4 Georgia artists united by more than their quest for $50,000

In an age as frantic and distracted as our own, we’re lucky to have artists who stop time and force us to look beyond our smartphones and computer screens. Artists have an ability to pay attention to the small things in life, the obsolete and the overlooked.

That tendency couldn’t be on better display than in the current exhibition at Duluth’s Hudgens Center for the Arts, which features the impressive work of four Georgia artists competing for one of the most generous art prizes in the country for an individual artist. For the second year in a row, on Aug. 10 the $50,000 cash prize given by an anonymous donor (or donors) will be awarded to one of the four artists competing this year: Robbie Land, Pam Longobardi and Chris Chambers from Atlanta and Derek Larson from Statesboro. The winner will be selected by a prestigious panel of curators at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Houston’s Menil Collection and AMOA Arthouse in Austin, Texas.

A sort of mad scientist of celluloid, Robbie Land combines an interest in outmoded technology — 16 mm film — and in looking deeply and closely at the natural world. In the tradition of avant garde 1960s’ and 1970s’ filmmakers, Land is interested in the experimental potential of film, both projected, but also as a physical entity that can be imprinted with images placed on film stock. For this poetic “Matters of Bioluminescence” project, Land takes Foxfire mushrooms and fireflies and places them directly on extremely light-sensitive film stock to capture their eerily glowing properties. Land then exhibits these experiments in two ways: First he displays the actual film in a light box as sculpture, so we can look at each frame and study how these creatures are captured on its surface. Then he projects a short, seven-minute film of those glowing fireflies or pulsating neon mushrooms in a work that celebrates the essential magic of cinema: light.

Pam Longobardi makes smart, sometimes scary, sometimes beautiful environmentally conscious work about the profound damage humankind is visiting upon the natural world. Part of what she calls “The Drifters Project,” her work centers on the plastic debris — combs, detergent bottle tops, flip-flops, toys and plastic tubing, all worn like beach glass to a matte, soft-edged and abstracted state — that washes up on beaches, often after traveling great distances. Sculptures such as “Broken Molecule (Kyttaro/Carbon)” suspended from the ceiling and swirling like a small tornado of trash, are like a beautifully rendered body of evidence in a criminal case.

While Longobardi archives our global debris, Chris Chambers documents another kind of garbage in his recreation of a living room dedicated to movie-watching in “Untitled (Kevin).” One corner of the Hudgens gallery is given over to an epic configuration of entertainment centers strung together and filled with 48 televisions and accessorized with fake plants and outdated furniture. Chambers’ piece considers dead or dying artifacts like VHS tapes, cathode ray televisions, lumbering oak entertainment centers built to support massive TVs and books, all of which become part of his “Archie Bunker”-like shrine to a simultaneously claustrophobic and cozy living room. With their continually played snippets of 27 Kevin Costner films, the piece is also an examination of how the stars we love enter into our lives and living rooms and become as familiar as those worn leather chairs and Oriental carpet.

The most conceptually ambitious of the bunch, Derek Larson’s “Nervous Systems” works are packed with the artist’s complex meditations on health care, genetically modified food, and nature versus culture. Larson’s multi-sensory combinations of moving machine parts, shifting light patterns, florescent lights and animated films suggest the sensory overload of Times Square and the overstimulated world we live in rendered in DIY, abstracted terms. His work is cerebral but also overloaded with ideas that don’t quite come through. With his evocation of an out of control consumer culture, Larson also shares much in common with Chambers and Longobardi.

There are often surprising connections between these artists’ work. Beyond their shared yen for a $50,000 cash prize, they are united by certain tendencies: an interest in nature and outmoded technologies, and a desire to examine the impact of our consumer habits on the world. Seeing the fascinating, serendipitous connections between these artists is the icing on the cake of trying to guess this year’s Hudgens Prize winner.

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