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Swamp thing 

'Displaced' is misplaced at Ballroom Studios

It is easy to see why artist Jennifer Vanderpool would choose the swamp as a subject for her current installation at Ballroom Studios. A mysterious borderline somewhere between water and land, the very name swamp has provocative associations with psychological mire and uncharted wilds. While the moor exerts a continual dark allure in English literature, the American swamp has equally menacing pop-culture associations, especially in our lowbrow entertainments of movies, music and comic books. The swamp is a place, the folklore goes, where civilized people don't want to be caught unarmed and alone.

Vanderpool's "fantasy creation of a swamp," is rendered in dirt, moss, grass, pebble and sand. The installation is titled "Displaced" to reference the obliteration of American swamplands by greedy developers, as well as the sudden intrusion of such muck into the typically pristine art space. The work is a large amoeboid mass that covers a good portion of the gallery's floor. Vanderpool has used other devices to further evoke some marshy Other, from the occasional breeze of a fan to the peals of toad song and ethereal music that chime from a nearby speaker.

The work clarifies why the natural world is such a seductive palette for artists, with its various shades and textures. The notion of "dirt," for instance, is remarkably varied in "Displaced" -- from the dull gray earth that composes the exterior ring of the swamp to the rich auburn mulch contained in its center. The outer ring is dotted with clumps of vivid green moss and dingy grass, while the interior contains noodle-y strands of rope and little islands made up of wire and teabags (soaked in various foodstuffs to give them color). Though the materials are certainly drawn from the landscape, this ersatz swamp often more effectively suggests a bodily organism of some kind, a cell or cross-sectioned tissue rendered in moss and soil.

Though the piece is certainly dramatic, it's more the drama of incongruity -- of this huge earthen tumor spread across the parquet floor -- rather than the drama of a profound idea. Vanderpool, an Atlanta artist who recently relocated to Santa Barbara, Calif., expresses in her explanation of "Displaced" her concern with the notion of the swamp as a disappearing wild in an increasingly un-natural world. But the work itself is ineloquent in expressing anything beyond the existence of some actual swamp out there in the real world that this manufactured one is meant to evoke.

The idea of swamp may bring to mind visions of Walter De Maria's "Earth Room," a 3,600-square-foot space on view in New York since 1977, filled neck-high with rich, moist dirt that effectively overwhelms your senses with its incredible dirt-iness. "Displaced" is less sensory than that dirt room, despite the presence of growing plants, copious quantities of earth and rotting food. The look of "Displaced" is instead more evocative of the scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in which Richard Dreyfuss builds a giant mud mountain in his living room. With its futons, exhausted looking couches, windows filled with houseplants and odd details like a burnt orange tile wall, the humble, domesticated Ballroom space is an oddball location for this mass of swamp -- which cries out for the kind of blank, white architectural void offered in more traditional gallery settings.

Though alternative spaces like Ballroom fight a commendable battle to create worthwhile shows with limited resources, Vanderpool's project stretches the capabilities of this low-tech space. The fabricated swamp is so visibly patched together from ordinary garden materials and transformed foodstuff that it lacks the verisimilitude needed to set off the intended clash of primordial muck and synthetic space.

Vanderpool's approach is like that of a low-budget film director trying to make a high-tech science fiction blockbuster with egg cartons and Christmas lights. Having spent time in the Okefenokee Swamp researching the people and habitat, Vanderpool must have a keen sense of the sludgescape. But these intuitive feelings are not effectively expressed, and the swamp we are given is like a tourist's post-vacation slideshow or a jar of seawater and beach sand -- inadequate representations of a place and an idea.

"Displaced" runs through Jan. 26 at Ballroom Studios, 107 Luckie St., second floor. Sat.-Sun. noon-4 p.m. and by appointment. 404-522-2709. www.ballroomstudios.com.

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