“The New South II” at Kai Lin Art offers plenty of reassurance that the Southeast has a diversity of talent in an endless variety of forms. This juried group show of works on paper (with some notable exceptions) by 39 artists is the second (and stronger) of Kai Lin’s two large survey shows dedicated to Southeastern artists, with work this go-around chosen by jurors Veronica Kessenich, executive director of Atlanta Contemporary, and Michael White, director of the Welch School of Art and Design at Georgia State University.
Though work in “The New South II” veers from abstraction to portraiture and from photography to sculpture and tackles subjects as diverse as celebrity culture and Southern food, you could say that — generally speaking — “The New South II” gravitates toward two poles: on one hand, cheeky; and on the other, political and socially engaged.
For the nutty side, exhibit A, the oddball collages of Axelle Kieffer, whose staid woman and boy in formal Victorian dress sport outrageous steampunk-meets-extraterrestrial masks. Compelling in their quiet surrealism, Joshua Chambers’ delicate drawings are surrounded by a satisfying sea of empty space and show people in improbably magic realist situations: a man with a bird’s wing for an arm or a woman on a bed with a man in scuba gear watching the water rise, licking at her feet from her queen-size raft.
Also just shy of wacky are Alea Hurst’s portraits of modern-day saints wearing gold halos as they flip burgers at an outdoor barbecue or show off their tattooed torsos, and Charlie Watt’s Catherine Opie-esque image of a nude lady beekeeper sporting the tools of her trade. Meanwhile R. Andrew Munoz’s deceptively childlike cut paper collages contain undercurrents of violence: spilled bottles of wine and hockey-masked killers lurking outside suggest things are not as Colorforms as they seem. Amusing commentary on the overvaluing of our role as consumers and the sanctity of buying, Raoul Pacheco offers up clever gilt sales receipts.
There’s a subtle but palatable strain of black identity in “The New South II” that gives the show some heft and heart, from the straightforward but sweet photograph of a black father supporting his son on his shoulders in Stephen Philms’ “Shoulders of Hope” to Alex Christopher Williams’ image “Atlanta, GA” of a black barbershop decorated with affirmations of black masculinity in photographs of Muhammad Ali and LeBron James. There are Joe Dreher’s images “Madison” and “Red” of a black man and child, hands over heart, waving a tiny flag, draped in a stars and stripes bandanna, as if to assert the resilience of belief and loyalty despite all odds.
Jamaal Barber’s graphic, iconic linocut, “Untamed/Free,” and Mia Merlin’s watercolor “Southern Woman 3” are bookend works; portraits of empowered, assertive young black women.
There are some interesting formal experiments in “The New South II,” as well, notably Lynx Nguyen’s “Ultimate Heaven,” an oddly transcendent work considering its lowbrow medium: ballpoint pen worked over the paper surface so intensely it soaks into and ripples the paper, creating topographic ridges and gaps, or abrades it, in some places revealing the pulp beneath.