Atlanta artist explores angst and failures of the past

For Atlanta artist Jason Kofke, 1979 was a banner year. There was an Iranian revolution. The Walkman was introduced. The global fuel crisis exploded.

Oh, and it was the year that Kofke was born.

The artist’s latest show, “Encyclopaedia: A Compendium of Modernity,” at Westside’s Kai Lin Art takes 1979 as its jumping-off point for an examination of this personally significant year for the artist. A set of 1979 World Book encyclopedias are on display in the gallery as representations of another era’s way of cataloguing important, earth-shattering events before the dawn of the Internet.

The encyclopedia as a way to chronicle historical events is the linchpin of this show. But the more urgent theme of the show is the angst and failures of the past.

Despite its fixation on history, there’s very little in Kofke’s work that could be characterized as nostalgic. Instead, his carefully rendered, often black and white images of fighter jets and scientists in lab coats are about the pathos of the past: What once seemed so grand and cutting-edge now looks clunky and out of date.

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Case in point: the great locomotive train depicted in Kofke’s print “Age of Machine Reliance,” which has derailed. Humankind’s dreams may be lofty and ascendant, but Kofke suggests they are also prone to fail. Human ambition can also have a dark side, the case in the drawing “Age of Nationalist Expansion” featuring a Vietnam-era soldier carrying a bound and blindfolded Vietnamese woman over his shoulder.

Kofke’s imagery is highly dependent on another era’s vision of the future, and of progress and innovation: astronauts in prints like “Everything Will Be OK, 2001,” hulking steel ships in the print “Age of International Economy,” and computers so enormous in drawings like “Age of Mediated Discourse” they fill entire rooms. Naturally, such shiny optimism and cumbersome equipment look naive through today’s lens of laptops and a diminished space program. The aspirations in these images are as out of date as the secretary’s page boy hairdos and dreams of transcendence in space travel that his images document.

Kofke presents these exemplars of modernity with a sense of … not irony, exactly. That would be too cheap. The artist’s approach is much more earnest, and closer to regret and even despair. He takes the kind of images one might find in his set of encyclopedias or in daily newspapers and turns them into delicate, careful drawings and prints that isolate these hopeful or ominous moments. The hand of the artist imbues these images with an intimacy and immediacy that makes them feel more poignant.

In Kofke’s drawings and prints he references the look of those antiquated encyclopedia pages, but imbues them with something more profound. Many of the prints are made on graph paper to underscore the science-y themes of the show. Several are Xerox prints, another once-novel technology that now seems old hat.

Kofke is joined in the gallery by two other artists, Greg Noblin and Joe Elias Tsambiras. Noblin coats photographs of animals — horses, cheetahs, flamingos, elephants, rhinos — with layers of resin and gel to give them a painterly gravitas. The works are reminiscent of children’s wooden blocks and are appealing on a surface level, but don’t offer much more. Joe Elias Tsambiras’s imagery is far more rich and mysterious, loaded with the kind of imagery of birds and rabbits and ladies with flowing locks that suggest pages plucked from surreal storybooks.

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