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Review: 2 artists at Hathaway look at nature in its diversity

John Folsom’s images of Southern landscapes capture the Spanish moss-draped live oaks standing sentinel on lonely back roads, the marshy inlets and places overtaken by the wild rampage of marauding kudzu. Even if the specific locales aren’t known, they are familiar. They are the wild, overgrown, blindingly green places that form the backdrop to Southerners’ lives.

In Folsom’s hands, these landscapes photographed at a national wildlife refuge near Savannah have an eerie stillness that can feel both touched by and cut off from human experience. These places feel so remote, Folsom’s camera becomes like a turn-of-the-century explorer plunging into the Amazon to reveal the world’s strangeness residing next to its familiarity.

A longtime Atlanta-based artist who has shown at a number of blue-chip Atlanta galleries, Folsom takes up residence at the new Westside Hathaway gallery, a well-appointed showcase for his handsome work. Folsom works from photographs layered with swaths of paint and wax, and tends to favor a viewpoint that feels omniscient: a privileged view from a slightly elevated angle. But Folsom breaks his photographic paintings into grids of oil and wax on board that complicate our sense of that perfect view. At every turn, while offering a seemingly idealized view of nature, he is also questioning that such a view exists.

MORE: Art review: ‘Fever Within’ at High Museum a striking testament to power of empathy

The best works in Folsom’s exhibition “Framework and View” break with the artistic tradition of idealized nature and complicate our point of view by offering indications of the artist’s hand. In “Chroma View #2,” Folsom challenges naturalism with grids of sky tinted pink, gray and yellow like a TV test pattern. In his work “Framework and View #3” of gray water banked by grassy land, an absurdly artificial, bright smear of green paint mars the hyper-realism. In his Hathaway exhibition, Folsom fluctuates between the realism of landscape painters generations before him and these sorts of formalist winks at his viewer that reveal a manufactured, willed-into-existence composition embodying the agenda and desires of its maker.

One of the more interesting pieces in the show, “College Park” feels like a deviation from his usual wild marshes and dirt roads. In it, you have the sense of a human presence both carving out but also neglecting the landscape as a paved road is eaten up by kudzu and our normally limitless perspective is blocked by the boulder at the end of the road.

If Folsom revels in the natural world as an incandescent array of greens and the silty grays of water and sky, then his gallery roommate Whitney Wood Bailey’s solo exhibition “Cosmic Nostalgia” feels chemical and outrageous by comparison. Her canvases in blazingly bright shades are crazy, carnivalesque spectacles of form and color.

Though at first glance the artists are strikingly different, in fact Folsom and Bailey have something in common in their shared interest in the forms of nature and how painters can highlight and manipulate them.

Bailey’s busy, pulsating melees of paint can reach back in time, to the intense tapestried paintings of Gustav Klimt, but also recall the more contemporary kinetic forms in Wangechi Mutu’s collage paintings or the mutated bodies in Philip Guston’s work. In “Cosmic Nostalgia,” violent splatters of paint often collide with meticulously ordered grids of color that suggest how quickly an amorphous, amoeboid form in nature can give way to a shockingly ordered one when observed closely. These canvases often recall the uniform detail inside a magnified cellular organism or the intricate structure in a halved orange as Bailey demonstrates the regimentation of nature operating side by side with its inherent chaos in these compelling works.

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