Substitute Teacher

Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Atlanta

Through May 16, 2010
by Michael David Murphy

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      Andrea Fraser
      Little Frank and His Carp
      2001
      Video, 6:00 minutes
      Courtesy of the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York

      View Gallery

      Paul Ramírez Jonas, Album Fifty State Summits, Kansas, 2002
      C-print 20 1/2 x 16 3/4 inches
      Courtesy of Alexander Gray Associates, New York

      View Slideshow

      By their very nature, substitutes are poor approximations. Like Sweet-N-Low, or a hair metal cover band, substitute teachers are among the most maligned dopplegangers, offering the thin promise of a good time, a fleeting pleasure in the absence of Old Familiar.

      Substitute Teacher at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center is exactly the kind of show you want to see at the end of winter, when your thinking process (and low expectations for another group show) could use a good cranial power wash.

      A group show of twenty artists curated by Regine Basha and Stuart Horodner, Substitute Teacher portends an effortless learning, a study somewhere between playing hooky and hiring your own personal test taker. The included artworks combine to create a new "new," a pedagogy in which letters might be signs and signifiers, but they also just might be letters, too, arranged into the perfection of a prisoner's last words, or a visual pun on the spine of a paperback book.

      Brody Condon's Without Sun (2008) video, an aggregation of online clips in which psychedelic trip participants attempt to recount their experience while under the influence, succeeds as beautifully as its participants fail into speechlessness. Condon's video, which has also been performed live, by actors, might be a kind of Rosetta Stone for human learning—Here Is The Mystical Amazement, Let Me Tell You. Humans created language for some reason, right? Experiencing the other worldly (and describing it) has to rank right up there with avoiding Mr. Sabre Tooth on reasons why humans learned to speak and yell.

      Eroticizing the everyday (if your everyday includes an audio tour of Guggenheim Bilbao) Andrea Fraser's Little Frank and His Carp (2001), just might become the most memorable museum tour you've ever witnessed. Pound-for-pound, Fraser's "audio erotic" amble through Bilbao's architectural splendor might be a true contender to Gehry's titanium-clad CAD fish fantasy.

      As you might expect, a show about learning is also one of the best collections of text art I've ever seen in one location. Glenn Ligon's Condition Report (I AM A MAN) (2000), a dual reproduction of a classic placard from the Civil Rights Movement, looks at the inconsistencies and imperfections of its own recreation. On the left of the diptych is a reproduction of the sign, and on the right, a self-critical analysis of the sign's fault-lines, fissures and "hairline cracks." Ligon's diptych shows us that the flaws that complete the work, are the flaws that make the work work, that let the man be a man.

      Paul Ramirez Jonas's Album Fifty State Summits (2002) crests one wall of the gallery, a compilation of highs completely unlike Condon's. A grand visual documentation of bagged peaks, Ramirez Jonas's effort yields a work-in-process that's as much about the process of getting there as it is about what it means to stand atop. The album's empty spaces (Brasstown Bald in Georgia is apparently on the schedule) are evidence of intent, the inclusion of omission.

      You could say "Substitute Teacher Makes the Grade" but to conclude with cliché would undercut the strength of the exhibition's effort. From the smallness of Brian Dettmer's "power fragments" in his painstakingly altered books, to the "I love doodle bug, too" in Luis Camnitzer's massive set of Last Words (2008) from death row prisoners, Basha and Horodner have created one of the most valuable kind of art-going experiences, the kind when you come away knowing more than when you started, yet not knowing how, exactly, it happened.

      Michael David Murphy is a writer and photographer in Atlanta, Georgia. Michael's essays and photographs have been published worldwide in People Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, San Francisco Magazine, The National (Abu Dhabi), MSNBC, USA Today, BBC2, 8, & Wired.

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