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By Felicia Feaster For years now, the artists John Tindel and Michi Meko have been simpatico collaborators. This dynamic duo has teamed up to offer a vision of art and the bumpier byways of Southern history mixed up with a more urban contemporary reality of hip hop and graffiti art. Often identifying themselves as “two fat Southern boys who paint,” their work has a self-effacing charm, a refusal to take themselves too seriously, even when they are tackling serious topics like remembrance and race.
Because Tindel is white and Meko black, their work has often factored race into their art-making. Sometimes they are jokey, poking fun at racial schisms in the manner of hip, young artists living in a more enlightened age. But they can just as often assert the presence of a color divide. Their latest exhibition at Barbara Archer Gallery, “Baptism by Fire: New Work by TindelMichi,” is no different, addressing the South, race and culture at every turn. Working in a style that could be described as graffiti rococo, the artists embellish their canvases with fussy, decorative curlicues and flourishes alongside edgier drips and chunky swabs of paint that bring to mind the palimpsest of city life where movie posters and paint, advertisements and graffiti all coexist.
“Hell or High Water,”a painting on canvas, is the first work in the show and succinctly sets the tone for the spirit of what’s to come. In their characteristic color scheme: sepia-tones and soft, bleached indigos that give their work an automatically weathered, vintage patina of daguerreotypes and faded denim, the artists bubble up a whole litany of Southern touchstones. The work features a mammy lurking in one corner, a lawn jockey and cotton bolls. But next to that historical evocation of the South, is a more contemporary one featuring monster trucks and a black college marching band player. Drips of paint, silhouettes of cherubs, a doily-like decorative flourish endow the scene with a wispy, almost nostalgic quality — the South emerges as something both beloved and sinister.
The show balances paintings like “Hell or High Water” and what looks like a commentary on old South sexual exploitation in “Cotton Belt Route,” with works on paper and sculptures. Sculptural works physically conjure up the past in their juxtaposition of weathered wood and tin, leather and metal which give a tactile impression of time’s passage. The massive sculpture “M. Dixon” conveys the darkness of Southern history. A leather harness suggests field work and the painted image of a uniformed black man behind a dangling length of chain summons up unpleasant associations with violence and enslavement. The piece shows the duo’s flair for mixing materials and styles, from wooden window shutters to a tangle of metal wire formed into a kind of nest for the white clay birds that perch on this and other works.
The work in “Baptism By Fire” occasionally brings to mind a far milder, more vague, gloves-on version of the provocateur and skeleton-rattler Kara Walker known for a similarly storybook take on Southern history. You get the sense the artists are trying to render the South in all its complexity, but “Baptism By Fire” made me long for a bit more of the fighting spirit or humor these artists have shown in the past. Perhaps the contradictions in the work just amount to the circumstance of living in such a troubled region where a nightmarish Dixie past can coexist with the progressive modern South the artists call home.
“Baptism By Fire: New Work by TindelMichi”
Through Jan. 5. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays. Barbara Archer Gallery, 280 Elizabeth Street, Atlanta. 404-523-1845, www.barbaraarcher.com.
Bottom line: Two clever local artists mash up a vision of Dixie past and present in sculptures and paintings with a real physical presence but some vaguely executed ideas.