Sex, lies and videotape 

Five artists explore sex, identity and myth at the Contemporary

Bored with the teenage nymphos of the Internet? The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center offers two frisky shows that trump such unimaginative bawdiness. An Internet-age obsessiveness -- some sexual some not -- looms large in the artwork on display.

The Contemporary's exhibitions, Summer Solos: James Barsness, David Isenhour, Jeff Sonhouse and Secrets and Lies: Work From Yun Bai and Ohm Phanphiroj, make sex, mutation and transgression their common currency.

In her "Porn Flower" series, Yun Bai has cut out the naughty bits of graphic porn magazines and rearranged them into flowers set against a beguiling, glossy surface that initially lures you in. But like a Venus flytrap promising beauty and delivering entrapment, Bai's dirty decoupage delivers a shock by crafting its natural beauty out of breasts, labia, come-hither eyes, talon fingernails and linked legs. Her sexual Frankensteins imply a feminist critique of women reduced to body parts.

Artist Ohm Phanphiroj's 11-minute video piece "The First Conversation Between Frank and I" is equally troubling for what it says about how we reduce and dehumanize people in the pursuit of our sexual desires.

In Phanphiroj's video, the voice of the filmmaker can be heard encouraging the dark-haired young man being photographed to offer up intimate details of his personal life and sexual interests. All the while Phanphiroj hints that he would like to help the reluctant Frank let go of his heterosexual "hang-up." This disturbing exchange illustrates how faux-concern and compassionate conversation can mask a single-minded pursuit of sex. An equally interesting idea that emerges from the video is how easily people like Frank give up the intimate secrets of their lives and how they can be cajoled into dramatic shifts of identity. That interest in how identity can be cast off or put on like an article of clothing is also explored in Jeff Sonhouse's paintings of men wearing a variety of personality-obscuring masks.

Bai and Phanphiroj are seemingly grouped together because they're both emerging Asian artists, but there are far more interesting connections between Bai's work and that of James Barsness.

Installed in separate wings of the Contemporary, James Barsness' and Yun Bai's artworks provide a provocative call and response.

While Bai's work is invested in the mass media proliferation of girlie mags, Athens-based artist James Barsness takes a broader, ancient approach to sex in artworks that often feature outrageous couplings to match Yun Bai's flesh fair.

Barsness' fastidiously detailed drawings executed on carpet-sized pieces of linen and canvas reference a vast range of ancient Eastern religious art. But Barsness is clearly not the sort of artist to make highbrow/lowbrow distinctions. Mixed in with those references are allusions to 19th-century Japanese prints, freak show banners, tattoo art, comic books and the scatological vision of R. Crumb.

Though Barsness' drawings address various themes, the sense of provocation and carnivalesque excess is a constant. Sometimes that excess is simply an inspired clash of innocence and worldliness, as in the hilarious riff on the childhood nursery tune "Was a Farmer Had a Dog," which has been decorated with the high and low accouterments of gold leaf and the licking flames of '50s custom hotrods.

Spirit and matter collide forcefully in Barsness' work, which shows sexual coupling as a hallucinogenic Hieronymous Bosch nightmare. In the unilaterally rude and deeply cynical "An Abridged History of the Civilized World," Barsness reduces culture and creation to a momentary spasm between scenes of flatulence, copulation and war.

While Bai's work feels controlled and purposeful, Barsness' supersized doodles -- in which every square inch is filled with drawings and appropriated cartoons, photos, porn, decoration and gold leaf -- suggests the obsessive, roaming, mutating subconscious.

There are other obsessive ripples spun off from the defining madness of Bai and Barsness. David Isenhour continues his investigation of cartoon actions in his morphing, glistening sculptural forms crafted from wood or fiberglass and coated with auto body paint. Isenhour echoes some of Barsness' fascination with comic icons, mutation, transformation and fluid action.

But where Barsness' work is invested in the comic book's psychological frenzy, Isenhour is more interested in the clean, minimalist vocabulary of comic book action: the Pow! Bing! Zowee! repertoire of physical possibility. For Isenhour, comics are the mythology of a society defined by pop culture. In humorous expression of that idea, Isenhour takes the ancient "Ourobouros" symbol for time's cyclical, eternal dimension and makes it into one of his typically glossy, cartoon stylized sculptures -- a cartoon gesture that could be eternity or Wile E. Coyote chasing his own tail. That reference to the Ourobouros myth is especially humorous juxtaposed with lowbrow pieces like "Stink," whose humorously foul puke waves show the artist's sense of irreverence.

Like Barsness, Isenhour delightfully reconstitutes myth -- both the ancient and the Pop -- into matter. That Isenhour can say so much with such pared-down gestures makes it an even more interesting comparison with the excessive, baroque, inverse of Barsness' example.

felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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