Local talent gets its moment in spotlight in ‘Sprawl’ at High

There’s a reason why the High’s curator of modern and contemporary art, Michael Rooks, is beloved by local artists, and it’s currently on display on the Skyway Level of the Anne Cox Chambers wing.

“Sprawl: Drawing Outside the Lines” is Rooks’ second group show dedicated to a loosely defined notion of drawing, and another warm embrace of the city’s artists. Rooks’ well-received 2013 exhibition “Drawing Inside the Perimeter” included 35 artists living in Atlanta. But “Sprawl” features 76 artists culled from both inside and as far outside the Perimeter as Athens and Columbus, with established and emerging artists presented side by side.

There are virtuosic works like Christian Bradley West’s stunning re-creations of vintage photographs in pencil. And then there are drawings that question how we think of that medium, like Hannah Israel’s “Untitled (Line Study)” in which graphite is so aggressively, vigorously applied to paper, the resulting, transformed object has the appearance of reconstituted cinders.

The good news about “Sprawl,” beyond its shoutout to these individual artists, is how they will now enter the High collection, a feather in any artist’s cap. It is also refreshing to see the international dimension to the show, with artists whose roots in South Korea, China, Cuba, Venezuela prove the increasingly sophisticated, international composition of the city’s art scene.

The show of 113 works, true to its name, is a sprawl of ideas about drawing and artists dipping into formalism, social commentary, psychedelia, graffiti, portraiture, realism and everything in between.

There are themes that emerge even within this enormous display of over 100 drawings. One of the most compelling is an idea of erasure and diminishment that crops up in the work of several artists, including a delicate work by Caomin Xie, the wry, urbane cartoons for jaded grown-ups from Nick Bable, and Michi Meko’s work. Meko, who creates quiet, thoughtful works about the black experience, blots out the identity of a young urban man in “The Standard,” even while a sunburst of gold leaf layered on top of that graphic burqa suggests a beatification of his figure.

That feeling of erasure is brilliantly balanced by celebration in one of my favorite works in the show, Fabian Williams’ watercolor riff on Norman Rockwell’s “The Gossips,” in which Williams has replaced the Middle American demographic of Rockwell’s world with a more hip, multicultural mix that speaks to Atlanta and its unique population of creatives.

Stronger commentary emerges in Frank Dunson’s work “Ruby,” which revisits a famous civil rights-era image of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges integrating a New Orleans school while surrounded by U.S. marshals commemorated in Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With.” But Dunson’s Ruby is ornamented with the wild style graphics and cartoon playfulness of graffiti culture.

Dunson offers his Ruby an armature of protection, outfitted by the artist with a kind of graffiti helmet covering her face and eyes to the ugliness around her and equipping her with a roaring tiger as her wingman. There is a charming, childlike quality in Dunson’s offering up of these totems of protection to a little girl entering a racially charged fray.

Rooks’ gestures to bring local artists into the fold at the High are significant. Regional artists have complained for decades that they didn’t have a stake or voice in the museum. It would now be nice to see that engagement with talented regional players escalate and expand to include solo shows and tighter thematic shows featuring area artists.

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