Review: Diverse solo shows at Atlanta Contemporary suggest new curator’s interests

John Riepenhoff: installation view. Photo Kimberly Binns.)
John Riepenhoff: installation view. Photo Kimberly Binns.)
 John Riepenhoff: Installation view. Courtesy Atlanta Contemporary.
John Riepenhoff: Installation view. Courtesy Atlanta Contemporary.

Daniel Fuller, who joined the Atlanta Contemporary as curator in December 2014, has organized three eponymous solo shows — John Riepenhoff, Marlon Mullen and Aleksandra Domanović — that represent Atlanta’s first full exposure to his aesthetic bent and institutional priorities.

Perhaps it’s just the ghosts of curators past, or a cautionary strategy toward more gradual institutional change, but the show’s selection of artists seems to keep in step with the spirit of ACAC’s exhibition history over the last few years. Reverence for the deskilled or “outsider” in painting paired with motifs of vulnerability and connection recall the tastes of former ACAC artistic director Stuart Horodner. At the same time, the exhibition shows greater attention toward legibility and accessibility for audiences — without watering down content — while mostly avoiding artspeak.

Fuller’s varied selection of artists weaves in and out of the mainstream of contemporary art, keeping the show buoyant and at times surprising, despite an absence of continuity between the exhibiting artists. This demonstration of a broader geographical perspective is successful for its porousness, albeit disjointed in places.

Riepenhoff, Wisconsin-based artist, curator and co-owner of the Green Gallery in Milwaukee, presents two bodies of work: a selection of humongous plein air abstractions of Atlanta’s night sky painted in ACAC’s courtyard, and a series of 11 figurative sculptures, each displaying paintings by contemporary artists including Atlanta painter Kojo Griffin and Amy Pleasant (represented by Whitespace), as well as a few that the Green Gallery represents.

Riepenhoff’s mobility on the international art circuit is impressive given his Midwestern base. He seems the sort of person comfortable no matter where he is, and this shows up in his work. His chillaxed but rigorous sensibility has resulted in projects such as a pizza-themed exhibition at Marlborough Gallery in New York (which represents him), as well his most recent Beer Endowment project, a craft beer initiative whose profits will benefit local art establishments in Milwaukee. The Green Gallery, which he co-founded when he was only 22, has shown heavy hitters such as Gavin Brown and Michelle Grabner, the latter of whom is also included in this exhibit.

Riepenhoff’s casual aesthetic sometimes seems to favor stunt over content, and it is hard to know how seriously he takes his work. His three giant abstract expressionist-style paintings, for example, aim for sublimity that epic-size painting can achieve. Yet, they pale as finished pieces, a mere record of a particular moment rather than a translation of it on canvas.

John Riepenhoff: installation view. Photo Kimberly Binns.)
John Riepenhoff: installation view. (Photo Kimberly Binns)

Fuller suggests in his curatorial essay that this practice is especially relevant to the artist’s biography. He chronicles the experience of Matty Brown (presumably a stand-in for Riepenhoff), a student painter who, like Thoreau, discovers his truer self under the evening stars in the woods. Fuller’s down-to-earth voice is refreshing and the parallel text helps contextualize Riepenhoff’s efforts, though it seems like an attempt to qualify work that isn’t otherwise successful.

Riepenhoff’s tongue-and-cheek “documentation” of his creative process is also presented. A goofy lo-fi video depicts gestures of a so-called shaman painter, a term he uses in titles such as Plein Air (Atlanta Shaman). Like marionette dolls, brushes, tubes of paint and other supplies are rigged with string (which is sometimes visible) as if operated by an invisible artist. It’s funny, but its humor doesn’t probe deeper content.

The stronger presence is Riepenhoff’s installation of figurative sculptures. A pair of papiermâché legs (described as the artist’s) in various urban fashion ensembles complete with Tommy Hilfiger britches, stands below each piece, giving the impression that a person is holding each work. The rather lifelike figures look like participants in a political demonstration, each holding a painting for a placard.

Here, Riepenhoff paints a picture of an artist and curator (himself) as a character in a much larger narrative of art, not only paying tribute to contemporary painters today, but to a broader historical timeline as well. The impact is fueled by the wide range of references to historical art lineages — Claes Oldenburg (pop), Joseph Kosuth (conceptual art), Willem de Kooning (abstract expressionism), Ellsworth Kelly (color field or post-painterly abstraction), to name a few.

That Riepenhoff includes other artists in his own installation seems representative of the ethos that runs throughout his work. While some of his choices of artists are problematic (those his gallery represents, for example), his reverence for inclusivity is the main takeaway, and an admirable one at that.

Marlon Mullen: Untitled (P2417), 2015, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy Atlanta Contemporary.
Marlon Mullen: Untitled (P2417), 2015, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy Atlanta Contemporary.

In contrast, the small painterly works by Marlon Mullen are solitary and private. The California-based artist makes pared-down impasto paintings inspired by pages from magazines, mostly from lifestyle, news and contemporary art periodicals — Artforum, Saveur and Zoobooks. Some are displayed in a case nearby.

Mullen’s work is celebrated for its raw and spontaneous painterliness. His unselfconscious brushstrokes create simple, cartoonish shapes, sophisticated in composition. He uses a limited palette of odd color combinations — mossy pea greens and dirty eggplant purples, for example, evenly distributed in smeary meanderings across the canvas.

By art world standards, Mullen’s work would be pegged as “bad painting” (a style, not a judgment). Mullen, however, isn’t purposely eschewing adult erudition in favor of child-like abandon, like Jean Dubuffet and many artists of the last century. Mullen is mute and autistic; his naiveté, messy scrawl and spelling mistakes — like “Pace New Yor” — are authentic.

Like many “outsider” (an antiquated, exoticizing term) artists adopted into the contemporary art market, Mullen is a bit of a conundrum despite obvious natural talent. Without knowing the artist, one might assume Mullen to be yet another cynical New York painter, ironically regurgitating the art world back to itself in defiant, unrefined fashion, such as in the piece that appears to parrot Mark Rothko.

But it means something completely different for someone like Mullen to paint “ART FORIIM” rudimentarily across a canvas. This tension might be why his work is so well received, though it is what also makes it problematic, as it’s impossible to measure how much Mullen understands the complex ironies read into his work. (For more about Mullen, see the website of Nurturing Independence through Artistic Development, an impressive nonprofit for artists with disabilities.)

Altogether different is the political work of Serbian conceptual artist Aleksandra Domanović, whose documentary video, Turbo Sculpture, narrates the story of a new style of public art emerging in ex-Yugoslavian republics. Formal and straightforward, the work conjures an old school, educational slide show, complete with Queen’s English narrator.

Aleksandra Domanovi: video still, Turbo Sculpture, 2010-2013. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin.
Unveiling a statue of George W. Bush in Aleksandra Domanovic’s video, Turbo Sculpture. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin.

Despite its dryness, Turbo Sculpture presents a quality of political necessity that might make non-political artists feel their work is irrelevant. Chronicling the years after Yugoslavia’s disintegration, Domanović uses the lens of memorial statues to reveal the influence of Western pop culture in shaping collective post-war identities. Akin to the phenomenon of “turbo-folk,” a contemporary style of music combining Serbian folk music with modern pop, Hollywood stars — Johnny Depp, Rocky Balboa, Jackie Chan — have become the subjects of municipal public art. Domanović sees a deeper meaning in the replacement of war heroes with pop figures. She believes that the choice of neutral subject matter is an “attempt to heal the wounds of history through conviviality and denial.”

The piece seems closer to a scholarly essay or dissertation excerpt than a work of art. But aesthetics are not really the point. The beauty of this work lies in its potential as a political platform for educating audiences.

Although it was disappointing that the three exhibitions had no cohering thread, they did suggest a curatorial bent that is quirky, experimental, accessible and smart. Fuller’s multilingual proficiency when it comes to differing art vocabularies is promising, as is his openness to all kinds of aesthetics. He seems willing to take risks, though one hopes even bolder leaps will be made in exhibitions to come.

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