A Contradiction in Terms: “Zen Dixie” in Atlanta

Graphite drawings by Christian Bradley West are displayed in an assemblage of objects found by curator John Otte on a neighboring street to "Zen Dixie" in Atlanta.

“Zen Dixie,” John Otte’s most recent curatorial endeavor, brings together work by Atlanta and New Orleans-based artists in a 100-year-old house in Atlanta. Otte, who describes himself as a “self-taught curator,” grew up surrounded by art and artists as an observer and occasional participant in unofficial salons hosted by his mother, who later opened Whitespace Gallery. As a result, the practice of placing and contextualizing objects—and creating experiences through and by means of art—was something Otte was involved in at a young age. His initial resistance to much of what he learned through this formative childhood in Atlanta came full circle in the 1980s amongst the artists, writers, and curators he met in New York while studying art history at New York University.

When Otte returned to Atlanta in the early 1990s, he met architect Nicholas Storck. The idea for the house located at 323 Berean Avenue in the historic southeast Atlanta neighborhood of Cabbagetown took shape through numerous conversations about modernist architecture and authenticity between Otte, Storck, and stylist Kim Phillips (the owner of the house and Otte’s former partner). Since its purchase in 1998, the development of the house has served as a continual source of inspiration, informing the manner in which Otte synthesizes art and architecture. Much like Otte’s 2011 exhibition at The Pearl—a Creole plantation house turned speakeasy in New Orleans—“Zen Dixie” reads more like an installation or intervention where objects and ideas (both artworks and found objects) mingle and mix, and are occasionally muddled. In both cases, unique architectural environments take center stage while Otte serves as a kind of agent provocateur in object-filled spaces lacking traditional—one might say conventional—notions of display.

The curatorial methods Otte employs are in many ways the antithesis of those of the late Alfred H. Barr. Jr., who with curator Phillip Johnson developed a modernist method of installation that relied on “widely spaced pictures hung at eye-level on a neutral background.” This manner of presenting art, considered innovative in the 1920s and 1930s, changed the course of curatorial practice, particularly at the Museum of Modern Art where Barr assumed directorship in 1929. Barr’s approach to exhibition making subsequently became standardized in many New York institutions—though it has also been widely contested in recent decades. In 1942, Marcel Duchamp’s contribution to “First Papers of Surrealism” at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion in New York interrupted the viewer’s experience of the otherwise modernist hanging of paintings with 16 miles of string woven throughout the space in a chaotic web (a gesture often discussed in relation to the bags of coal Duchamp suspended from a gallery ceiling in 1938’s “Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme” in Paris). For art historians, these particular examples have come to illustrate two distinctly different approaches to the politics of display; a position of perceived authority and objectivity in the first instance and a more creative, albeit intrusive, approach in the latter. Though Otte identifies himself as both a curator and an artist, in “Zen Dixie” the hypothetical line between these positions is blurred, making it difficult to discern where the curating ends and the artwork begins. This is also exemplified by Otte’s inclusion of his own work in the exhibition, as well as a variety of found objects not included on the exhibition’s checklist such as wooden posts used for cultivating oysters and a composition of broken railroad pieces. This “heavy-handed curating,” as Otte describes it, is most apparent in pieces that have been modified or altered in some capacity for display.

Christian Bradley West's I Was Made Mute By All The Answers, 2011 hangs above one of six sculptures from Sonya Yong James' Mutations series, 2012.

Christian Bradley West’s array of delicate graphite drawings mimics sepia-toned historical photographs and brings to mind the work of Japanese artist Masao Yamamoto. Installed on a bookshelf with built-in cabinet lighting, they are arranged on a mass of found objects constructed by Otte. Otte explains this intervention as simply the creation of a device for display, but it is impossible to ignore the layers of meaning imposed on West’s drawings with the addition of this accumulation. The process of layering and re-mixing Otte utilizes in his curating reflects his passion for hip-hop and funk beats, where rhythms and rhymes are parsed, then spliced to create a mash-up of various sounds and sensations. Having DJed in Atlanta and New York and citing experimental musician Brian Eno as an important influence, Otte seems to lean most heavily on the means and methods of DJing. When it comes to contemporary art, however, this approach is a bit more challenging. In some instances, such as with West’s photographs, the collaboration between artist and curator is harmonious, in other cases it compromises the autonomy of the artist’s voice.

Nina Schwanse’s Civil Realness: Grant vs. Lee, 2011 is displayed in a closet in "Zen Dixie."

The unusual display of New Orleans-based artist Nina Schwanse’s Civil Realness: Grant vs. Lee, 2011 in “Zen Dixie” is a glaring example of an imposing curatorial hand. The narrative video was first presented on a boxy video monitor in “Grant v. Lee” curated by artist Sophie T. Lvoff at Good Children Gallery in 2011. It was also shown in an isolated screening room in a large group exhibition I curated at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans later that year. An over-the-top parody addressing the tainted history of these two infamous US generals, Civil Realness is reminiscent of Alex Bag’s ironic performative videos from the 1990s that poke fun at the art world. In “Zen Dixie,” Schwanse’s video is shown on a large flatscreen monitor positioned on its side, tucked into a small closet fitted with a fluffy sheepskin, and heard through headphones. The inquisitive viewer must awkwardly crawl into this uncomfortable space and crane his or her neck to get a glimpse of the otherwise larger-than-life personas of these historical figures as played by the artist dressed as drag queens representing the North and the South. This presentation diminishes one of Schwanse’s most successful videos to date and though it melds seamlessly with other works in the exhibition that mine incongruities of Southern history and culture, such as Gregor Turk’s Sherman Williams, 1998, in this context its content is lost in translation.

Also based in Louisiana, Brian Guidry is best known for his meticulously made paintings of hard-edged lines utilizing a color palette drawn from the plant life surrounding his home outside Lafayette. His paintings are of incredibly high caliber and they seem to  represent everything both “Zen” and “Dixie,” so it is baffling that Otte continues to embrace Guidry’s forays into video (he also included a video by Guidry in his exhibition at The Pearl). Regardless, Guidry’s video Hunters of the Sky, 2012 is a focal point of the exhibition. To create this work, he has removed the audio narration and human voices from a vintage episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, leaving only the sound of the wild animals in tact. By stripping down the audio (much like a DJ might pare down a series of beats), Guidry removes a layer of context, transforming the visual content and drawing the viewer back to the birds themselves. Perhaps this process of stripping and thus altering content is what appeals to Otte’s sensibilities.

Korean-born, Atlanta-based artist Gyun Hur creates stunning floor installations made of shredded silk flowers that are reminiscent of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings. They are melancholy meditations on both color and form. Utilizing the floor as canvas, Hur’s 2012 installation of sharp geometric shapes in bright and black hues was spectacular at the opening reception of “Zen Dixie.” After sustaining significant damage that evening, Hur reclaimed her work in a performance for a small audience the following weekend. Wearing a virginal white dress, she entered the space and proceeded to coat herself in the bowl of honey placed alongside her installation. Kneeling as though praying and sobbing uncontrollably as if in mourning, Hur writhed and rolled through the flowers. Masking the footprints that interrupted her piece, she replaced them with an imprint of her own body. Guidry’s Hunters of the Sky video, peppered with cries and squawks of wild birds, functioned as the unintentional soundtrack of the performance as it wafted into the space from the adjoining room. Hur’s performative assertion did indeed feel cathartic, and paired with the rainstorm that passed overhead shortly afterward, it also served as a cleansing.

As an ostensibly private exhibition, in a private space, intended for a private audience, “Zen Dixie” offers its own kind of meditation. Unlike most exhibitions meant to engage the public, this is a quiet conversation—one intended only for those who have been invited (or are otherwise in the know). Otte ultimately complicates the role of the curator by occupying an unabashedly subjective position. Without his physical presence in the space, the experience of “Zen Dixie” is somehow incomplete. A more traditional approach to curating, where the curator assumes an objective position by providing viewers with the tools to see and understand the artists’ intentions without them, is absent here. Otte’s assertion that he is most interested in the “uses for art” points to the history of the readymade as defined by Duchamp and facilitates better understanding of his relationship to this particular house in addition to the objects and installations he uses to illustrate terms as disparate as “Zen” and “Dixie.” The experience of an exhibition like “Zen Dixie” appeals to me as a viewer, but as a curator and an educator, I find myself advocating for a curatorial approach that does more than simply find “uses for art,” but one that facilitates greater understanding of each individual artist’s vision.

Courtney Egan's Sleepwalkers, 2011 is projected on a wall above Gyun Hur's Untitled, 2012, which consists of shredded silk flowers.

Editor's Note

“Zen Dixie” is on view through July 15 at 323 Berean Avenue in Atlanta. The exhibition is open Saturdays and Sundays, 11 am–5 pm or by appointment. Email johnaotte@bellsouth.net.