Review: Hidden worlds are concern of two Atlanta artists

“Systems” at Swan Coach House Gallery features two artists with a shared interest in alerting their audience’s attention to hidden aspects of our world.

Atlanta artist Amie Laurel Esslinger concerns herself with things so microscopic they evade our notice: cells and viruses and blood vessels. Things that course and spurt and multiply beguile her. Her works on paper in acrylic, ink and gouache and her installations using layers of balsa wood and neon shades are busy with suggestive movement and color. Her interest lies in the complex circuitry and the ever-morphing nature of these hidden worlds.

Layering cut paper and balsa wood and creating tiny hairy fibers with fake eyelashes, Esslinger creates what from a distance looks like a particularly chaotic fabric pattern but which, on closer examination, reveals a world of buzzing molecular activity where cells divide, organisms collide and life unfolds at a frenzied pace.

Her fellow Atlanta artist Lauren Michelle Peterson is after hidden things of a different sort: the products that define our breakfasts, morning routine and recreation and then wind up as trash. Peterson’s material is those endless brands and boxes that wallpaper our lives, so ubiquitous we barely notice them anymore. Peterson braids thin strips of those cardboard cereal, cracker and snack boxes into woven trash tapestries.

It’s an amusing idea: Baskets and woven mats that might be created from natural grasses in one context become a statement on modern life here, when the most immediate material at hand is trash. Most often, Peterson transforms this detritus into woven wall hangings, but she also creates little nests and bowls formed from those same paper strips.

Peterson and Esslinger both traffic in a language of bright colors and a wry approach, using ordinary materials to arresting ends. But placed next to each other, Peterson’s work can often pale by comparison; solo shows spotlighting the unique approach of each might have been a better tack than placing them side by side. Esslinger’s command of color, her oddball visual lexicon and the crazed, busy worlds she creates with her pulsating cells and spurting seed pods seduce. Though Peterson’s work makes her intentions known fairly quickly, Esslinger’s exquisitely weird universe unfurls before your eyes. Her multilayered paintings are filled with so much spiraling action and wicked detail you descend into the works more than you simply appraise them.

Some of Peterson’s most interesting work comes in the gallery antechamber in “An Ongoing Archive of Recategorization,” where she has cataloged her trash like a crime scene analyst or an obsessive hoarder who can’t let go of even a scrap. The artist is ordering the gaudy plastic fragments that wind up in our trash cans, but often take an unwelcome detour into our vacant lots and oceans, pinning them onto the wall and in some cases, tagging them with an identifying number.

Peterson arranges her gaudy, worn-down objects — sunglass frames, plastic wrapped newspapers, smashed metal soda cans, plastic bags — in a variety of ways, marking off a mound of dirt and dust and plastic bits on the ground with blue tape or arranging fragments of brightly colored plastic junk like chess pieces on low plywood tables. There is a kind of glorification and rescuing going on, as if Peterson is forcing us to reckon with these forgotten things we thought we were done with. When she’s engaged in this manic cataloging, Peterson is living up to the role of any artist, to alert us to the reality of the world we live in.

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