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Look to the future 

Charles Nelson provokes with his meditations on race, identity and public space


Atlanta-based artist Charles Nelson is like some great below-the-radar indie band: beloved by a few, unknown to many.

Part of the reason he's below the radar, and also why his work feels like such a shot of adrenaline on the Atlanta art scene, is because Nelson is not in the business of pleasing anyone.

Nelson's work is defiantly uncommercial because it's often about race, which makes people uncomfortable. And because it's smart, which makes people uncomfortable.

Then there's the matter of the work itself. It's either too damn big or too conceptual to put above any sofa.

A recent project for the So Atlanta show I co-curated at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center was a classic Nelson combo of attitude and insight. Turning Atlanta boosterism on its ear, Nelson created a light-box advertising display normally used to sell cigarettes or deodorant. The mock ad, "Welcome to Atlanta," featured a black Madonna nursing a white baby, perfectly encapsulating the city's racial divide.

A Charles Nelson work may never sell, but it's always memorable. In his various projects, Nelson has riffed on the uncritical acceptance of violence and misogyny in hip-hop, dealt with lynching and pondered the esoteric phenomenon of ingrown hair for the traveling HairStories show on black hair issues slated for exhibition at New Orleans' Contemporary Art Center in 2005.

Nelson has yet again changed tacks and will be exhibiting drawings for the first time in a group show at Saltworks Gallery called The Sweet Flypaper of Life, also featuring Alex Kvares, William Cordova and Nelson's occasional collaborator and studio-mate, Atlanta artist Kojo Griffin. In Sweet Flypaper, viewers will find the same themes that have inspired Nelson for years -- black identity, corporate and celebrity culture, "Afrofuturism," artist intervention in public space, hip-hop -- cropping up again.

Born Texarcana, Texas.

Education Bachelor of fine arts at Washington University. Master of fine arts at Howard University.

Neighborhood Mableton. Married with two sons, ages 2-1/2 and 6.

You've been in ATL since 1995. Has the Atlanta art scene gotten better or worse? A friend of mine has a theory about Atlanta art energy, that it can only maintain a certain level, so it rises up to this level and then drops back down, so you get this medium.

Do you define yourself as a black artist? I definitely see myself as an artist who uses issues of race and gender and personal identity and technology in all of the work. I've never seen a problem with using black images or issues of social constructs and identity because they exist. They are real.

Is the Atlanta art scene segregated? I think it's a lot less segregated than other cities because there is an effort to include artists of color. The commercial galleries starting to participate in the National Black Arts Festival is a good sign.

Africana.com called you an "Afrofuturist." What does that mean? It's basically placing African and African-American culture in the context of the future, which I think is something people have been quick to put aside -- to be post-identity. But the goal for me is kind of like a "Star Trek" universe where it's pretty integrated, but everyone holds on to their own particular culture.

Prized possession? My studio.

Studio vibe? The studio is a de facto collective. We all share the space and respect the space and try to maintain and foster the identity of the space.

Happiest time in your life? The birth of my sons.

Hero? My grandfather, who passed in '89. He lived in Texarcana, and I would go there every summer and Christmas. He basically taught me my work ethic and dealing with people. He worked at the post office. When he retired from the post office, he ran and won a seat on the City Council. He actually pushed to name a Martin Luther King Drive in Texarcana.

Best years ahead or behind? The best years are ahead of me. A sign of that is every show I've done this year, people say it's the best work I've ever done.

Best thing about the Atlanta art scene? The sense of community. I think it's an issue of the lack of support from collectors and institutions that drives the artists here to band together.

Hate the most? Lack of support and lack of knowledge about contemporary art, which is a large, large part.

Describe your work to someone who has never seen it before. What I do is project-based work and so I do different things to try and get people to interact with it. And try to engage a non-art public.

Where does that democratic impulse come from? Growing up in Houston, my hero was John Biggers, who was an artist who started the art department at Texas Southern University and had a real strong tie to the Mexican muralist tradition. He did murals in the community where I grew up. I went to museums, but there's all this work outside of museums ... that's not being talked about.

Day job? Advertising.

Listening to now? DJ Spooky's Rhythm Science.

Last great movie? Great movie is kind of asking a lot. As far as the whole Afrofuturism thing, I, Robot is the Hollywood version of that.

You've invoked science fiction twice. Is that your favorite genre? Yeah. I enjoy Octavia Butler and William Gibson, who put the future in a context of cultures, not this utopian ideal, which to me means giving up your culture. More the idea of a melting pot: the future rooted in reality.

Science fiction that expresses that well? Blade Runner. The Matrix [Laughs] ... minus Keanu.

Guilty pleasure? MTV.

Artist(s) you most admire? Adrian Piper and David Hammonds.

You have a secret life as a father and husband. Is it hard to fit art- making in? No, because I keep it separate! Artists working two jobs is like this idea of having a secret identity like Peter Parker or Clark Kent. You have to schlep away at this job, and then go out and save the world. It's pretty much like that.

So is the art side the Superman side? Of course!

Felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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