ladies of the Forward Arts Foundation, which funds the gallery.

Lambert has been in Atlanta since 1968. She's one of the most visible figures on the scene, ever-present at lectures and openings with her gregarious manner and a shock of spiky red hair. Her all-time record is seven openings in one night, which on Atlanta's buckshot art scene certainly must have required invasion-of-Normandy-style planning.

Lambert introduces me to the co-curator of tonight's exhibition, Dedicated to New Orleans: Works by New Orleans Artists. Sylvia Schmidt is a New Orleans gallery owner specializing in contemporary, regional work. Her house and every item in it, including 200 pieces of art, were obliterated when the levee broke.

"I cried for three months," she tells me.

click to enlarge The recently opened satellite gallery Mason Murer Projects in Buckhead features Ukrainian art. - JIM STAWNIAK
  • Jim Stawniak
  • The recently opened satellite gallery Mason Murer Projects in Buckhead features Ukrainian art.

The wind has picked up and rain is just around the corner. I head halfway to Midtown to the Bennett Street Carnival Promenade, an indoor-outdoor art walk incorporating the galleries inside the Tula Arts Center and snaking up the hill to Peachtree.

The odd mix of Mardi Gras jubilance signaled by loud music and tables festooned with balloons and beads (there's a $5 cover to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina) contrasts with a joyless atmosphere. The Mardi Gras beads around gallery-goers' necks fail to spur an atmosphere of fun. Though the event is sparsely attended, it's early yet.

Several of the galleries have poured wine into equal portions in plastic cups, like the calibrated doses at a methadone clinic. Adding to the spirit of forced mirth, there is a mime, a young girl in white face paint who does a pretty good evocation of restless boredom.

The woman working at one gallery is too busy cooing to her lapdog to suffer humans. She encapsulates the evening's surprisingly dark mood.

"Is the Lowe Gallery open tonight?" I ask.

"You'll have to go look," she says with a sneer.

It was closed.

MARCH 11

Castleberry Arts in the Afternoon

Castleberry Hill galleries already had hours on Saturday. But call those hours something and -- voilà! -- it's an event.

Diane Hause is still reeling from last night's Friday opening at 3Ten Haustudio. She says the younger, boozier crowd used to make a beeline for the free wine and barely glance at the art during their cell phone conversations. "People don't even know it's an art show."

click to enlarge Always a hot ticket for opening -- and closing -- parties, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center features art band The Glasses at a March 25 event. - ADAM SMITH
  • Adam Smith
  • Always a hot ticket for opening -- and closing -- parties, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center features art band The Glasses at a March 25 event.

In response to the frat house ethos, Hause stopped serving wine at her Friday night openings. She offers hot tea instead.

Hause doesn't think her temperance movement has entirely worked. Some Friday revelers are still hopping from glass to glass as they move from gallery to gallery. At some point during last night's opening, the woodworking tools Hause has owned since the 1970s disappeared.

Other Castleberry gallery owners whisper about cutting back on portions and maybe hiring additional security to curb rowdiness. But many still like Fridays.

"I like the craziness. I think it's good," says Lloyd Benjamin, owner of Get This! Gallery, which shows emerging, more affordable artists. "I've had really good luck selling stuff on Friday nights."

But this is Saturday afternoon, and there's an entirely different mood.

I run into Sam Romo at Wertz Contemporary, across the street from his own gallery. He's taking a group of businessmen on their own personalized Castleberry walk. Their first impression of the scene might be a little shocking: Wertz is showing L.A.-based artist Yun Bai's photo collages, which are pieced together from porn magazines.

Nearby, Cartoon Network Creative Director Kevin Fitzgerald is skateboarding through his cavernous loft/gallery. He's left the front door open for passersby. A group of women is unsure of the vibe: Apartment? Gallery? Skate punk hangout? Keep walking.

Fitzgerald's canvases are painted meaty hues of pink and blood red. They feature a macho, film noir cartoon-style boxer he calls "Savage" (pronounced French-style). The pieces are hung salon-style along one wall. Crushed beer cans at their base juice the seedy ambiance.

"He's a bare-knuckle boxer," explains Fitzgerald.

"I want to do a lot more lowbrow art," he says. Fitzgerald's art intersects with a West Coast style espoused by Juxtapoz magazine. "Less of the white wine and jazz set. More of the beer drinking and lowbrow set."

Fitzgerald is inspired by what Castleberry used to be back in the 1800s. Before the art crawls and the Range Rovers, the neighborhood was dubbed "Snake Nation." "Fun" meant cockfights, murder and prostitution.

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To me, Castleberry Arts in the Afternoon is the best of both worlds. It's an "opening" for the agoraphobic and misanthropic, where you can avoid the scene-and-be-seen. Yet you actually can view the art and, even better, command some quality one-on-one time with the artists, who are out in force this afternoon.

The freaks may come out at night, but in the afternoon you can stumble upon oddly poetic scenes. There are the sad men toting their worldly possessions in black garbage bags. A prop plane buzzes the neighborhood. Two men lead a draft horse from a vacant lot to a soup kitchen, where homeless men fawn over the animal, petting its long black fur.

MARCH 16

TEW Galleries

If Timothy Tew is serving shrimp, you'll want to double-time it to his Thursday night preview, lest you find a paltry dish of tails on the decimated buffet.

Like one of those Russian nesting dolls, where each doll reveals a smaller one, now even the openings have openings. Tew started Thursday night previews for a smaller group of art lovers. So tonight's event feels like a cozy soiree in a private home.

The men are a sea of navy blazers. Navy blazer with button-down. Navy blazer with silk pocket square. In lieu of the navy blazer, there is a man in a navy sweater with a Marist crest.

At least two males aren't wearing navy. One is a petulant teen seated in a girly chair and clearly dying to get back to Halo 2 or Sophocles or whatever teens are into these days. The other is Frank Thomas, an exceptionally elegant barrister in black turtleneck and coordinated jacket.

Thomas frequents only Tew's openings. He's a fan, and he lives in the area. Though he admits that he's run into a former flame at one TEW opening, for the most part they're anything but cruisey events -- more the "white wine and jazz set" as Kevin Fitzgerald would say.

MARCH 23

Buckhead Gallery Tour

The gallery owners I talk to agree that Buckhead is ascendant. Like the rest of the city, it hovers on the edge of pedestrian friendliness -- more shops, more street action. And like everyone, the dealers want to be ready when that magical change happens.

The Buckhead Gallery Tour debuting tonight is a way to catch the cresting Buckhead wave, suggests Andy Gardner of Gardner Gallery.

Maybe there really is change afoot in Buckhead. The gorgeous, highly maintained older women in fur coats and designer eyewear are as stoked about the art at Gardner Gallery as anyone I ran into at Young Blood. Artist Sarah Dixon's friends are out in force to show their support.

Dixon, in a nutshell, paints dolls. Native American Hopi dolls, porcelain baby dolls, and a scary German "Beltznickle" doll with a black mask and pointed white hat that invites immediate associations to Klansmen and Abu Gharib.

Just another elegant older woman, staying up until 3 a.m. in her Miami Circle studio. Painting dolls.

"I lose all track of time. I forget to eat. I become obsessed," she says, though the pearl necklace, slim figure and elegant black suit do not speak of unchecked manias.

In Buckhead, wine is being quaffed. Alliances forged. Outfits surveyed.

Highbrow. Lowbrow. Middlebrow galleries. And essentially it's all the same game. People like art. They are social animals. And they often genuinely like to connect with the people who make art.

My immersion experiment has convinced me.

I need to get out more.

For info on Art walks mentioned in this article
Click here
click to enlarge Hapeville newcomer Arts Without Borders (AW/OB) debuts former New York painter Judson Vereen at its busy March 24 opening. - ADAM SMITH
  • Adam Smith
  • Hapeville newcomer Arts Without Borders (AW/OB) debuts former New York painter Judson Vereen at its busy March 24 opening.

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