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Loss for words 

A picture is worth 1K words at Swan Coach House gallery

Is it true that in this Age of Information, words are our basic unit? That's the philosophy of curator Marianne Lambert, who organized The Word in Art: The Use of Text in Contemporary Southern Art at Swan Coach House Gallery through September. Anybody who surfs the Internet, watches TV or even reads the print media may be more inclined to believe that the color-saturated image is the basis for our information-clogged world. In fact, only a handful of the artists in this show demonstrate a way with words.

The exceptions do rule, though. And less is generally more. Robin Starbuck's "Dirt Yard: At Odds with Memory" couldn't be simpler or more telling. Only the first two words of the title appear on her iron-framed, clear glass composition, comprised of a small, white picket fence trapped in glass with a cloud of dirt. In the artist's bittersweet nostalgia, an idyllic symbol of the perfect home turns out to protect not a flowering garden, but an empty dirt lot.

Johan Hagaman's "Hope is a Thing with Feathers" takes its whimsical title from Emily Dickinson, but the artist's own contribution to the dialogue -- his handwriting and the weathered fragment of a carved-wood bird -- is a dead-ender. In contrast, Todd Carroll's photograph "Tibetan Prayer Flag" holds a world in a picture frame. A transparent flag tied to two trees partially obscure another tree just behind. Wonderfully translucent, this emblem of the sublime wavers at the edge of a vast, hazy landscape.

Composed on a page from a spiral-bound notebook, the late Nellie Mae Rowe's honest "How I Love Jesus" is a cheerful blue-and-black pen doodle with highlights in neon pink. She treated the paper as if it were a size XL calling card, featuring her name in swirls, with winged creatures and a snake, along with her signature and phone number.

Poetry isn't easy. An absurdist approach works better than rhymes in this show. Rose Hafley's graphic design comes with singsong lines of text, watercolor and acrylic on mat board. Maysey Craddock scribbles a more subversive lyric in "On Needles and Pins," recounting the head games of a sociopath with scissors. Handwritten text somewhat defeats the great surface treatment of Okeeba J. Brown's "Inki at the Circus." Made of lovely ripped tarpaper, his uneven, pieced-together work is coated in tarry and honeyed dribbles and slicks of paint.

In Tom Meyer's photo "Exit, Cotton Mill Ruins, Roanoke, AL 24" x 30"" a flash of white lettering on a red sign intersects a vivid blue color field -- the face of an old door that resembles cooled and cracked lava. The brilliant image has more to do with the sensual conflict of color and texture than with the word that happened to surface there.

"Paris, 2000" by Benjamin Jones looks like a giant postcard embellished with tiny colored-pencil drawings and stickers. Carefully marked out in the artist's well-known outsider artist script, the work on paper is a dense travel diary. Though the angling, edge-to-edge words create a pattern, one can't help but want to read his mail. "We drank and smoked while watching the Eiffel Tower blink its new light show @ dusk," he writes around one corner.

Ever fascinated with the environmental and historical significance of words, Gregor Turk presents "Con/Text: Atlanta (Train)." Lines of text stenciled over a map of Atlanta frame a small hand-colored photo transfer of a vintage train. The document describes land use in the days when trains ruled the heart of our city.

Other notables are Richard Painter's charred wood "Black Music," Lilly Cannon's latest doll sculpture and Charles Nelson's painting "Afrocentric," a play on Picasso's "Demoiselles D'Avignon." But David Laufer makes the most of a few words with the title of his sculptural un-book, "Why Men Lie (Patchwork)." He covers his trompe l'oeil confessional (the book doesn't open) in a quilt of imagery. Comic strip-style metaphors explain men's rationale for avoiding the truth -- high-heeled shoes, lingerie, a diamond ring, bitter lemons, a baby, eggs in a nest and more. Proof positive that it's the pictures that tell the story.

The Word in Art: The Use of Text in Contemporary Southern Art continues through Sept. 29 at Swan Coach House Gallery, 3130 Slaton Drive. 404-266-2636. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Sat.

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