Female artists signal a sea change at Atlanta Contemporary

In Kyoug Chun's "Flowered Two Circles" (2020), in neon, metal, fresh flowers, wire, chicken net and oasis sponges.
Courtesy of In Kyoug Chun
In Kyoug Chun's "Flowered Two Circles" (2020), in neon, metal, fresh flowers, wire, chicken net and oasis sponges. Courtesy of In Kyoug Chun

Credit: In Kyoug Chun

Credit: In Kyoug Chun

"She Is Here" show addresses themes of gender equality, black representation and more

The Westside art space Atlanta Contemporary has gone through a number of iterations during its 47 years in business. It has seen curatorial and staff turnover over the decades, and it’s undergone a bevy of name changes from Nexus to Nexus Contemporary Art Center to Atlanta Contemporary Art Center and Atlanta Contemporary, as it was rebranded in 2015.

And now it has reckoned with the cataclysmic onslaught of COVID-19, which temporarily shuttered the institution in March. Reopening Aug. 22, visitors will find the usual coronavirus requirements of masks and social distancing. The facility has also invested in bi-polar ionization technology for the HVAC system that purifies the air.

But that’s not all. Reinvention and the art of the pivot seems to be in Atlanta Contemporary’s bloodstream. Inaugurating its post-quarantine reopening comes a change of focus with “She Is Here,” an exhibition of 20 female artists who have participated in Atlanta Contemporary’s longstanding studio artist program.

The show reflects a change of philosophy partly informed by the times we live in. Atlanta Contemporary executive director Veronica Kessenich announced in January 2019 that instead of replacing former staff curator Daniel Fuller, who left the institution in June 2019, independent curators would be engaged for the next 18-24 months. “The goal then — and now — is to support diversity of artistic voices not only on the ‘walls’ (as it were) but also in artistic, curatorial and programmatic decisions,” she said.

Evidence of that goal, “She Is Here” is the result of a collaboration between independent curators Kristen V. Cahill and Daricia Mia DeMarr, who decided to focus on women artists who have participated in the organization’s studio artist program.

Daricia Mia DeMarr is the co-curator of "She Is Here" an exhibition of female artists from the studio artist program at Atlanta Contemporary.
Courtesy of B. Still Images
Daricia Mia DeMarr is the co-curator of "She Is Here" an exhibition of female artists from the studio artist program at Atlanta Contemporary. Courtesy of B. Still Images

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

Co-curator of the Atlanta Contemporary exhibition "She Is Here," Kristen V. Cahill.
Courtesy of Kasey Medlin
Co-curator of the Atlanta Contemporary exhibition "She Is Here," Kristen V. Cahill. Courtesy of Kasey Medlin

Credit: Kasey Medlin

Credit: Kasey Medlin

“I knew I wanted it to be a team,” says Kessenich of her choice to pair up Cahill and DeMarr, who had never worked together before. “And I knew I wanted two women — as we have not had a woman curator in quite some years.” Helena Reckitt was the last female curator, from 2002-2005.

Cahill is the in-house curator for the female work space and social club the Lola, and DeMarr is co-founder of Black Women in Visual Art, dedicated to promoting diversity within the arts. Like so many art spaces and other corporations and institutions contending with the changed landscape amidst #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, Atlanta Contemporary is striving to make inclusivity and diversity of both artists and curators part of its mission.

“For me personally, the Atlanta Contemporary has always felt more masculine than feminine — a lot more male artists’ work has been shown there. And female artists are still not given the same opportunity to show their work as male artists,” says Cahill.

“‘She Is Here’ intentionally defies existing norms for art institutions where recognition and inclusion of women is underwhelming. ‘She Is Here’ fosters women working with women, and women supporting women,” says Kessenich.

"If flowers could sing #1" (2019), watercolor on botanical reproduction, by Teresa Bramlette Reeves, a participating artist in "She Is Here."
Courtesy of Teresa Bramlette Reeves
"If flowers could sing #1" (2019), watercolor on botanical reproduction, by Teresa Bramlette Reeves, a participating artist in "She Is Here." Courtesy of Teresa Bramlette Reeves

Credit: Teresa Bramlette Reeves

Credit: Teresa Bramlette Reeves

One of Atlanta Contemporary’s signature initiatives, the studio artist program provides artists with residencies in affordable studio spaces. One of the perks of the program is the chance to interact with curators, patrons and visitors through the annual Open Studios event, which gives artists an opportunity to move beyond the solitude of their studios and try something new in their work. It was how resident artist Jane Foley came to cover her entire studio in bubble wrap. “Where else can you even do that?” she asks.

Foley will continue that spirit of fun with the “Sad Lamp” she is creating for “She Is Here,” a semi-flaccid concrete palm tree molded from a plastic pool toy.

"Peep" (2020), oil and acrylic on canvas, by artist Shara Hughes, a participating artist in "She Is Here."
Courtesy of Stan Narten
"Peep" (2020), oil and acrylic on canvas, by artist Shara Hughes, a participating artist in "She Is Here." Courtesy of Stan Narten

Credit: Stan Narten

Credit: Stan Narten

Atlanta Contemporary studios have been uniquely resonant spaces for many of these women artists, a place where they have formed lifelong friendships and advanced their careers.

“In that studio I taught myself to play the singing saw, taught myself to work with digital sound — my neighbors kindly endured screeches from microphones late into the night sometimes,” says Foley. “I got a divorce during my studio residency, too, and even slept in my studio for a little while when I was feeling completely lost — that’s how close I was with the space. I really grew there and expanded and crashed and grew again.”

For Los Angeles-based artist Nikita Gale, the studio artist program offered access to Atlanta Contemporary curator Stuart Horodner’s time and insight. “I owe a lot to him as a mentor,” Gale says.

Perhaps doubly relevant for the “She Is Here” artists, the studio artist program was a chance to engage with fellow artists. Gale and Jill Frank met through the program, have become close friends and collaborated on two pieces for “She Is Here.”

The 20 artists participating in “She Is Here” come from a number of disciplines, backgrounds, ages and ethnicities, so while the focus is decidedly female, the interests and themes are anything but monolithic.

“I do think ‘She is Here’ is a step in the right direction, especially because the curators did a good job of representing diversity within the subset of female artists. Ultimately what I think is best for the art world is diversity represented on the broadest scale possible,” says participating artist Christina A. West.

"Blue Dress" (2017), mixed media assemblage, by Lillian Blades, a participating artist in "She Is Here."
Courtesy of Ron Witherspoon
"Blue Dress" (2017), mixed media assemblage, by Lillian Blades, a participating artist in "She Is Here." Courtesy of Ron Witherspoon

Credit: Ron Witherspoon

Credit: Ron Witherspoon

Despite the diversity of backgrounds, there is no denying that a portion of the work on view is unapologetically and decisively made from a female point of view.

Gale has created an audio work (featuring Frank whistling, a skill she practiced rigorously in order to get it right) that can only be experienced by entering the Atlanta Contemporary’s men’s room. In the process, the work not only moves art into an unexpected place, it challenges the sanctity of that private, men’s-only space.

“I wanted to create a situation that requires a consideration of how institutions — despite claims of diversity, inclusion, and accessibility in mission statements and curatorial strategies — still maintain exclusionary practices that operate outside of the viewing rooms of the galleries,” says Gale.

Gale and Frank, will also present a collaborative video about the 14-year-old Fayetteville resident and viral video sensation Jalaiah Harmon. Harmon’s original Instagram dance, The Renegade, became a controversial indicator of how often black culture can be monetized by white artists when TikTok social media star Charli D’Amelio appropriated the dance without crediting Harmon. Shot by Frank with audio created by Gale, the eight-minute video is a chance to give Harmon back her autonomy and personhood, celebrating her existence and reality when the society at large has often paid black women little mind.

Gale and Frank aren’t the only ones turning the tables on galleries and museums where men’s artwork has dominated. Christina A. West’s by turns comic and cringy video installation piece “Looking at a Naked Man” created for Dashboard this year, offered more full frontal male nudity than Michael Fassbinder and Ewan McGregor’s film careers combined. The ideas behind that piece will form the foundation for a new artwork created for “She Is Here,” about the art world tradition of looking at naked female bodies and the rarity of the male nude seen through a woman’s eyes.

“I am heartened by how this topic has recently been so centered in mainstream dialogue about representation in arts, but I temper that with also acknowledging that we have a very long way to go towards real equality,” says Foley.

Art institutions have a lot to work on in an age when issues of privilege and inequality have been exacerbated by the pandemic, says Foley. But art is hope. “There has to also be room for art and for play during the resistance. These can be a way forward and through.”

VISUAL ARTS PREVIEW

‘She Is Here: Retrospective Group Show.‘ Aug. 22-Jan. 31. Noon-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-4 p.m. Sunday. Free. Atlanta Contemporary, 535 Means Street, NW, Atlanta. 404-688-1970. www.atlantacontemporary.org

Note: All visitors are required to wear a mask and maintain 6 feet of social distance at all times. All guests and Atlanta Contemporary members must have a timed ticket or reservation to enter and a limited number of guests will be admitted every hour.