The exploration of the relationships between history, visual media and memory is a major thrust. Over the course of several series of paintings, they create a chronicle both intimate and panoramic of the civil rights movement. Through paintings that honor foot soldiers like the demonstrators whose mug shots are displayed at the entrance or mourn the charred remains of a Georgia church, they suggest the dignity and heroism as well as the violence and terror of the era.
Form fulfills function. The oil paintings are copies of photos the artists found in historical archives. They are set in deep frames, across which silk panels bearing a screen print of the same image are stretched, slightly misaligned. On one hand, the resulting lack of clarity suggests the distance of time and faltering of memory. On the other, it forces us to look more carefully and perhaps to feel the story anew.
The artists apply the format to a new subject, race and entertainment, in the “Projections” series. Strikingly composed and delineated images such as Eddie Cantor in blackface, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson on stage and stills from films such as “Imitation of Life” prompt thoughts about identity, stereotyping and the metaphor of the mask.
McCallum and Tarry use their bodies, their races and their marriage to confront similar issues in their often tense and disturbing videos. In “Exchange,” (2007) they give each other blood transfusions to invoke the “one-drop rule” and miscegenation laws. “Evenly Yoked,” their latest video, meditates on the history of racial and of male-female relationships.
Perhaps taking a cue from “Projection,” they’ve beefed up production values. They’ve also traded the ritualistic repetition and ceremonial pace of their “art performances” for more theatrical narrative, character and period costumes and sets.
Against a backdrop of a spiral staircase out of “Gone with the Wind” and the insistent, percussive sound of Bojangles’ tap dancing, the artists play the roles of slave and Confederate soldier, antebellum couple and contemporary bride and groom.
The four-minute video is not as powerful as earlier work. The shifting back and forth through time is confusing, though perhaps intentionally so. Although Tarry is an effective actress, McCallum is rather wooden and sometimes inappropriately creepy.
It has its moments, though. The sequence in which McCallum cinches Tarry’s corset reprises the duality of tenderness and violence that runs through previous videos. All in all, an absorbing show.
“Evenly Yoked: Bradley McCallum & Jacqueline Tarry”
Through Dec. 4. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; noon-4 p.m. Saturdays. Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, 350 Spelman Lane. 404-270-5607. www.spelman.edu/museum/
Bottom line: This engaging survey of paintings and video from the past six years demonstrates the imagination, visual élan and serious purpose McCallum and Tarry bring to their work.
Catherine Fox is chief visual arts critic of ArtsCriticATL.com .