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Outside voices 

Melissa Stern and Charlotte Foust at Barbara Archer Gallery

A Common Space at Inman Park's Barbara Archer Gallery is full of ugly work. Sculptor Melissa Stern and painter Charlotte Foust both deploy intentionally brutish materials with purposefully lo-fi methods. And although their bodies of work were created independent of each other, the show has the look of a close collaboration, each artist drawing from a similar vocabulary of crude, enigmatic forms and the symbolism of dysfunction.

New York-based Stern has been a staple in the ceramics world for nearly two decades. She's the more experienced of the two artists, and turns her attention here to themes of relationships in a dozen small-scale, figurative clay works.

In "Family," three simplified busts sit side by side in what might be an arrangement for a family portrait. A pair of wheels rests atop the figure on the left, and a green duck crowns the figure on the right. None of the works possesses a complete set of features, each one missing eyes, a mouth or nose. The smallest figure lacks all features entirely – a potent comment on the difficulty of connecting even to those closest to us.

The sense of absurd dislocation carries over into Foust's paintings. Like Stern, Foust denies refined craft. Her solitary animal/human chimeras are rendered in a riot of conflicting brush strokes, pencil marks and magazine clippings. She constrains her palette mostly to neutral whites, browns and a murky powder blue, with the occasional burst of hot red or orange. Given such formal constraints, her figures are surprisingly subtle and potent, and carry a psychological immediacy that would have been impossible with a more refined surface.

Jean Dubuffet coined the term "Art Brut" to refer to the "outsider" art produced by society's least enfranchised: the mentally insane, prisoners, children. Stern's and Foust's work isn't outsider art – both are art-school educated – but by borrowing many of the genre's terms, the two hold up a mirror to "insider" art's limitations, all finish and seamless surfaces. Both exemplify Dubuffet's dictum that ugly objects can also be beautiful. Instead of the deeply human impulse to create beauty, Stern and Foust pursue a more complex and neglected human urge: the redemptive impulse to find beauty in the least and the lowest.

A Common Space. Through Aug. 30. Free. Tues.-Fri., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Barbara Archer Gallery, 280 Elizabeth St. 404-523-1845. barbaraarcher.com.

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