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Mysterious web 

Visual Poetry a cacophony of colors and images

Just as enthusiasts of art cars, folksy yard art, Mexican graveyards on Day of the Dead, Mardi Gras and bottle trees abide by a code of embellishment and ornamentation as a kind of emotional succor, the Louisiana-born, Atlanta-based artist Carl Joe Williams uses a festive fracas of beads, glitter and an eye-popping patchwork of color to animate and enliven his work. Williams' latest body of work, Visual Poetry, appears at the Swan Coach House Gallery to honor this recipient of the first annual Forward Arts Foundation's Encouragement Award. Williams likens his riotous use of color, design and found objects to music, confessing, "I see myself as a blues artist painting and interpreting reality." But the visual frenzy of Williams' work and its assertive presence sounds more like bebop with its cacophony of overlapping, animated melodies.

What Williams' multi-layered work shares with the blues is a portentous narrative investment in luck, fate and chance, and an affirmation of the spiritual and mystical texture of ordinary life, as in bluesman Robert Johnson's rumored deal with the devil that garnered him guitar-virtuosity and haunted him to the grave. Though Williams' work is in large part far perkier stuff, it has some of the darker undercurrents of the blues running alongside its sentimental strain.

Williams' collages, decorated with objects and emblems, seem invested in a world of bad or good luck and ordinary devils and saints who hover beyond the reason-bound scheme of the visible: wheels of fortune, white doves, praying hands, the spades, diamonds and hearts of a card player's fate, halos and mystical beams of energy emanating from Williams' figures. All such signs give the impression of an artist who finds a deeper meaning and importance in life's vagaries, rendered as a confusing morass of trap doors and chance cards.

Williams' notion of his work as "musical" functions best as a metaphor in Visual Poetry for his interplay of color and form. But the artist often threatens to belabor this idea with actual instruments -- the embellished found objects in Visual Poetry constituting the weakest link in the show -- such as a trombone, an electric guitar and an acoustic guitar hanging in the space, which the artist has decorated with his signature fantastic hues, beads and glitter. Rather, Williams' true talent seems rooted in his clever application of music-as-metaphor for painting's often non-representational emotional pull.

Like many local artists, Williams relies heavily on found photographs, which often form the emotional centerpieces of his elaborate collages. Images of a dignified older man in "Visitation," with a signature halo poised around his head, or of a small child in "Crown" give the work a moody, despondent tone that other pieces like the epic "Spade" make overt. There is the weight of parable to this large 48x96-inch painting on board that depicts two black men like identical but reversed figures on a card, save one whose heart has been pierced by a knife, releasing crimson droplets to amass into a pool of blood. The circle of blood, the halos and constellation of other fateful, ever-expanding ripples gives a circularity and inevitability to the piece -- a sense that reoccurs in the work of life as a sad, perpetual, often graced, but mysterious web.

Visual Poetry: New Works by Carl Joe Williams runs through Aug. 4 at Swan Coach House Gallery, 3130 Slaton Drive. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Sat. 404-266-2636.

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