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Contemplating Seraphim

Angel Project an engaging study of things to come

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Carrying the burden of an unfortunate title that evokes saccharine themes and smiling cherubs, The Angel Project is an engaging look at the elaborate artmaking of European masters such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Caravaggio. Larry Jens Anderson's exhibition in Gallery 100 at the Woodruff Arts Center maps the journey Anderson has taken to prepare for a formal piece he plans to paint depicting a surgeon attending a fallen angel.

Centuries-old Italian artistry is the source of Anderson's imagery. He found "The Good Samaritan" (Il Buon Samaritano), an obscure baroque painting by Di Orazio Riminaldi, in a Tuscan museum last fall. He visited il Museo La Specola (a museum with wax skeletal models dating from the 17th and 18th centuries) in Florence. He viewed Raphael's original studies for his Vatican frescoes, including the full cartoon for the school of Athens, in Milan.

The first impression of The Angel Project installation is one of entering an anatomy classroom, but there is something tender beneath this aesthetic science. Michael Venezia and David Fraley, Anderson's collaborators in TABOO, a disbanded curatorial collective of four Atlanta artists, have died in the past two years. The artist acknowledges that the painstaking process of research and sketches has been an act of reconciliation for the loss of his friends. Even without that revelation, The Angel Project would resonate as the document of a contemporary artist's brush with classicism.

In a velvet-lined wooden case to one side, there's a small model of the human skeleton with the bones for wings screwed into the back and a real bird's wing. The catalog from the anatomical museum lies open to the page showing photos of wing models. There's a digital image that imagines a wing attached to a man's back and a small print of the "Good Samaritan" painting he saw in Tuscany.

Along two walls, Anderson has pinned more than two dozen preparatory drawings in charcoal and chalk, pencil and watercolor. Separate sketches of a crouched man (the surgeon) and a prone nude (the angel) accompany graphed drawings that focus on the angel's wing. Some imagine the shoulder where a wing would attach. Other precisely executed works deconstruct the wing, showing bone and muscular structure and the moment of attachment. One page holds a sample of wing feathers, both bird and insect, caught in oblong pools of transparent glue.

On the right, a cartoon study and pounced drawing (tracing paper pierced with holes that allow powdered chalk to transfer an image) recalls an age-old fresco technique. An adjacent collage layers painted paper tracings of the painting's composition in a dense exploration of the its interior structure. The artist's path moves across paper to canvas; the final painting is represented by a gessoed surface where the two figures are sketched in red chalk along pounce lines.

After this exhibition, Anderson will begin color studies. Though he admits concern that all the preparatory work threatens to diminish the creative act, it's clear that in The Angel Project, he has transcended his own sense of skill. Even his drawings have taken on a depth and acuity that foretell a lasting effect on how this artist makes art.

The Angel Project runs through July 20 at The Atlanta College of Art, Gallery 100, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. Tues.-Thurs. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Sun. noon-5 p.m. 404-733-5001.

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