The Southeastern Artists in the Atlanta Biennial

Every year, more cities mount biennials. Over a century of variations on a similar theme, and the purpose of this recurring model remains unclear—beyond, perhaps, attracting cultural tourism, and in some cases fueling the fires of nationalism or regional identity. These exhibitions are known to elevate the visibility of emerging and mid-career artists, but as a curatorial format, the biennial rarely yields stronger results than any other group exhibition. Nonetheless, the number of biennials, triennials, and quinquennials worldwide now hovers around three hundred, having reached only fifty prior to the 1990s.

The Atlanta Biennial arrived relatively early: In 1985, the organization Atlanta Contemporary, then known as the artist cooperative Nexus, offered a corrective to the Whitney Museum’s apparent inability to represent the geographic United States—and particularly the South—in its curating (once again, the artists in this year’s Whitney Biennial are based primarily in New York and Los Angeles). Since then, the Atlanta Biennial has been held at irregular intervals and scales. Where other biennials are expanding—producing mostly numbing overstimulation—the Atlanta Biennial has pared down its curatorial team and roster of artists in recent years. Perhaps most notable is the sense of managed ambition within the biennial: They seem to be refusing to attempt the impossible task of defining Southern art.

Titled “A thousand tomorrows ,” the 2019 Atlanta Biennial features the work of 21 artists from 10 southeastern states. Curated by Phillip March Jones, curator-at-large at Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky, and by Atlanta Contemporary’s Daniel Fuller, the exhibition ambles between poles, collapsing distinctions between mainstream and “folk,” personal narrative and political proclamation, past and future, art and artifact. Joni Mabe’s labyrinthian found-object assemblages (2019) seem as suited to a museum of Southern living as they do to a contemporary art gallery. The same goes for Jill Frank’s striking 2019 campaign portraits of Triana Arnold James, a former candidate for lieutenant governor, three-time Mrs. Georgia, army vet, and mother of 12. Combining Asian and Southern art-historical and pop cultural imagery, Jiha Moon’s ceramic sculptures (2015-18) cram visual histories from both sides of the globe onto the surfaces of small but heavily-loaded vessels. These and other works present a complex but understated conception of 21st-century America, an intimate contemporaneity too often overlooked by biennial curators.

Every year, more cities mount biennials. Over a century of variations on a similar theme, and the purpose of this recurring model remains unclear—beyond, perhaps, attracting cultural tourism, and in some cases fueling the fires of nationalism or regional identity. These exhibitions are known to elevate the visibility of emerging and mid-career artists, but as a curatorial format, the biennial rarely yields stronger results than any other group exhibition. Nonetheless, the number of biennials, triennials, and quinquennials worldwide now hovers around three hundred, having reached only fifty prior to the 1990s.

The Atlanta Biennial arrived relatively early: In 1985, the organization Atlanta Contemporary, then known as the artist cooperative Nexus, offered a corrective to the Whitney Museum’s apparent inability to represent the geographic United States—and particularly the South—in its curating (once again, the artists in this year’s Whitney Biennial are based primarily in New York and Los Angeles). Since then, the Atlanta Biennial has been held at irregular intervals and scales. Where other biennials are expanding—producing mostly numbing overstimulation—the Atlanta Biennial has pared down its curatorial team and roster of artists in recent years. Perhaps most notable is the sense of managed ambition within the biennial: They seem to be refusing to attempt the impossible task of defining Southern art.

Titled “A thousand tomorrows ,” the 2019 Atlanta Biennial features the work of 21 artists from 10 southeastern states. Curated by Phillip March Jones, curator-at-large at Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky, and by Atlanta Contemporary’s Daniel Fuller, the exhibition ambles between poles, collapsing distinctions between mainstream and “folk,” personal narrative and political proclamation, past and future, art and artifact. Joni Mabe’s labyrinthian found-object assemblages (2019) seem as suited to a museum of Southern living as they do to a contemporary art gallery. The same goes for Jill Frank’s striking 2019 campaign portraits of Triana Arnold James, a former candidate for lieutenant governor, three-time Mrs. Georgia, army vet, and mother of 12. Combining Asian and Southern art-historical and pop cultural imagery, Jiha Moon’s ceramic sculptures (2015-18) cram visual histories from both sides of the globe onto the surfaces of small but heavily-loaded vessels. These and other works present a complex but understated conception of 21st-century America, an intimate contemporaneity too often overlooked by biennial curators.