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The great mix up 

Abstract expressionist paintings, experimental videos and paper-clip chains collide at The Contemporary

Current exhibitions at The Contemporary offer a bumpy but pleasing ride from paper-clip chains to technopop to paint. First, there's James Herbert, a longtime Athens-based artist who exhibits two distinctive bodies of work in a solo exhibition organized by gallery curator Teresa Bramlette. In the round gallery, Mix Tape presents a mesmerizing collection of videos put together by Jeremy Helton. And in the Georgia Tech corner of the art space, there's the paper clip poetry composed by Mark Cottle for Travel Writing.

James Herbert: Paintings, Films, Videos and Stills

Entering the gallery is to be accosted by Herbert's humongous 12-by-12-foot paintings. Seven of them dominate the main gallery where the separating walls have disappeared. Messy, out-of-control compositions, their central figures are only visible from a distance. When the viewer gets close to these paintworks, they become incoherent; it's impossible to distinguish form from gesture.

Herbert makes art in a vast studio space where he paints hyper energetically with his entire body. In some ways, the abandon in his abstract expressionism makes the action in Jackson Pollack's drip paintings look controlled. They also share an approach to figure and ground with outsider artist Thornton Dial.

To start, there's "Dough Head Fuckers," (2000) a maelstrom of paint from which erupt two skull-headed figures. In "On the Roman Road" (1999), a purple and pink form evokes a comic book character immersed in a sliding swarm of paint strokes edged in deep red and yellow. Central figures struggle to the surface from a suffocating vortex of paint in "Foot With Man Popping Out" and "Octopus People" (both 1999). "The Masturbator" (1999), with its flurried gesture and spurts of red climax, would seem a signature image for the artist. His giant figures are described by critic Donald Kuspit as "all, implicitly, Herbert, not in his everyday form but as raw psychosomatic power."

Along a side wall of the gallery, quiet stills from Herbert's films "Piano," "Cameo" and "Automan" offer a strangely studied counterpoint to the wild irrationality of his paintings. The gelatin silver prints picture youthful nudes in vintage settings -- an old house, an abandoned car and a decrepit hotel. Herbert has long been obsessed with filmmaking that plays between pornography and classical oil painting. Like these stills, his often homoerotic films are shot through with ethereal light and his passive young characters appear godlike.

One room is dedicated to screening wall-sized video projections of Herbert's films from 1988 to 1996. To the tune of a classical piano soundtrack, a series of disjointed scenes unfold. In "John Five," a modern "David" is joined by his disinterested lover in a dorm room. The viewer participates in a filmic meditation on his beautiful body, his sex and his incompleteness. In his rephotography process, Herbert frames and reframes the imagery, shifting the format and altering the tempo. There are moments when the timeless ennui of his characters is startled into present tense by settings like the dorm room and the boy's nipple ring, but the focus is always on the figure, and an unresolved sexual tension that has no limits.

In his artist statement, Herbert says, "I think that although there are parallels in attitude about how one approaches filmmaking and painting, I nonetheless want to compartmentalize them because one is essentially more anal retentive and the other one's more anal expulsive." Those distinctions are self-evident in these psychic expressions of restraint and abandon. Herbert is definitely one artist who explores the full range of his visceral and spiritual cravings.

Mix Tape and Mixer

A member of the multimedia group fascia, Jeremy Helton, put together Mix Tape, a collection of music videos, and popped it into a TV/VCR in a space made to resemble a living room. A comfy couch makes it easy to trance on the chain of music videos by a variety of artists.

From London, Lakuna and Kraig Jordan offer up "St. Paul's Piano," sampled imagery from old films set to melancholy music. Q-bert, Syd & Eric of Burlingame, Calif., show "Sneak Attack." The excerpt from their new full-length film Wave Twisters is a sophisticated piece of graphic animation, a funny bit of retro sci-fi. The sounds behind "Sneak" are straight turntablism, a mixing and scratching of audio samples. Scanner and D-Fuse, London artists, accompany panda bear antics with technokenetics. Tommy Guerrero/Thomas Campbell from San Francisco make gold fish swim to lazy hip-hop. The transcendent ambiance that Atlanta's fascia is known for shows up behind "Scenic," a film shot around Atlanta -- at a fashion show, the Atlanta College of Art and somewhere in Druid Hills. There's plenty of sensuality in James Herbert's video for R.E.M.'s "Low." In fact, Herbert shows far more depth and poetry in this film than in the sketches to be seen in the main show. Bringing to life Elisabeth Jane Gardner's "La Confidence," the music video is intimate and enchanting.

Helton says the whole idea of Mix Tape is to present something everybody can do. "This is a low-fi approach to making music," he says. "I like the idea of collaborating on sound and image and making it an accessible medium, and I wanted a playful, homey environment where people would really be comfortable with the experience."

Mix Tape should whet the appetite for the upcoming Mixer at Eleven50. The multimedia event is a collaborative effort between fascia, IMAGE Film & Video Center and the Contemporary. The evening will feature experimental short films by Herbert's avant-garde mentor Stan Brakhage, including "Anticipation of Night" (1958), "Mothlight" (1963), "Cricket Requiem" (1999) and "The Lion and the Zebra Make God's Raw Jewels" (1999). And there'll be screenings of music videos by Herbert for R.E.M., the B52s and Moby Grape.

British musician/artist Scanner, whose video plays a part in Mix Tape, presents a live electronic music performance. Atlanta's fascia screens a film set to a live musical score. Their lush new work explores the ideal of beauty using negative space and contradicting notions of the perfect screen image. John Robinson, alias DJ Gnosis, will spin between screenings and performances.

Travel Writing

Though most journeys are remembered in the broad strokes of an impressionist painting, there are moments that form clear crystals. Any traveler will tell you that a detail may shimmer in the mind longer than the big picture. That frisson of discovery appears in architect Mark Cottle's Travel Writing.

For his installation, Cottle shaped four delicate curtains of shifting color. The remote history of their making is unique: Cottle was in a remote farming village in northern China five years ago when he was captivated by the beaded curtains in the doorways of all the shops. As he approached, he saw that the bright strands were in fact made of candy wrappers and cigarette cartons folded onto paper clips. Using sign language, he managed to learn the technique from a shopkeeper. She was so impressed with his fascination that she gave him part of her own curtain.

In his years of travel since, Cottle has found unexpected psychic parallels to that encounter. He's come upon a chain of cosmic connections that link his personal history to generations of other cultures and journeys and lives. With the help of some patient friends and more than 30,000 paper clips, he's recorded those epiphanies in tactile abstractions. From flight safety cards, travel posters and calendars, he has clipped, folded and threaded his memories.

Each of the five curtains is a singular souvenir. "Volare" recalls an Italian pop song from the 1950s. "Bismillah" evokes the Muslim prayer spoken at the beginning of a journey or task. Two other curtains grew from Indian calendars decorated with images of the deities Krishna and Ganesh. Even without these references, folded papers and clips embellish the space with an ephemeral, almost weightless beauty. Travel Writing reminds the viewer how poetry may be woven from the most common threads.

Travel Writing, Mix Tape and James Herbert: Paintings, Films, Videos and Stills continue through Dec. 30 at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, 535 Means St. Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. 404-688-1970. Mixer takes place Nov. 17, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., at Eleven50, 1150-B Peachtree St. $10 general admission, $8 for members of IMAGE and The Contemporary. 404-352-4225.

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