Strange and wonderful works of 4 at Barbara Archer Gallery

A delightful peek into the off-the-chain creativity of four artists, “4 X 4” at Barbara Archer Gallery may be the most fun you can have at an Atlanta art gallery this summer. The works by Lydia Walls and the talented Linda Hall are standouts: full of heart and life and spirit.

The good times start with painter Lydia Walls’ super-quirky wall of tiny 6-by-6-inch paintings celebrating notable Southerners, “100 Southerners.” The adorable, celebratory works in gouache and graphite feature similar black or grey backgrounds that lend the Southern subjects a timeless, iconic air. The Southerners commemorated here are black and white, singers and politicians, genuinely famous and more cult-figure. There is Gucci Mane and Hank Williams, Tennessee Williams and Wanda Jackson, Thomas Jefferson and the Georgia mascot Uga. The work is a valentine to talent in many realms that somehow fits perfectly with the equally weird and wonderful plush celebrations of the animal kingdom offered by Linda Hall.

Like a crazed cross between Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Hall’s animal masks and soft sculptures hover between animal adulation and the kind of uncanny creepiness that characterizes taxidermy and puppets and other masquerades of living things.

Hall creates sculptures using everyday materials: vintage quilts, beads, crocheted doilies, buttons and silk flowers, which she uses to create and ornament hulking grizzly and polar bears, cats, buzzards and raccoons. The installation of these creatures in a gallery alcove feels like the remnants of some fantastic theatrical production: an animal follies put up on hangers until the next show.

Two buzzards made of wire mesh lurk near the ceiling. A polar bear has been lovingly embellished with a coat of beads and doilies. An enormous grizzly bear in “We Are What We Endanger” hangs overhead, its glass eyes gazing down at passerby, imploringly. The bear is hollow, crafted from a quilt, his internal cavity a vivid red. Though these paper tigers can appear menacing, their threat is neutralized by the fact that they are gutted and amputated, rendered as heads or masks, with clay teeth and fabric claws. The work is utterly beguiling in visuals alone, but their power is enhanced by Hall’s insight into what we love and fear in animals: their difference and their will, which we attempt to control and colonize by rendering it cute and toothless.

Her sculpture “Nest Mouth Mask for My Cat William” is typically joyous and weird and features a cat’s head holding a mass of bird feathers gingerly in its mouth. As much as Walls’ portraits of Southerners, these are loving paeans. Hall’s masks are totems and commemorations of both beloved and also forgotten animals, like her “Ascension Mask for the Chained and Neglected Dog Across the Street from My Studio.” No explanation is necessary.These are masks of devotion for the silent creatures in our midst.

Hall’s work has much in common with artist Joseph Kurhajec’s prints, which also depict animal-creatures, eerie in their own right, with their jagged claws streaked with blood and frighteningly warped or hidden faces. Like Hall’s works, they suggest costumes or inspired interpretations of animals more than any real creature, talismans of an animal spirit. His incredibly tactile prints feature deep, rich color tones: gooey rusts and coal blacks and the kind of texture that suggests the animal skin of armadillos or snakes.

Benjamin Jones’ trademark is a toothy, bald-headed figure who appears with great frequency in his drawings and in the artist books he has displayed on white pedestals in “4 X 4.” The books have a diaristic quality: you don white gloves to protect the pages and leaf through a sampling of Jones’ consciousness, artistic inspirations and fixations (let’s just say he’s a very big Meryl Streep fan) through the ages. Diaries, like retold dreams, aren’t always interesting to those on the receiving end. If you are already fascinated by Jones’ work, you will certainly find these utterly intriguing. If you are not, you may long for the deliberated over, edited and finished work hung on a gallery wall rather than the musings and mass of these accumulated drawings, newspaper clippings and snippets of ideas.

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