Review: It’s apocalypse now in Sarah Emerson’s quietly nightmarish art


Maybe the apocalypse won’t come quickly with a mushroom cloud and an earth-shaking boom. Instead maybe it will happen slowly and incrementally, killing the weakest inhabitants of the world first, like the deer, dying in the forest, puddles of their blood pooling all around them in Atlanta artist Sarah Emerson’s drawing “Fallen Deer.” Perhaps it will be like a poison gas, unleashing death quietly into the air as in the black-and-white work “Breathe,” where a toxic stew of poison bubbles up into the atmosphere.

There are end times vibes being laid down in Emerson’s solo show of paintings and drawings at the Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kennesaw State University. And even if you aren’t the puzzle-solving sort, it probably won’t take you long to figure out the inspiration for these dark days in “Are We the Monsters.” That forest glade of dead deer boasts a boulder with the year 2016 etched into its edifice and the phrase “Fire and Fury” provides the title for another work in clear allusions to the climate of anxiety unleashed with Donald Trump’s presidency. A mix of terror and resignation coats the exhibition like a cold sweat.

Emerson is a talented painter who in her latest body of work exhibits many similarities with another Atlanta-based artist, Joe Peragine, who also employs a visual lexicon of animals to represent an innocence besieged by dark, war-mongering forces. Critique often works best when it’s oblique rather than jammed down your throat, and by resorting to an abstracted cartoon style, Emerson disarms and deflects, allowing us to contemplate how long we want to live in a world where these icons of innocence continually lose out to chest-beating destruction.

>> RELATED: 2015 review: Horror underpins cartoon surfaces in impressive MOCA GA show

Her primary tableaux are forest scenes with their thick black lines of paint-by-number-evocative forms filled with Bambis and with wide-eyed cartoon creatures visible only as enormous, blinking eyes hiding in its caves and rabbit holes in the distance. It’s an Eden assaulted in “Are We the Monsters” by tracer missiles zipping through the forest, by bomb blasts and a thick oozing oil slick of environmental contamination that disrupt its tranquility.

Emerson’s decade-skipping visual inspiration in “Are We the Monsters” is Disney but also the World War II mascot of Kilroy and the psychedelic posters of the 1960s with their neon colors and phantasmagoric shapes. That latter influence comes through loud and clear in a black lit room for which Emerson has created three canvases painted in the trippy, glowing colors of head shop 1960s poster art. With their strange cartoon figures, spurting forms and alternate reality landscape, those sickly glowing canvases suggest radiated, polluted landscapes, but also a world so horrifyingly close to obliteration, it’s gone psychedelic. There is an affinity, of course, between the world of protest and divides between young and old of the ’60s and today, a connection Emerson mines at multiple points in her show.

Emerson’s decade-skipping influences affirm that yes, our present circumstance is cause for worry. But ours is not the first time in history to be afraid that the end is near. We seem to invent apocalypse in new form endlessly. And without being explicitly gendered, Emerson’s vantage feels like that of a female artist and mother horrified by the casual and routine acting out of violence and verbiage of violence. Her drawing “Mother of All” points out the inherent absurdity of naming the Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb after mothers, who give, rather than destroy, life. Emerson uses her comic imagery to illustrate the madness of this topsy-turvy nonsensical world and the real victims: all of the innocents, children, nature, but us too, adults who’ve become immune to our legacy of destruction.

ART REVIEW

“Are We the Monsters”

Through July 1. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. Free. Zuckerman Museum of Art, Kennesaw State University, 492 Prillaman Way, Kennesaw 470-578-3223, zuckerman.kennesaw.edu.

Bottom line: Grim intimations of war and destruction are rendered in a queasy cartoon style in talented painter’s work.

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