A pleasure from start to finish, Daniel Bozhkov's A Survey is about the most fun you can have in a contemporary art space. An artist of far-ranging interests but with a consistently clever and humanistic wit, the Bulgarian-born and New York-based Bozhkov delights in art projects that bring ordinary people, strange activities and fluke into his endeavors.
Some artists make objects, but Bozhkov creates test kitchens for wild mixes of unlikely ingredients whipped into a delicious whole.
In his exceptionally diverse projects, the artist has created, advertised and test-marketed a perfume called "Eau d'Ernest" meant to evoke the essence of Ernest Hemingway with the expected "vulnerable and tragic notes."
Bozhkov has dressed as pure evil-turned-environmentalist Darth Vader and attempted the Sisyphean task of cleaning the Black Sea using an ordinary household Brita filter.
He has gotten a job as a Wal-Mart greeter and dressed in the "Our People Make the Difference" vest, and painted a decorative fresco in the store.
In Istanbul, he trained as a pretzel vendor, crafting his pretzels into pictograms of Turkish words such as "eye," "gift" and "tail" and selling them to passersby.
On their own, all of these funny, inventive projects would be winning stuff, canny illustrations that the art world does not have to be detached from the "real" world.
But Bozhkov is an artist who delights in the way his ideas often play out when he brings in unknown elements; how they are transformed by the sites he chooses and the things he learns. So, when his goofy Wal-Mart fresco illustrated with surreal-meets-homespun images (such as one of a bottle of Tide and an aboveground pool party) became damaged by the Wal-Mart flow of merchandise and people, he consulted a noted Italian fresco restorer for advice.
The fresco expert's "advice"? In a nutshell: Let it be. The scratches and dings on the fresco were historical evidence of the interaction between Wal-Mart and the artwork.
Dominating the main gallery is the Contemporary's most comprehensive example of one of Bozhkov's endeavors called "Learn How to Fly Over a Very Large Larry."
After consultation with an amateur naturalist and the owner of the field, Bozhkov created a crop-circle picture of Larry King's face in a Maine hayfield. In the usual "and then ..." coda to the project, Larry King himself commented upon the artwork on his CNN talk show, undoubtedly finding a suitably colossal celebration of his enormous ego in the giant earth work.
And then ...
Bozhkov learned to fly in order to see his creation in its rightful perspective, from the air.
And then ...
Created a perceptually distorted living room couch and coffee table in the gallery so that viewers could watch the media event on TV.
Clearly inspired by the interactivity of Bozhkov's artworks and his own curatorial devotion to "engaging" with his own artists and the community at large, Contemporary curator Stuart Horodner has taken one of Bozhkov's preexisting projects "Fastest Guided Tours of Unfamiliar Places" and given it a local spin. In "Fastest," Bozhkov takes visitors on a whirlwind tour of their own city, offering his own out-of-towner's "authoritative" commentary on the sites they visit. For Survey, Horodner has invited a team of Atlantans -- an urban planner, a copyright attorney and a Georgia State psychologist -- to offer their own tours of Bozhkov's show.
One of the most satisfying elements to Bozhkov's work is how it engages with national identities, whether the pretzel project in Istanbul, with its layered examination of language, history and consumer habits, or the pop-culture fun of invoking the iconic Americana of Larry King, Star Wars and Wal-Mart. With his distinct accent and heavy beard and intense, dark looks, Bozhkov evokes "difference" as both a Bulgarian and an artist.
That sense of outsiderness adds a piquant zing to his work -- especially interesting as we watch him embody the quintessential small-town, hometown corporate identity of Wal-Mart in a videotape where he greets customers entering a Skowhegan, Maine, store. Without mean-spiritedness or irony but with a refreshing spirit of goodwill, Bozhkov crafts something rich and telling about our chaotic, jumbled world, showing its fascinating, layered, prismatic dimensions, if we will only pay enough attention.
In Greta Pratt's related project, "Nineteen Lincolns," also on view at the Contemporary, the artist has photographed 19 different men: from a white-haired elder to a pimply faced teen, dressed as that most American of presidents.
What makes a Lincoln?, Pratt's project asks. Is it the thoughtful gaze? The stovepipe hat? The square beard? The ordinary Caucasian male features?
Like Bozhkov's work, Pratt's answer is wonderfully inclusive, suggesting that in their impersonations, whether built on physical resemblance or a "Lincolnesque" gesture, all manage a likeness on some level, achieving greatness and nobility in their own way.
The only disappointment in this exceptionally witty combination of artists is work by Camille Norment about the alternate perceptions created in a distorting mirror, and a photo mural of a cypress grove reflected in the water below. When the two pieces are placed together and the mirror reflects the forest, what Norment is saying about perception becomes muddled.
It's a minor false note in a superior show.