Review: Uneven group show muses over concepts of utopia, dystopia


If the artists in the Paper Plane Gallery show “Utopia/Dystopia” are any bellwether, then dystopia appears the more popular frame of mind these days.

For this group show featuring both local artists and artists from around the country and focused on both the darkest, most apocalyptic realities, and its idealistic flipside, this College Park gallery has been split into two opposing factions. On one side, the majority of the works in the show illustrate dystopia: 24 pieces to utopia’s six. One of the more affecting works on the dystopian end is Stephanie Lloyd’s “Acquaintance” in charcoal and acrylic on canvas. A group of faces, scratched out and obscured, cluster in a nefarious group, their heads downturned, as if contemplating the same grim sight, an apt illustration of Merriam-Webster’s “imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives.”

Dystopian works range from Vivian Liddell’s political rant, “Love Letter to the Man in Charge III,” to more amorphous works from Katharine Miele. Miele’s prints feature dilapidated, trashed rooms where garbage piles up on the floor and books tumble from shelves. In Atlanta-based graphic designer Angie Jerez’s chilling “RJ45 Dream” in ink on paper, the intertwined strands of a woman’s hair, seen from behind in spare, elegantly rendered lines, are made up of hundreds of Ethernet cables, articulating a common feeling that modern technology has become an entrapping, enmeshed part of our DNA. In these works, dystopia is familiar and all around us; a state of existence defined by chaos and ruin.

Facing off with dystopia on the opposite wall in this small, shotgun-style gallery is a smaller showing of works representing utopia, a term coined by Sir Thomas More in his book of the same name to describe a place of idealized perfection impossible to achieve.

These images tend to imagine paradise in modest, personal terms as in Moziah Thompson’s portrait “Life in the Sky” of a slouching young man. In Oakland, Calif., artist Cianna Valley’s richly detailed prints, utopia feels more like a state of mind. Valley, the undoubted star of the show, has created three of the six utopian works on view. Her black-and-white aquatint etchings allow us to peek into domestic scenes, of a woman sprawled out on a couch in a tropical room, or of three women cavorting in a retro kitchen. Such works suggest there are no grand statements, prescriptions or insights into our present circumstance in these representations of “Utopia/Dystopia,” only lo-fi works expressing discomfort or delight.

In some respects, juried shows like “Utopia/Dystopia” are relatively easy to pull off: You put out a call for artists on social media and decide between the works submitted. But such shows can also tend to work from incredibly broad themes and don’t always harvest the most interesting work, or work that has been created to speak to those themes. There are some compelling pieces in “Utopia/Dystopia,” but mostly this group show features a lot of middling work offering scant insight into or even engagement with the show’s themes.

Paper Plane is a new gallery that is admittedly still getting its bearings. It doubles as a yoga studio and generates a great deal of its energy from its gregarious ringmaster/curator Jack Michael, who’s launching a one-woman effort to bring art and artists to Atlanta’s Southside. But a challenge for any scrappy indie gallery curated and managed by the same person is keeping standards high on a shoestring budget. Learning to discard what doesn’t work, and occasionally zeroing in on a particular artist or a more concrete theme can certainly help.



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