By Sara Lee Burd
In West Midtown Atlanta, Georgia, William Downs and Michael Reese have composed a visual and conceptual arrangement taking a cue from Jazz music by making art in a call and response method. The artists, who met while in art school at Atlanta College of Art, have come together to make an exhibition where using their unique styles and mediums, they have a conversation about the human experience. The exhibit is visually and intellectually stimulating because of the artwork and the curatorial concept. To emphasize the artists’ collaborative relationship, the gallery alternates the artists’ work, hanging them in groupings by dialogue. While it wasn’t always clear who is calling and who is responding by looking at the art on the walls, the thematic unity of the works doesn’t rely on a beginning or an end–there is no last word. The analysis below of selected works in the exhibit is only a small introduction based on my own experience with the the complex and poignant artwork made by Downs and Reese.
Downs’s frenetic black and white ink washes on canvas present loosely rendered figures made with smooth, expressive lines. It’s hard to find a straight line in the whole series. These images vibrate with energy and jar the mind with surreal juxtapositions that speak of innate dualities. Reese’s compositions of archival pigment prints pasted onto abstract backgrounds of tissue paper and glue encircled with glitter, bring color and materiality to the exhibit. The photographer took a step back from his practice for this series and focused on finding existing images of black Americans, which bring a documentary, historical element to the conversation. The glitter rings that border the found work act as a lens to focus viewer’s attention, and also harkens back to the artist’s primary passion, photography.
In Downs’s hermaphroditey, he recalls the Greek goddess of love (mostly the corporal variety), Aphrodite, as a hermaphrodite. Instead of the iconographic presentation of the goddess in sensuous, powerful positions, Downs’s figure appears awkward in a distorted contrapposto position and chaste indicated by the limp staff it holds. The work draws attention to insecurity experienced when trying to arouse love despite expectations of gender, sexuality, desire, and power.
Placed in relation to Downs’s images such as hermaphrodity, Reese’s Quatre Femmes presents an often underappreciated population in the United States, black women. The photograph of these powerful ladies from the early 1900s shows them seated on a single step in dynamic poses and looking directly at the camera. Who these women are and the purpose of the photograph is not defined in the work of art, but making them the central image and overlapping them with a sheer mandala pattern suggests that despite the certain racism and sexism these women must have experienced, they exude strength to contemplate and honor.
Another tension Downs and Reese address is the fine line between pleasure and pain. In …great anxiety, a single face is depicted in a state of struggle and resolution. Much like the technique used by Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla in his Dynamism of Dog on a Leash, the repetition and overlapping faces suggest that the head is moving. The figure appears to be strangled around the neck by barbed wire or some other painful material. The diagonal line of eyes and expressionless facial features suggest that the head-shaking figure is achieving some vision or knowledge while simultaneously plagued with the anxiety produced trying to accomplish that goal.
As part of the discussion around the duality of struggle and resolution, Reese created Synchronicities, which evokes the troubled history of African Americans in the United States. The central photograph of a black band in military clothing is covered with a translucent image of a compass. The juxtaposition of imagery brings up questions of race and identity. The maritime instruments evoke those used by captains of slave ships and in more contemporary times the Navy, while the respectful photograph of the black brass band honors the highly sought after musicians for military brass and jazz bands. In fact, the number of highly skilled black musicians recruited to play tunes to lift the spirits of soldiers facing war has been so high at times that the growth of the musical genres outside the military halted.
The pain of coming to America as an object for sale, combined with imagery that shows assimilation into the United States military as musicians is unsettling, and if it were not real, it would seem absurd. Just as the figure in …great anxiety, the imagery in Synchronicities demonstrates anxiety of the past is still part of the present, especially if we have our eyes open to that possibility.
Sandler Hudson’s Call and Response is an exquisitely presented exhibit by two artists whose work challenges the viewer to consider the complexities of many issues. The rhythmic energy of each call and response jam stimulates the mind and eye, while the smooth transitions between their conversations, leave space for contemplation.
Collectors take note that if you can afford it, purchase a complete call and response between the artists to capture their creative collaborative moment. The work was made to go together so why not fill your wall with a compelling conversation that will continue to grow with you as time goes on.
For anyone seeing these artists work, take your time with the art. The more you look for connections to understand the artists’ conversations, you may find yourself responding to their call by bringing in your own thoughts and experiences to the meaning of the art.
Call and Response is on view at Sandler Hudson Gallery through September 9. For more information, visit www.sandlerhudson.com.
Sara Lee Burd is a writer, art consultant, and artist representative, www.artconsultantnashville.com.