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Local institutions struggle with the challenges of contemporary art

Is contemporary art too hot for locals to handle?

That question is not just a regional concern. Says Carrie Przybilla, the High Museum's curator of modern and contemporary art, "Even in New York, they don't recognize the names of contemporary artists.

"The High has made a small effort to increase the visibility of contemporary work with Atlanta-based artist Angela Willcocks' "Thraxpat."

Przybilla selected Willcocks from 100 Atlanta artists who submitted proposals to create a temporary piece to be incorporated into the museum's architecture last September. But "Thraxpat" entered a momentary limbo when a component of Willcocks' installation, horsehair, was found to be flammable and thus inappropriate for the elevator site that Willcocks had chosen.

Willcocks claims a "phobia against contemporary art in Atlanta" and hate mail received by Przybilla was part of what put "Thraxpat" into a holding pattern. Przybilla has denied that anything but the thought of elevator-bound tourists going up in a conflagration of pony fur led to delays in exhibiting Willcocks' piece. In fact, says Przybilla, the piece is being exhibited in the High's entrance area, which is a higher profile space than the elevator.

Like other Willcocks pieces, which have incorporated hair and chitterlings, "Thraxpat" has a fleshy, organic, repellant quality. Those purposefully abject elements make it slightly disturbing to even imagine in the confined space of an elevator. Looking like the fallout from a nasty explosion in the Mattel lab, "Thraxpat" is an invasion of biscuit-sized, hot pink objects sprouting thatches of hair. The creatures cluster menacingly along the wall and ceiling of the museum entrance like props from a pop artist's horror film. With its sheer shock value, "Thraxpat" challenges viewers to deal -- immediately -- with conceptual work.

Another mini-scandal surrounding contemporary, conceptual work surfaced in April when Cornel Rubino's mural "Cock Fight" was installed at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

Executed in a palette of muddy olive-browns and evoking disease and dangerous fluids, "Cock Fight" features images of violent interracial sex, penises and fountains of ejaculate. But the true perversity comes in Rubino's rendering -- a highly romantic style that seems to prettify the madness. Despite the artist's objections, "Cock Fight" is currently being exhibited behind a wall to shield squeamish viewers from potentially offensive material.

The Contemporary's interim director, Missi McMorries, says the decision to shield viewers from "Cock Fight" is not an act of censorship but a gesture of propriety. "Our thinking was, let's not have something that's exposed right there through the glass doors. And also, we do get children in the gallery from time to time," she says.

On one hand, curators and directors fear provoking an already contemporary art-resistant public. And on the other, self-censorship gives the impression that contemporary work is a freaky little niche market that has to be hidden from the view of impressionable eyes and minds.

In spring 1999, the Atlanta art scene seemed to draw a collective breath of shock when news made the rounds that a Mormon had been named new director of the Contemporary. What, pray tell, would an advocate of clean living do to an art space? Breaking every preconception, recently departed Contemporary Director Sam Gappmayer encouraged a spirit of innovation, pushing the envelope in what could be shown, even when it may have been personally objectionable. Events featuring porn star Annie Sprinkle, outspoken sex workers and Klansmen photos occurred on Gappmayer's watch. Gappmayer accepted controversial ideas with a refreshing spirit of inquiry and proved that religion and an open mind are not mutually exclusive. It is a pity to see him leave.

But as always in a town where new artists and imaginative venues crop up constantly, hope springs eternal that contemporary art will thrive in unexpected places. The Grant Park salon/coffee bar Studio Biba is a prime example of the inventive approach local businesses, artists and assorted urban pioneers have taken to exhibiting work. It's currently exhibiting the feminist-minded show Undone, featuring photographer Ninetta Violante's Sylvia Plachy-esque erotic portraits and painter Monika Sullivan's gothy works, which offer a gloomier prognosis for the female body, all amidst a glamour temple of post-feminist beautification.

Projects like Undone, squeezed in next to massage tables and manicurist stations, show how creative approaches to exhibiting work continue to define a town that will embrace challenging contemporary art whether anyone invites it into the "legitimate" gallery and museum sphere or not.

"Thraxpat" can be seen through June 2 at the High Museum, 1280 Peachtree St. 404-733-4400. "Cock Fight" is on view through June 1 at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, 535 Means St. 404-688-1970. Undone runs through June 8 at Studio Biba, 290 MLK Jr. Drive. 404-659-2440.

For Art's Sake is a biweekly column on the local visual arts scene.

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