Monday, December 29, 2008

year-end notes towards 2009

As I focus increasingly on matters other than art (but with an eye towards getting the Atlanta art world through the year ahead of us) I find myself attracted to exhibitions for anything but artistic reasons. (Conceptually based art includes the theoretical agenda; I'm talking about exhibitions that ought to be viewed on formalist or documentary terms when it comes to the works themselves.)

Richard Fleming's "Walking to Guantanamo" photographs, opening at Whitespace on January 16, are the case in point here. Fleming apparently walked across Cuba, taking pictures and recording his own impressions of life half a century after the Revolution.

Having mined more than one exhibition of photographs of Cuba for evidence that the photographer wasn't looking for, I've gotten used to the pre-editing eye of the would-be perceiver. Thanks to Fleming's account of his travels, we have the verbal account that helps us to evaluate the visual evidence. (That's to say, we have more evidence of what Fleming saw and why he saw it, versus all the things he didn't notice and that we have no way of knowing about.)

Anyone who has read such books as V. S. Naipaul's A Turn in the South or journalistic accounts in whatever newspaper you choose to cite has intuitively learned the structures of interest and omission without having had to read the theory behind the perception. It's obvious that nobody ever gets the whole story; the whole story does not exist, because there are too many versions of the story, more versions than there are perceivers of it.

But quixotic ventures like Fleming's walk to Guantanamo add visual and verbal information that sometimes proves illuminating as well as visually beautiful. (He looks to be a good photographer.)

Fleming's book may well get things wrong for all I know (I haven't seen a word of it), but to paraphrase Wittgenstein, that too will be a useful piece of information.

I for one am happy that Whitespace is carrying on and that other galleries are hunkering down to get through the financial tempest already buffeting them.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

reasons for optimism (later)

I mistyped in haste and will have now corrected "in memoriam Jack Sinclair."

I am feeling the need to celebrate the gallery owners and directors who make the scene as vigorous as it is (frequently at the cost of their own profits, if not their own profitability) but that will have to wait for a bit. The last few posts have been too lugubrious and/or elegiac. I did intend to make the implicit point in the Sinclair homage that an economic downturn presents new possibilities for the sufficiently imaginative. The alternative scene flourished during the recessions that bracketed the Reagan-Bush years and the recovery in between the two downturns.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

de mortuis: in memoriam Jack Sinclair

first drafts are frequently a bad idea. “First thought, best thought” does not mean that first writing has any merit at all. Even Kerouac modified On the Road. But it seems desirable to get some perspective out quickly regarding a too little known enabler and anti-commodification gadfly from the Atlanta alternative art scene of a generation or so ago. So, here, with regrettably minimal edits, is:

A first draft towards a proper memorial for Jack Sinclair

The names of most installation artists are written in water (sometimes literally).

These days, the odds for remembrance are slightly better. Everyone takes digital photos of everything, and the vast majority of those photos get posted to Flickr or Photobucket or the art websites. (Not that this exhaustive documentation is necessarily secure; the days of a site’s popularity are numbered, and how many of those photographs will have been backed up to more secure modes of storage?)

But back in the day, long before the advent of on-demand online publishing, few exhibitions had catalogues. Even in informal records of the event, hard-to-photograph installations designed to exist temporarily were documented badly. Few images of them ever appeared in print, and descriptions even in long reviews were enigmatic.

Thus it is that Jack Sinclair dies in New Mexico and the news is greeted in Atlanta mostly by ”Who?”

I am not sure where Jack’s site-specific installations should stand in the history of art in Atlanta, but his interventions in the 1980s stretched considerably beyond site sculptures.

Jack was one of the instigators of the annual Great Mattress Factory exhibitions (so named because the first of them was held in the disused Southern Cross Mattress Factory) that brought together upwards of three hundred Atlanta artists working in a range of aesthetics from romantically decorative to in-your-face confrontational.

Two steps (and increasingly only one step) ahead of the developers, Jack and his collaborators—I omit the names and focus on Jack because we are talking about Jack here, even if John Payne’s death this year has the others feeling their mortality—ferreted out vacated factory buildings that could be rehabbed sufficiently to install art. (The structurally dangerous sections could be cordoned off.) And under their supervision, three hundred artists marked off their individual territories and some of them helped clean up the site sufficiently to admit a few thousand guests.

Towards the end of the Mattress Factory and Mattress Spring exhibitions' history, the buildings in which they were staged were already under contract, and the developers had recognized that big come-one-come-all art shows were wonderful marketing tools that cost them nothing.

The anarchist impulse that drove the Mattress Factory collaborations was finally done in by a combination of events: the impending Olympics (which led to the retention for speculative purposes of every semi-ruined site in town, by developers who didn’t want a bunch of artists cluttering up the neighborhood) and the sheer success of the Mattress Factory shows themselves.

Jack was one of the organizers who believed that since the artists put in the sweat equity and the upfront entry fee to pay for publicity and lighting, the artists should share equally in whatever profits remained from the memorable art party of the opening night. Others wanted to use the funds to institutionalize the annual collaboration, and the surviving members of that inner circle ought to write a history of those shows to supplement the few reviews that can be found in back issues of Art Papers, Creative Loafing, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. (For that matter, who has archived even the maps and the rosters of artists, who ranged from the recognized to the deservedly unknown?)

Jack also ran his own anti-profit exhibition space for sculpture and installation art on Edgewood Avenue, for as long as he could afford to do so. Meanwhile the young Turks (and other ethnicities) were staging alternative-space shows of their own, and some of them, such as Michael Jenkins, went on to run distinguished New York galleries. Others sank into unsurprising anonymity.

But Jack just kept on keeping on until there was nothing more to be kept. Eventually he started his own letterpress operation in the Little Five Points Community Center, for which I contributed the poem for the press’s inaugural broadside.

After his marriage and move to New Mexico, Jack continued to create new work. He had projects that were interrupted by his hospitalization.

Atlanta is a town where all that counts is what you did yesterday, and even the most spectacular of accomplishments from the day before yesterday tends to be disparaged when it is not forgotten altogether. This is as it should be: the days of taking over whole ex-industrial sites for community-wide art shows is over, and I shudder to think of the number of safety laws that were productively overlooked (because many of the organizers worked construction in their day jobs and knew which laws they could safely overlook). Nostalgia gets us nowhere.

But one wishes that there would be at least critical evaluations of what was done in the past and why. (There should be a separate blog post devoted to the reasons why Atlanta artists are regularly fated to reinvent structures and strategies that once existed and have ceased to do so.)

In collaboration with other artists and in productive contention with them, Jack maintained an artist-organized face for contemporary art that addressed and/or involved the public, especially a public that was not ordinarily inclined to go to art galleries. The Thursday Night Artists group in which Jack and I were involved staged one such community intervention in Virginia-Highland at a moment when the lower-middle-class neighborhood was being revitalized by new arrivals (solidly single-family, it never required the kind of reinvention that other intown neighborhoods had needed).

The Reliable Paper Company distributors of, I think, restroom towels and toilet paper had recently vacated the storefront next to George’s Bar, and a number of us (you could look it up) installed our paintings and our site-specific pieces as the Reliable Art Show, planning to interact with passersby who were taking their children for a walk or looking for a quick beer and a sandwich at George’s.

In a ceiling-to-floor corner installation, Jack created a giant hornets’-nest-cum-tornado from the felt sheets then used to insulate buildings. We noted that every afternoon, the wasps building a nest in the eaves outside would fly through the open door into the space, looking anxious at the new arrivals in the neighborhood.

Just before the show opened, George himself stuck his head in the door to see what was going on. He remarked, glancing briefly at Jack’s sculpture, “Why, why…that’s insulation.” “It sure is,” organizer Miles Boyd replied.

Going next door for lunch the following day, I heard George declaring to a customer at the bar, “You know what they got next door? They got a bunch of insulation hanging down from the ceiling, and they say that’s art.”

“I’m with you, George,” the customer replied. “That’s not art. Norman Rockwell’s art.”

Norman Rockwell got his own retrospective at the High Museum in the years following.

And even though we tried hard to get High Museum director Gudmund Vigtel to walk in when he showed up by chance for a lunch meeting at George’s, by and large Jack made damn sure that nothing he made would ever end up in anybody’s permanent collection. His principled stance against the commodification of art preserved the best of an earlier idealistic decade in the era of Reagan and the first George Bush. Unfortunately, it also ensured his eventual near-disappearance from the public record.

I would be curious to know how much documentation MOCA GA owns of the site sculptors and installation artists of those years.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

no sooner asked than done

This press release arrived in my inbox while I was typing the foregoing post:

866 Hill St SE
Unit A
Atlanta, GA 30315

Opal Gallery, in conjunction with A Cappella Books, presents Robert
Cheatham¹s book release and signing of Bad Infinity

Atlanta, GA, December 13, 2008 - Opal Gallery invites Robert Cheatham to
introduce his new creative venture, FORT!/DA? Books with a reading of his
book "Bad Infinity" on Saturday, December 13 from 7 to 9 p.m. An excerpt
from the book's accompanying DVD - a joint project with videographer Chea
Prince - will be shown at Opal. Immediately following, A Cappella will host
a question and answer session moderated by Chad Radford and a book signing.
A Cappella Books will carry FORT!/da? Books.

Robert Cheatham, an independent scholar and artist, is often described as a
modern day Renaissance Man. Working in the Atlanta art scene for more than
30 years, Robert Cheatham's influence prevails throughout the city. He was a
main player in the Destroy All Music Festivals of the 80¹s; a co-founder/
creator of Public Domain Inc. - incorporated as a non-profit arts and
information organization devoted to art, theory, and community in 1991.
Public Domain hosts the online listserves Artnews and Word-L, as well as the
podcast series Live From Edge City, a video series, and an archive of ten
years of improvisational music. Since 2001, he has filled the executive
director's position at the Southeast's premier avant-garde gallery Eyedrum.

informal non-reviews as usual

Thomas Dozol's photos of men and women immediately after showering (it requires two showers in succession in some cases before Dozol gets a psychologically haunting portrayal) remain at Opal Gallery through January 10, annoying a certain number of passing parents who seem unaware that their small children will see much more troublesome visual offerings just down the street in the window displays of any number of Little Five Points establishments. The full-body male nudity in some of these photos is far enough inside the gallery to require a commitment to looking at the show, and the 12-foot-tall closeup that covers one wall ought not to offend anyone.

Dozol is apparently getting more press locally for his relationship with Michael Stipe than as a photographer for French Vogue and other publications. The less gossip-obsessed will be pleased to know that these photos are presented to stand or fall on their own merits, even though they feature music personalities well known in the Athens and Atlanta scene alongside figures with greater face recognition. And it goes without saying that they stand rather than fall, documenting illuminating details of decor as well as bodies in various states of deshabille.

I have seen a rumor that Public Domain will shortly hold a signing at Opal for their latest FORT/da! books but will hold off on details till I get firmer information. PD deserves more support than it has gotten.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Carol Barton at the Papermaking Museum

I am left with the sense that the AJC's relatively small number of column inches devoted to the visual arts means that there isn't even room for stories about certain things that the general populace would like, such as Carol Barton's popup books for grownups at the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum on the Ga. Tech campus. Under the capable curatorship of Teri Williams, the Museum brings us serious yet often playful paper-related shows of contemporary art, such as Julie Püttgen's survey of Swiss and American cut-and-folded paper sculptures (one of the last things I was able to write about in the now-defunct AccessAtlanta tabloid before the AJC downsized still further).

And it is, as mentioned in a comment to an earlier post, scandalous that we have noplace to see the work of an Atlanta-based artist featured in Modern Painters whose work, were it available in sufficient quantity, would be ideal for a Paper Museum sculpture show. But no gallery locally shows Brian Dettmer, who came to Atlanta in 2006 because of his wife's employment here. His transformations of books (written up courtesy of Felicia Feaster in the December issue of The Atlantan) are much acclaimed elsewhere, as the London magazine's special feature in November indicates.

The AJC's Jonathan Williams interviewed Bethany Marchman in Sunday's AJC, providing insight into the life and work of a popular artist whose work was featured in the movie Juno and whose fiancé Rene Arriagada is not so coincidentally profiled in the same section, alongside an article on a 7 p.m. Friday book signing by Russell Howze of his Stencil Nation: Graffiti, Community, and Art, at A Cappella Books, in Little Five Points.

So this exercise in art history gives us hope for the future. Three interrelated articles fill in some of the context and implicitly correct some of the errors in an earlier story on the Atlanta practitioners of the lowbrow movement's aesthetic (discussed in the Marchman interview), and contextualize a subcategory of graffiti (stencil art) as well as putting a name to some of the stencils that most Atlantans know only from drive-by glimpses. (Those who went to Arriagada's exhibition of gallery art at Beep Beep Gallery were already knowledgeable on the topic, but the show attracted little enough attention in the print media. Given the reading habits of the Atlanta public, it is doubtful if many people who needed to be brought up to speed on stencil art actually attended the show to receive an education in the history of contemporary practice.)

So Jonathan Williams proves to be equal to the example of his famous modernist namesake when it comes to enlightening the masses regarding topics about which they are clueless.

And we may hope for similar AJC convergences with regard to the many other types of art exhibited around town, as well as meditations on why certain types of art are represented only in lectures regarding work that Atlantans will never see in local venues. (Given the lovely January convergence represented by Georgia State's "New WAVE Atlanta: When Urban Intervention Speaks French" and the Atlanta Gallery Association's ATLArt09 fest, a study in collisions of the contemporary could be undertaken by any number of commentators.)

We could be pleasantly surprised someday, and have a feast of the international contemporary to rival the unparalleled feast of antiquity currently available in the city. But it won't be because there is a market for it. Although there are significant collectors of contemporary work, too much of it doesn't fit the dominant commercial paradigm. There is a great deal of worthwhile work to be seen here, but within a context that is shaped by many distorting factors.

Right now the local market does not fit much of anybody, which is why I have been more preoccupied recently with the survival of art venues and the problem with keeping their events known to general audiences. But events continue to unfold.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

no joke: local places that could use our support, in Atlanta

Calavino Donati sends word that Calavino's in Oakhurst will close as of December 21 if people don't donate to her savemyrestaurant paypal account:

But I can't help but think that fans of Calavino at her old Roman Lily Cafe location, who have not found her new format quite as consistently compelling, can do something more creative than just give money. These events never raise quite enough, but can't we think of ways to add still more DIY fundraising events to the proximity of the holidays? I mean events that would split the proceeds with Calavino and that would provide a pre-holiday venue for people who are wishing they could sell some things that are more than odds and wouldn't replace the paypal donations but it may be a way for more people to donate and do good for themselves as well.

Or else we could just offer Calavino $20 per person to make a heumongous batch of her once world-famous banana bread dessert from the old days at Roman Lily.

On the financial apocalypse front, I am pleased that Atlanta Peach got in some plugs for some of my favorite artists before shutting down abruptly. And that Felicia Feaster signed on with The Atlantan, which now becomes the survivor of the luxury lifestyle magazine wars, and the go-to source for slick-paper accounts of the Atlanta art scene.

alcohol that supports the arts

For those few of you still holding a holiday party at levels higher than PBR, I would remind you that the chairman of the board of Glenfiddich Distillery supports an annual artist residency at the distillery in Dufftown, Scotland (sorry, invitation only and I'm not on the curatorial board) that is one of the more valuable and imaginative ventures among the producers of upscale beverages.

If you are buying single malt Scotch anyway, please consider the one that supports the arts and that paid my way on a press tour to the place in 2007, without preconditions. (For which they have never gotten more out of me than the occasional recognition that they do this sort of thing, plus my attempt to drink their product whenever possible, which is not at all often.)

a roundup of footnotes to the foregoing few posts

Robert Cheatham’s incipient legacy includes a couple of compilations of writing that deserve greater recognition (findable, I believe, on, wherein I have ensconced my own collected creations—along with my part of a family homage to a favorite aunt that also comes up when my name is searched on that website).

But just as there is never time for a proper debate about the relative merits of, say, Badiou versus Rabinow (who have little enough to do with each other—which is the point), there is never time to write about all the personal aesthetics that are of tremendous importance to artists’ careers, and to audience understanding. Exhibitions come and go without more than mysterious passing references, and often not even that.

I’ve weighed in twice on the issue of Whitney Wood because her accomplishment in something like one year has been prodigious, and her studio at Tula will guarantee her continued visibility. (Kudos to Mary Stanley, however, for an exhibition gloriously presented in the space once occupied by galleries from Kiang, which survives and thrives today in Midtown West, to Momus, which doesn’t.)

MB Andrews, on the other hand, gets little enough visibility in her Little Five Points Community Center studio, and when I consider the sheer number of artists for whom a three of four week exhibition is the one chance to have a significant number of people see their work, I am pained anew at the lack of a single reliable information source, where audiences of all types could find the insight they need to know what they ought to be seeing. Thoughtmarker, as I’ve said, covers the alt-scene nicely in that department when linked to all the blogs that deal with that set of aesthetics. The folks at are stretching their own aesthetics considerably and looking for ways to stretch them still further. I keep hearing rumors out of regarding new moves and modes.

But the situation is dire, and until someone comes up with a single vehicle that will get all of us where we need to go, I repeat my appeal to y’all to go buy a little work of art, or as big a work of art as you can afford, from the gallery that you would most like to have stay in business.

And I promise that I will at least TRY to get my head round issues of abstraction and representation that lie behind so many local aesthetics, but I get distracted with things like the two thousand words or so regarding Florida’s place in the American imagination, to be found over on, which I http because people always reflexively add “www” when they type the URL, which gets them absolutely nowhere.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


I've tried now twice and can't get there from here vis-a-vis where my worldview diverges from Robert's and why. It has to do more with which thinkers either of us accepts as most fruitful for constructing an epistemology and an anthropology, I'll say that much. And my sense that much of the received body of knowledge with which we grew to maturity was in fact in now-evident error, as we suspected at the time. But we differ on the nature and implications of that error.

And our respective aesthetics derive from those divergent epistemologies and social anthropologies.

I hope we would agree on something like the worth of Whitney Wood's abstractions, which allow for biomorphic projections more than they present them (except on a subconscious level on the part of their maker as well as their viewer...but then that is the case with all art, even the most self-consciously representational).

Interesting to compare them with MB Andrews' works at House of Colors...not that I am going to post any images to allow readers to do so at this point.

The economics of time and energy...if I don't set out now I'll never get to the galleries I intend before rush hour starts, and it is only the flextime of my current schedule that allows me to get to galleries at this hour at all.

Most art writers of my acquaintance are still on 9 to 5 weekday schedules that force them into the Saturday-only schedule I lived with when still writing freelance for the AJC. And of course most viewers are in a similar condition, a reason for the creation of an art-reviewing venue that allows different types of audiences to make informed judgments about where to see the kind of art they most want to see on their one day when they can go see it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

les neiges d'antan

I have suppressed for the moment, and perhaps permanently, a rambling post for which I shall substitute another rambling post. It's better than continuing a debate with Rob Cheatham over positions that we have developed painstakingly over decades and altered according to changing conditions of knowledge, me on the joculum blog and he in many different online locations.

Whitney Wood's excellent SCAD MFA paintings show that you can no longer see at Tula (but watch this space for developments) reminded me of the various fates of herself and others from Auburn whom I shall not discuss at this particular point, but eventually. (I've lost touch with Heather Hartman and Ann Stewart's grad school careers.)

An enigmatic Facebook comment sent me back to Kate Kretz's blog where I found a new drawing from her friend and mine Sarah Petruziello, which reminded me of the disparate fates of so many artists I've known and championed over the years. This is the resoundingly titled allegory This Little Princess Has Built Her House of Cards Upon a Quagmire:

I tried to bring Kate Kretz's globally recognized painting Blessed Art Thou to Atlanta as part of a projected exhibition, but this seems to have become ever less likely as the world economic crisis progresses or devolves, whichever way you choose to describe it.