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Spruill Gallery: Earth first? 

Group show lacks harmony and verve

Smoking, global warming and ecological activism. The interests of artists Laura Noel, Peter Essick and Julie Stuart range from the puny to the supersized. But this particular combination of artists with often vaguely related work makes the Spruill Gallery curator's objective mysterious: Are we meant to look at these projects in isolation or in relation to each other? In either case, the show lacks harmony and verve.

The miniaturist of the bunch, Noel's project Deliver Me features photographs of people, many of them twentysomethings, engaged in the socially unacceptable act of smoking. That vice forces them to the literal margins of society, to back yards, front porches and other pariah stomping grounds. Noel's portraits tend to be most interesting in capturing the peculiarities of her subjects' world, like the froufrou bedroom where "Tina" smokes, reads and drinks in bed. Tina's slightly hardened appearance contrasts interestingly with the übergirly trappings such as the floral bedspread and luxuriously swaged drapery behind her.

Though Peter Essick lives in Stone Mountain, his photojournalism career has taken him around the globe. Many of the color images on view in Global Warming are drawn from a 2004 National Geographic whose cover story headline screamed, "Global Warning." Taken in Peru and the Swiss Alps, Bangladesh and Alaska, Essick's images illustrate the vast problem of global warming seen in rising oceans, higher temperatures and endangered species. His predominant subjects are landscapes, many captured at sunset and marked by washes of molten red and orange that drive home the idea of Earth as an increasingly infernal hothouse.

If Essick's work tends toward the instructive, then Julie Stuart's installation Full Circle is intuitive, the ardent message carved into a tree rather than written up in a case study.

On the gallery walls Stuart has hung black-and-white photo transfers of nature. Text also printed on those frosted Plexiglas panels urges a respectful, care-taking approach to the planet. The mood is somber, the air fragrant with the satisfying funk of the dead leaves that ornament the gallery. Viewers are encouraged to add their own valentines to Mother Earth.

Stuart's fervent, emotional plea for rescuing our beleaguered planet may strike some as painfully hippie-crunchy and flowery. It will undoubtedly feel earnest to others. I found it both; at times unbearably stilted and at other times heartfelt.

Artwork by Peter Essick, Laura Noel and Julie Stuart. Through Feb. 23. Free. Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Spruill Gallery, 4681 Ashford Dunwoody Road. 770-394-4019. www.spruillarts.org.

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