Morbid curiosity 

Two for Flinching combines child's play and black humor to mixed results

American postage stamps have commemorated Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Louise Nevelson, the Special Olympics and Korean War veterans.

But Atlanta artist Traci Molloy makes an interesting adjustment to this postal walk of fame with her own rogues gallery on view in the City Gallery Chastain show Two For Flinching.

What if the postage stamp genre also captured humanity's low points? Molloy asks. The times we were less anxious to crow about.

Molloy takes our flipside obsession with dirty deeds to its natural outcome with her series "Kids That Kill Kids," which features diminutive stamps bordered in black and blue. The stamps incorporate images of Columbine, 17-year-old Mississippi school shooter Luke Woodham and 2-year-old British murder victim Jamie Bulger.

Two For Flinching, which Molloy has curated with Angela Carone, takes its name from the childhood game in which the first one to flinch in response to a disturbing story is rewarded with a double punch.

The notion seems to feed into a certain cultural callousness that rewards weakness and punishes a failure to "buck up" -- especially for boys. The show's objectives in highlighting this phenomenon are a little hazier and broader than simple childish sport, however.

Molloy's work, as is often the case with shows in which an artist / curator presents her own work, is some of the most representative of the show's ideas, evoking the weird lump in the throat that results when something that should be revolting is also slightly amusing. "Kids That Kill Kids" has a slightly sickening element of black comedy that can come across as callous at times, like the serial killer trading cards that surfaced years ago or the taste of human darkness that emerges in jokes about Sept. 11.

If Molloy's stamps suggest a capitalist society's approach to making a buck from tragedy, Alexander Kvares' icky-doodles are the epitome of wasteful, misdirected teenage rage. In another show, they might have matched up nicely with Molloy's killer teens.

Kvares, like many current male artists, is almost exclusively fixated on underground comix, whose repertoire of misogyny, bodily disgust, self-hatred and misanthropy is not so much investigated as it is vented anew. The artist's obsessive little drawings, which are about as mirthful as Ozzy Osbourne biting off a chicken's head, may call the notion of inherent "playfulness" into question, but they certainly set the flinch reflex twitching. The drawings, done in pencil and pen, feature suppurating orifices, scenes of fellatio and urination, and a generally nihilistic landscape of disgust.

Kvares' drawings suggest what the heavy metal kid in the back row might draw. Kojo Griffin's social critique, hanging next to Kvares' work, suggests the more mild-mannered alienation of a gifted student channeling his angst into an art class project. Referencing comic book panels, where action is followed by outcome, Griffin shows scenes of disaster that initially suggest a laughable pratfall but end up disastrously. Griffin's simply rendered humanimal creatures fall from a bike or a ladder. Those ordinary disasters sandwich a far more troubling scenario of a shirtless cameraman filming a bound and blindfolded naked woman. As a whole, the combined scenes feel garbled -- how does one scene of explicit violence relate to the slapsticky scenarios in the others? The work is intriguing but feels incomplete.

Some of the work in Two For Flinching feels simply out of place. Robin Starbuck's oblique approach to race issues samples the kiddy culture of Bazooka Joe comics, but she fails to do much more than mimic the form.

Thom Shaw's intense, politically loaded black-and-white woodcut prints often feature a nastily grinning Uncle Sam giving his tacit approval to black men killing themselves and each other with guns and drugs. But the works, which suggest a mix of graffiti art and propaganda, seem to have little to do with the notion of play the curators invoke, or that uncomfortable, wobbly border between disgust and amusement.

There are, however, some intriguing juxtapositions, from the interesting pair-up of comic-influenced Griffin and Kvares to the well-matched combination of Molloy and Lori Nix.

Along with Molloy's work, the similarly strong photographs done by Brooklyn artist Lori Nix stick more closely to the notion of childhood games and nastiness. Nix creates tiny town scenes of death and disaster that recall the photography of Gregory Crewdson, David Levinthal and Laurie Simmons. In "Ice Storm," a miniature car plunges into an icy lake with only plastic deer as witnesses. In "Lover's Leap," set against an adorably diminutive cityscape, a toy figure leaps to her death from a bridge. The cuteness of the scenes and their fantastic, dreamy colorscapes collide deliciously with the violence of what is represented.

"Two For Flinching" curators Carone and Molloy say their show deals with "seemingly incongruous notions of playfulness and violence." And while their show is certainly intellectually ambitious, it often flounders beneath the difficulty and diffuseness of this undertaking.



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