A purposeful ‘Sprawl’ of Georgia-made art at High Museum

AJC arts writer Howard Pousner discusses Athens artist Carol John's contributions to the High Museum's 'Sprawl' exhibit. Video by Erica A. Hernandez/AJC


“Sprawl: Drawing Outside the Lines”

July 18-Oct. 4. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Saturdays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $19.50; $16.50, students and ages 65 and up; $12, ages 6-17; free, ages 5 and younger. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4444, www.high.org.

Before he began acquiring pieces in 2010 for the High Museum of Art exhibition "Drawing Inside the Perimeter," modern and contemporary art curator Michael Rooks created a list of Atlanta artists whose studios he wanted to visit, to view works he would consider for purchase.

Yet by the time that enthusiastically received show of 56 drawings by 35 artists opened in 2013, Rooks having met with dozens of artists, his to-visit list had only grown.

Two summers later, that ever-expanding list has helped produce an even larger sequel exhibit, "Sprawl: Drawing Outside the Lines," an ambitious showcase of 115 works by 76 Georgia artists. It opens Saturday for a run through Oct. 4.

While “Drawing” was tucked into the basement of the High’s Wieland Pavilion, “Sprawl” sprawls all over the expansive top floor galleries of the Anne Cox Chambers Wing. To accommodate the profusion, newly installed shelves climb two of the walls, displaying those pieces in the artfully arranged salon style.

Many stretch the notion of what a drawing is. The curator said he prefers a more open-ended definition that’s not limited to what can be created in ink or graphite.

Thus "Sprawl" includes a work by ceramicist Susan Loftin using a slab of red clay to make impressions on paper; an architectural composition lightly burnt with a laser into illustration board by Georgia Tech associate professor Mark Cottle; and a series of mixed media works by Ryan Coleman that borrow traditional cel animation techniques.

With $60,000 from the Antinori Foundation of Atlantans Susan and Ron Antinori, who stepped forward offering Rooks and the High their support for the sequel show after being wowed by "Drawing," the curator made more multiple acquisitions this time from single artists than he did for "Drawing."

“It’s like (eating) potato chips, I was just ravenous,” the curator joked, recalling the transactions like he was a Kardashian set loose in a Beverly Hills boutique. “‘Oh, (I’ll buy) that and that too — those two!’”

Initially, Rooks thought that he would include only one of the permanent collection acquisitions by each artist in “Sprawl,” aspiring to keep the show smaller and more compact. That idea soon gave way to the desire to show density and mass, growing as the curator’s enthusiasm did for what he was seeing and securing.

Before Rooks’ arrival at the High in 2010, the museum was often criticized for paying scant attention to the local scene while pouring resources into multiyear series of exhibitions with glossy partners such as the Louvre and the Museum of Modern Art.

Rooks, who has said one of his charges when he was hired was to connect with the local community, as he had done in prior curatorial stops in Chicago and Honolulu, used the studio visits for “Drawing” to plug into the scene.

Among a slew of positive reviews for the resulting exhibit, Atlanta Journal-Constitution critic Felicia Feaster wrote, “It’s hard to think of a moment in the past 20 years when the High offered such a profound, far-reaching and impressive celebration of Atlanta’s unique artistic achievements.”

For his energetic efforts, Rooks was honored in May with the Nexus Award, given annually by the Atlanta Contemporary art center for notable contributions to the city's visual arts scene.

For “Sprawl’s” studio visits, Rooks again was accompanied by Marianne Lambert, the deeply connected Atlanta art consultant, and the two were joined by patron Susan Antinori. Calling themselves the “Three Amigos,” the trio had a sense of mission, usually limiting visits to an hour so that they could make multiple stops, moving down Rooks’ list.

“The point of this show is to create an archive of drawings that represents the city, what’s going on in the visual arts over this period of time,” Rooks said. “Several artists from the last show have … gotten into galleries, have had a lot of success. And that’s the point, too: to support artists here, to provide this sort of steppingstone. This is a big leg up.”

Rooks estimates that nearly three-quarters of the "Sprawl" artists are being represented in a museum collection for the first time. But while the show includes emerging 20-somethings such as Paper Frank (who created a large, street-style mural in the gallery) and Mac Stewart, it also includes well-established makers such as Maria Artemis and Medford Johnston.

“Atlanta is a really creative city and there’s so many creative people in the city, from many different disciplines,” Rooks said.

That’s why his to-visit list is longer than ever, even after he organized two very large and inclusive exhibits. Many of the artists in “Drawing” and “Sprawl” suggested other artists that the Three Amigos must meet, gallerists got in touch, and Rooks comes across (or as he phrases it, “stalks”) even more leads via social media.

“Last time I had this list, now I have an even bigger list of people,” he said, acknowledging that he hopes it will flower into a third exhibit. “I keep going and going. It makes it a lot of fun for me.”