Give Alabama Contemporary Art Center (ACAC) credit. They aren’t just hanging a show; they’re trying to spark a conversation and reset definitions.
ACAC’s (301 Conti St.) new exhibit, Urban Wild, has been in the hopper for a year and a half by curator Elizabet Elliott’s reckoning. Of its 38 artists, she previously knew of roughly half and discovered the others along the way.
Its central thesis is a retooling of “folk” or “outsider” art, a core component of the Southern artistic backdrop for much of the 20th century. As urban sensibilities and environments grow in influence among successive generations, paths and patterns of self-expression change, too.
Everyone knows the archetype: the freewheeling artist bent on expression with whatever materials are at hand, untainted by academic influence. The Urban Wild curatorial statement wastes no space in decrying treatment of “folk” art as a “dismal failure,” calling it out for “classist” definitions.
While I understand the objection, I don’t entirely agree on “outsider” as a pejorative. Maybe for some, but others imbue it with admiration since art made “without the thought of a museum or art gallery as [its] end point” is essentially why artists work. Their creative compulsion is all-consuming.
The curatorial statement maintains today’s “outsider” artist’s stereotypical isolation has dissolved in a world connected through smart phones. It equates street art as a modern analog to old-school folk work. Building tags are Mose Tolliver’s figures or Eldren M. Bailey’s sculptures but more ephemeral.
The show is more extensive than this space allows. What stood out?
The first piece encountered was one of the most impressive. Butch Anthony’s “Pittsview, Alabama” sprawled across the wall nearest the door, its odds and ends of alabaster bones, frames, shadowboxes and objects joined painted tin and antique portraiture in an installation that seemed both fresh and ancient, glimmering and ghostly.
The regionally renowned artist’s expansive art compound and Museum of Wonder near Seale, Alabama, has become a subcultural hotspot. His other piece in the ACAC show, “Squire Make-A-Stir,” also bears the unique vision Anthony calls “Intertwangleism.” His collections of Mason jars, arrowheads, skulls and other detritus bears a noticeable kinship to standard ideas of Southern folk art, a sense of place germinating deep in the regional culture.
Likewise, Bunny and Bryan Cunningham’s “Gonzeaux Tent Revival” hews to those same folk art expectations. The Gulf Coast pair fashioned the surreal diorama from close to 30 taxidermied figures – opossums, rabbits and goats, but mostly squirrels – costumed and awhirl in ecstasy. Some are dancing, some are performing and others are enduring the flicker of fire and brimstone.
“Sins of the South” is essentially an open cabinet baring its foreboding interior. The collaboration between Greg Skaggs and Madison Faile, a pair of artists with roots in Troy, Alabama, combines religious imagery with the regretful underbelly of historic pop culture’s malevolence.
Beyond there, most of the art takes a turn more in line with the contemporary avenues reflected in the curatorial statement. Poppy Garcia’s colorful “Bst Frnd” series forms a tantamount totem up one wall.
BuZ Blurr’s “Hoo hoo hobos/Fortuitous Logos” art book is filled with the 75-year-old Arkansan’s undeniable urge for creation. On hand is an example of the mail-art – handmade books filled with his own printmaking technique – he has distributed to far-flung recipients for the last half-century.
Mark George’s paintings on PVC panels reflect a direct relation to mid-20th century styles most commonly associated with Roy Lichtenstein. The ACAC series is marked by a blue and purple palette that whispers of evening’s tranquility.
Famous Gabe’s artist statement was nearly as evocative as his painting “Dissecting 45” when it described his inspiration from sunlight flickering “like an old projector” through the trees along Highway 45.
An auditory effect lures visitors deeper into the building, drawn by ethereal musical tones. Follow it and the source is revealed as 4N4RCH1V15T 534N LIN320’s “Hunger Artist,” where a plant is wired to a bank of television screens crackling with static. As the plant withers in the darkness, the music is expected to change.
In that darkened corner, “Hunger Artist” is surrounded by a wealth of styles, but none more impressive than Mobilian Chris Cumbie’s “Untitled” installation. Assembled from scavenged skateboard parts and adorned with aerosol paint, it would seem the crux of the curatorial hypothesis. It is unabashedly an outgrowth of a modern, urban environment and holds a depth and feeling of movement beyond discarded trucks and wheels.
The site-specific installations stood out in this show. That means you either see it now or never see them again.
Urban Wild runs through Oct. 26.
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