The spewing of venom online, confrontational political discourse and seemingly irreconcilable divides between people can make you wonder if rage has become the go-to emotion of our time.
“People are just hungry for hate and for anger,” says Michael Rooks, curator of modern and contemporary art for the High Museum of Art. “It’s disheartening.”
A kind of corrective to the feeling that society has become more familiar with confrontation than with kindness, Rooks’ upcoming exhibition, “What Is Left Unspoken, Love,” is the curatorial equivalent of a daisy in a gun barrel: something lovely and tender countering all that coiled fury.
Rooks has been working on his ambitious group show longer than any other exhibition in his career, longer than he’s been at the High, where he came onboard in 2009.
Ironically, it was conflict that laid the groundwork for love.
Rooks began to plot a show about love in 2003 after staging the group exhibition “War (What Is It Good For?)” — the first museum response to the Iraq War — when he was a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
If “War” demonstrated humankind’s demons, then “Love” is about, as Rooks terms it, “our better angels.”
And with events in Ukraine building toward a worsening outcome, “unfortunately, the timing seems to be pretty spot-on in terms of mounting a sequel,” says Rooks.
Broken into six thematic groups, “Love” tackles myriad expressions and phases of love, among them romantic love (“The Two”); love of some higher being or of nature (“Love Supreme”); and love of one’s fellow human being practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. (“Loving Community”).
The exhibition also intersects with the complex intertwining of love and loss that has imprinted Rooks’ own life. Two of his closest friends, who he references in the exhibition catalog, died during the pandemic.
“I hate saying goodbye to people. And so many people have died in my life that I’ve never said goodbye to. Then, when the people are gone, it’s such an emptiness.”
Curating this exhibition has been a way for Rooks to use the potent, nuance-rich vehicle of contemporary art to examine an idea uniquely accessible to a wide audience.
“What Is Left Unspoken, Love” includes 33 artists or teams of artists, the majority of them artists of color. Renowned heavy hitters on the international art scene like Kerry James Marshall, Wangechi Mutu and Carrie Mae Weems demonstrate the worthiness of love as a conceptual pursuit.
Iconic works like “Untitled (Perfect Lovers)” from the late Cuban-American conceptual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres are included. That piece, which features two battery-operated clocks, paired like lovers and telling time in perfect synchronicity, speaks to the exhibition’s theme of love as a harmonious union that also exists in a kind of suspended disbelief that love will, like all things, eventually end or become asynchronous.
Also included are younger artists such as Kahlil Robert Irving, who was just finishing graduate school when Rooks approached him about the show. Irving created a work for the exhibition, “My Grandmother’s Cupboard (Artifact),” as a meditation on the beloved grandmother Ernestine he spent time caring for and a memorial to Black togetherness and ancestry, says Rooks.
“I had to pinch myself for a second,” says one of the emerging artists in the exhibition, New Orleans-based Felicita Felli Maynard, about being included in “Love” alongside some art heroes.
Maynard is currently working toward an MFA at Tulane University and says of working with Rooks on the exhibition, “He has really made this experience feel like it was a collaboration between the two of us.”
“Ole Dandy, the Tribute” is Maynard’s multimedia installation and historical fable that follows the imagined lives of drag kings Jean Loren Feliz and Angelo Lwazi Owenzayo. Laced with magical realism, Maynard’s tender, heartfelt work uses 19th century tintypes and ambrotypes to imagine a different, more joyful past for the artist’s Black, queer subjects.
“I create artwork to further understand myself and those before me. All of this exploration is directly connected to self-love and the love I have for my community,” says Maynard. “Specifically, ‘Ole Dandy the Tribute’ is motivated by the love story between my identification with the gender transgressing Black performers of the past and all the private and/or hidden love stories that we may never know.”
The only Atlanta artist in the show, Gerald Lovell’s paintings articulate love between friends. As Rooks writes in the catalog essay for the show, the subjects of Lovell’s paintings “coalesce around each other in peace, camaraderie and friendship made palpably real by Lovell’s technique, which uses impasto to suggest the soft, vulnerable substance of the flesh and blood that binds them together.”
Lovell says he was “honored” to include those lush impasto paintings that capture Black affection and joy at the High. “It is the first time showing there and in the company of artists that I both respect and look up to. I got to see Kerry James Marshall’s show ‘Mastry’ in Los Angeles, and I went home inspired for this long journey I’ve chosen as far as being a painter.”
“That was one of the ideas of the show, to have this conversation between generations. And between works that are well known, that are an established part of the canon, with newer work and some works that were made for the show,” says Rooks.
“So, it’s not just all work that no one’s seen or heard of before, but rather, it’s work that provides a platform for thought and contemplation and conversation.”
“What Is Left Unspoken, Love” is also an uncommon proposition in an art world where earnestness, sentiment and vulnerability are not always embraced.
In contemporary art spheres, irony, critique and inquiry are standard tropes. But heartfelt emotions like love tend to be seen as the province of kitsch and anti-intellectualism.
Or as BBC News journalist Jason Farago put it, “artists have seemed more comfortable investigating sex, and the social and political dimensions of the body, than the disruptive, unpredictable phenomenon of love.”
Known for a curatorial practice that favors inclusivity and openness, Rooks’ decision to stage a show devoted to a topic American culture has reduced to emojis might open him up to accusations of being trite in New York or Los Angeles. But it seems wholly in character for the curator.
“If curators or people in the art world think that’s, you know, lightweight or naive, that really is their problem,” says Rooks.
“The point of the show was not to point out problems. But that’s kind of where contemporary art tends to go. I wanted to instead do something that was pointing towards something that is often just ignored, because it’s too difficult or too touchy or too emotional.”
Rooks believes Atlanta is more open to this kind of exhibition that more jaded audiences on the coasts might consider less than rigorous.
“I think our audience is just more receptive. We have an incredibly intelligent, open audience. I made this exhibition for our audience here. For our city, for this museum,” he says.
“Atlanta is special because it allowed me to realize these things have been gestating for so long and are so meaningful to me as a curator.”
“What Is Left Unspoken, Love.” Through August 14. $16.50. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4400, high.org.