You can’t always get what you want . . . but sometimes you can make what you need.
The exhibition “Paper Moon,” on view through December 6 at the Kennesaw State University Art Museum, takes a look at artists and other creative individuals who make artworks, objects and environments that are approximations or stand-ins for the “real thing.” But these are not just copies; all the works were chosen for the sense of longing and need that informs what curator Teresa Bramlette Reeves calls “the imperfect substitute.”
The selections range from humorous to achingly poignant. Some make you work harder than others to figure out what’s being replaced, and those tend to be the ones that deliver a greater reward. Reeves wisely cast her net wide to find examples that ground her thesis in real life. Subjects range from James VanDerZee’s studio portraits of the 1920s to Eleanor Antin’s 1976 “The Adventures of a Nurse (Parts and II)” to Nigerian “spiritual twins,” carved wooden figurines that are believed to hold the spirit of one or both deceased twins.
Adam Parker Smith’s “This Side of Paradise (I Lost All My Money in the Great Depression and All I Got Was This Room)” is a show-stopping wall installation of cheap objects arranged to mimic the pattern of decorative wallpaper. Brightly colored tchotchkes like silk butterflies, plastic flowers and costume jewelry are combined with jellybeans, cookies, hollow eggshells and other objects to create a poor man’s version of a wealthy one’s wall treatment.
The projects of German photographer Marc Steinmetz and outsider artist Ferdinand Cooper at first seem similar: rudimentary handmade tools and other objects cobbled together from scraps. But their origins and purposes are markedly different.
Cooper’s ancient-looking objects served as touchstones of reality for the traumatized World War II veteran. The Florida shack that he retired to was covered with these talismans — coins, clocks, watches, guns, keys, military dog tags and the like — crudely made from wood and tin. Steinmetz’s images, on the other hand, are of confiscated tools and weapons made by prisoners: a wooden “Dummy Pistol,” a working “Shotgun” successfully used in an escape and a spiky “Knuckle Duster” made from a metal rasp.
Another project resulting from an individual’s serious attempt to regain a grasp on reality is captured in the documentary film “Marwencol,” which is playing in the gallery and also represented by still images. It follows Mark Hogancamp, who suffered brain damage after a brutal beating that left him in a coma. He is seen tending to his elaborate backyard fantasy world re-creating a WWII-era town, arranging and rearranging toy soldiers and Barbie dolls and props to make lifelike scenarios that he then photographs.
Several paintings by Atlanta artist Joe Peragine at first appear to be benign depictions of wild animals. They are, in fact, paintings of natural history museum dioramas, their artifice revealed by subtle hints such as the visible edge of the framed setting or a reflection in the protective glass. Assumptions about the animals’ freedom and majesty are suddenly replaced by the lifeless reality.
Paige Adair, also based in Atlanta, photographed animals of the mechanical toy variety in natural settings. Stripped of their plush coverings to reveal the plastic parts beneath, they are only nominally a “Kitten” or a “Penguin.” Whether the original toy or its denuded version is the imperfect substitute is open to interpretation.
John Clang’s “Being Together” speaks to the modern condition of families scattered across countries and around the globe. The Singapore-born, New York-based artist uses Skype to bring together far-flung relatives for a group portrait. Here, a woman holding her baby stands with family members who are projected via Skype onto her living room wall. The longing is palpable in these futuristic family reunions. Similarly pulling on heartstrings is the inclusion of a “Flat Daddy,” a life-size photo cutout of a deployed soldier that some military families use as a way to keep their loved ones “present” for daily routines, and so their young children will recognize them when they return.
Until last month, Reeves was director of the KSU Museum, where she served for a year before taking a faculty position at the University of West Georgia. This was the first show she organized for the museum. One hopes that the museum, which is set to open its expanded facility next year, will find a new director who will maintain the caliber of this exhibition.
The exhibition “Paper Moon” is divided between the Sturgis Library Art Gallery and the Clayton Gallery in the Bailey Performance Center. Check the website for hours. A catalog is forthcoming.