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Mergers & Acquisitions contemplates contemporary art 

Painters of a certain stripe know that their best work is sometimes their fastest work; pictures that emerge in a sudden rush with no time for second guesses or backward glances.

Mergers & Acquisitions, a wide-ranging group exhibition currently on view at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, benefits from a similar sense of urgency and shortness of time. Due to a last-minute cancellation, curator Stuart Horodner was forced to fill the Contemporary with an entirely new show in a matter of weeks. A show of this scope would normally take several months or even years to plan. Fortunately, Mergers & Acquisitions takes risky leaps of curatorial intuition that pay off in surprising and dramatic ways.

Mr. Horodner, speed becomes you.

Mergers & Acquisitions is built around a number of artistic calls and responses. In Shana Robbins' enigmatic video "Tree Ghost Performance," the artist variously becomes and interacts with totemic treelike structures. The work speaks directly to Lucinda Bunnen's pair of black-and-white photos depicting a gnarled, somewhat anthropomorphic tree on a Georgia roadside. Both are Atlanta-based artists.

William Pope.L's "Black People are Trying" is a double entendre rendered as a quick and messy work-in-progress. The artist's typically potent splicing of radicalism and self-abnegation seems to comment on a Hank Willis Thomas photograph hung just a few feet away. Thomas' "Scar Chest" depicts an athletic, black male body in sepia tones emblazoned with columns of keloidal scars shaped like Nike swooshes. Both works point to the crosscurrents of mutual corrosiveness when setting black experience in a wider cultural context.

"Bingo" documents a 1974 "building cut" by Gordon Matta-Clark in a series of rough-hewn photographs. The deconstructionist installation artist was best known for removing pieces of walls, floors and ceilings of abandoned buildings to create site-specific works at an architectural scale.

In response to Matta-Clark, Atlanta architects Brian Bell and David Yocum have installed "Boundary Issues," a work that's likely to be talked about long after Mergers & Acquisitions fades from the calendar. "Boundary Issues" is a striking architectural intervention in which the architects have cut into the walls of the gallery space revealing the building's dirty brick and concrete musculature normally hidden beneath a skin of pristine white wallboard. The work also includes a window newly installed in an exterior wall, which reveals that the Contemporary sits partly below street level. We witness an institution literally either burrowing into or emerging out of Atlanta's underground space.

"Boundary Issues" achieves a trifecta: 1) It activates every cubic inch of physical space it occupies as well as the entire gallery itself; 2) it activates the temporal space sitting between the present and the institution's past as a converted industrial space; and 3) it activates the civic space between its own ballsy brand of intellectual rigor and the tepid, well-behaved commercial products that often pass for art elsewhere in the city.

The bulk of the show's work is drawn primarily from noteworthy private collections throughout Atlanta, artist's studios and gallery back rooms. The show's title nods toward activities that, to most of us, are simultaneously within earshot and out of reach. Likewise, the works in Mergers & Acquisitions come from the neighborhood, so to speak, but are usually sequestered away where few can see them.

Pulled together as it was, Mergers & Acquisitions is necessarily a rangy show. A pen-and-ink drawing by Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí shares space with a photograph of a temporary sculpture by Austrian post-modern sculptor Erwin Wurm. (The Wurm piece features two men and a banana. We'll leave it at that.)

But such range is precisely what makes the show a success. In a relatively small space, Horodner packs in an almost encyclopedic sampling of contemporary leitmotifs that forces the question: What's your relationship to contemporary art?

The breathtaking scope of work means that, depending on your answer, there's either much to love or much to hate. Indifference, however, is impossible.

We needed this show. Atlanta likes its dead old masters and its safe commercial properties. Those with the vision of Bell and Yocum or the temerity of Thomas often come off as isolated one-offs operating in a vacuum. Mergers & Acquisitions gives these and other artists a context and a place to come out and play. It gives them a room to converse in and a place to participate in the international dialog of contemporary art.

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