The opening reception for “Sprawl” was remarkable for a few reasons — over 1,200 people flooded the lobby and galleries of the High, and many of the featured artists found themselves in the same room at the same time. And the reason that’s remarkable goes back to the title of the show.
A couple days before all this took place, High’s modern and contemporary art curator Michael Rooks addressed the title of the exhibit. After all, isn’t “sprawl” the kind of thing we’re trying to combat in this city?
“Sprawl to me reflects the nature of artistic practice in our metro area,” Rooks said. “People are living in the city, in Midtown, in the Old Fourth Ward, OTP. And there are very few centers in the city for concentrations where visual artists can have their studios and practices.”
So, lacking a center, the High has set itself up to be a natural stand-in as arguably the most visible art institution in the city.
At the reception, artist William Downs discussed what he made of a group show of this size and scope being put on by the High Museum.
“Atlanta’s like L.A.,” Downs explained. “It’s so big and it’s tribal at the same time because some people won’t make the effort to drive across town because of traffic, red lights, all that stuff. So I think that this is a nice center to bring everybody together.”
And what is bringing everyone together is this exhibit of drawings and works on paper, all of which are now part of the High’s permanent collection. This follows “Drawing Inside the Perimeter,” which focused on the works of over 40 Atlanta artists. With “Sprawl,” the reach was expanded in the state, and with that, the list of artists nearly doubled to 76, featuring 116 works of art.
With a show that size, how do you keep it from being overwhelming and easy to take in all at once? “It’s going to be overwhelming,” Rooks responded with a smile.
Overwhelming is a good word to describe the opening reception — not only because of the number of people packed from wall-to-wall in the gallery, but for many of the artists seeing their works on display there for the first time. Going back to Downs, his works are drawn on pages torn from a very old book he said he found in an abandoned building. They came from a show he did with Dashboard Co-Op, which included 2,000 drawings, from which Rooks chose four for this exhibit. Walking into the gallery at the reception was the first time Downs saw which drawings had been picked. He looked down at them, laid in a neat square under glass on a table in the middle of the room.
It’s going to be overwhelming
“They’re very delicate and very tender to me,” Downs said. “So I’m excited that these are going to live here. This is a great life for them because they’re so fragile. And they just feel like museum pieces, like if you saw a Rembrandt. So I just had this feeling like ‘Nice! Good choice!’”
Elsewhere in the gallery, Abbie Merritt’s watercolor portrait of one of her best friends — titled “Superman” because he’s dressed all in Superman garb, including a T-shirt featuring the iconic red “S,” as well as Superman underwear — is on display.
Merritt credited Rooks for his work putting the exhibit together.
“He’s completely changing the way Atlanta art is going,” she said. “He’s bringing us all into it; more so than we’ve ever been. He does more studio visits than anyone I know, and the High has never felt more like a home to me than it does right now.”
And part of that feeling comes from the High making Atlanta artists a part of its life. Rooks has had years-long relationships with some of the artists included in “Sprawl,” through those studio visits and following them as their work has developed from art school to gallery shows. Over the years, Rooks could be seen at a number of small gallery openings; he’s visible. And as honored and excited as many were about having works in the High, Rooks is thinking about what this could mean for their futures.
The High has never felt more like a home to me than it does right now.
“It’s professional development for artists and art communities in this city,” he said. “It brings what they’re doing to the attention of our audience, which is an international audience. And it gives the artists something to put on their resume that opens doors for them. And I’ve seen it happen a lot since we did ‘Drawing Inside the Perimeter,’ a lot of great success stories, which make me so happy.”
One eye-catching work in the exhibit that has been featured in some of the promotional materials for “Sprawl” is a drawing by Fabian Williams, based on the Norman Rockwell painting “The Gossips.”
If you aren’t familiar with that Rockwell painting, it’s a kind of goofy-looking sequence of faces — people in conversation with one another, some face-to-face, some over the phone, some laughing uproariously and some looking positively scandalized. Williams’ take on it is dead-on, right down to Rockwell’s drawing style and knack for capturing people’s expressions.
Rooks points out that Williams’ drawing illustrates the point of the show: That the exhibition is about Community-with-a-capital-C, and is about cross-fertilization of ideas and relationships.
“And this is also how the art scene works, you know?” Williams said, looking at his work hanging there on the wall. “A lot of these people are my colleagues. I would have never did this picture if I didn’t have the interaction with them that I have. Like, these are all my brothers and sisters.”
Standing in the corner of the gallery, surrounded by the thousand-plus crowd that had shown up to celebrate the opening of “Sprawl,” Williams talked about how he thought the High had brought together that “Community-with-a-capital-C” that Rooks was talking about.
“I think it’s because the High Museum has started to embrace the community that they live in,” he said, matter-of-factly. “There has always been a very vibrant scene here, but it wasn’t always customary for them to interact with them. Ever since Michael Rooks took the initiative to open the museum up to us, it was reciprocated with this. It ain’t rocket science. But it just takes a little bit of, you know, ‘come on in’…Southern hospitality. It’s always good to have those who sit high say what’s up.”
And as the High and the large community of Atlanta artists strengthen their relationship, hopes are that they holler at each other far more often.