It's hard not to rejoice when a longtime Atlanta artist achieves Big Kahuna status with a show at the High Museum. Local artist Radcliffe Bailey scored big in 2011 with his retrospective Memory as Medicine at the museum and is probably still fist-pumping the air after scaling that career hurdle. Now the Cuban-born, Atlanta-based artist Alejandro Aguilera has garnered his own real estate in a more intimate, but still impressive show. About the Modern Spirit is an effusive, life-affirming group hug to human creativity that proves a nice juxtaposition with the neighboring show's cuckoo-for-color graf-anime of the Brooklyn-based artist Brian Donnelly, aka KAWS.
KAWS' work is about chest-beating promotion of the KAWS brand to counteract the toxic overload of advertising Donnelly witnessed on Manhattan's streets. Aguilera's "brand" is a humanist, emotional belief in creativity as a kind of passage from the terrestrial world into an enchanted modernist Legion of Superheroes populated by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, Charlie Chaplin, and Pablo Picasso. Where KAWS is a neon sock-in-the-eye, Aguilera is a soothing, earthy lagoon of benevolent calm. Water imagery appears repeatedly in Aguilera's work and the metaphor is no accident: Aguilera's recurring idea is the intellectual progress of modernism and its ability to take the world into a new realm, as in that repeated motif of boats traversing vast seas.
The overall concept for Aguilera's show is engaging in its own right: Respond to the High's current marquee exhibition Picasso to Warhol and its catalog of modernist masters. But the thrill-factor of About the Modern Spirit far exceeds that call and response. Some of the pieces are goose-bump-inducingly lovely, like a study of Ernest Hemingway's protagonist from The Old Man and the Sea. In crayon and graphite on craft paper, the portrait "Black Drawing (Santiago)" mixes up its subject and the spirit of its métier. Boats, the totems of Santiago's seafaring life, float across Santiago's sweater, even forming the structure of his nose. The hat topping his gray curls echoes the silhouette of the sharks that attack his boat in Hemingway's story. Aguilera's subjects emerge like phantasms from infernos of celebratory color and the electric loops, swirls, and waves of his gestures. Such manic activity suggests that the ideas spawned by sculptor Constantin Brancusi, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, or painter Lee Krasner still swirl about us, unseen but omnipresent.
Aguilera's drawings, executed in ink, graphite, crayon, and even coffee, have the weathered, soft hue of vintage barkcloth, old wood, or the nicotine-stained walls in a comfortingly familiar dive bar. It's hard not to get a bit verklempt by all of the color, energy, and reverence for the world of ideas expressed in Aguilera's work. That sense of delight and surprise is reinforced in the innovative decision to mimic the feel of an artist's studio by hanging the work salon-style to intensify his portraits' effect. Art museums often impose a studious calm on the great cataclysms of feeling and intellect that hang on their walls. But in all the best ways, About the Modern Spirit gives chaos free reign. C