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(Un)natural deflection

After Life trades substance for style at Solomon Projects

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The natural world as a stand-in for human biology and behavior has been a continuing motif in Atlanta artist Karen Rich Beall's work. Caged birds tied to their nests hint at the entrapment of domesticity. Even innocuous plant life suddenly seems hilariously lewd in Beall's past collisions of plant and phallus.

In After Life, her current solo show at Solomon Projects, Beall continues her investment in nature as metaphor in far slicker and more sophisticated terms. Created from materials such as acrylic resin and latex paint, Beall's work has taken on a more polished, technically proficient, contemporary look. But that coolness factor has a down side. The materials Beall employs are so beautifully executed and eye-poppingly seductive, the content that once was the strength of her work has retreated into the background and become a little hazy.

Though Beall's themes -- death, reproduction, fertility -- have remained fairly consistent, her forms have become more abstract. What was formerly one step away from nature is now two or three steps removed. There is a coldness and movement away from the earthy, controlled but passionate stance of earlier works toward a more aloof, conceptual approach. The rusts and browns and greens have changed into plastic-y bubblegum pinks and Crayola tones; the shapes once explicitly organic are now mutated and overtly synthetic.

After Life is an aesthetically transfixing show. It's like entering a store where everything glistens with novelty and begs to be owned. These are tantalizing objects made with the art market in mind, and as such, they have the feel of objects adapted to the demands of salesmanship.

"Growing Attachment," an epic piece that creeps like an invasive ivy along one wall, suggests the arteries and veins of the body or the winding tributaries or pathways of a river or road. This long branch with smaller twig offshoots and black, berry-like nodules is executed in the familiar low-tech, high-concept manner of Beall's previous work. The delicate lacework has been achieved with florist's tape, and the berries have been rendered with Velcro sticky pads to amusingly replicate the sucker-like ferocity of ivy's spurs. Beall's work has always exemplified a democratic challenge to conceptual work, blurring the line between fine artist, craft person and home economist to suggest that the process of artmaking -- whether by a gardener or a quilt-maker -- is as much imagination and invention as it is fancy materials and money.

That conviction is less often stated in the main room of After Life where the work has an immediate superficial sense of whimsy, which is at times ominous and at other moments comical. In "Sweet and Sticky," Beall has fashioned a trio of green cacti dotted with red spikes that bear a passing resemblance to bristled hairbrushes or spiky green leeches. The title alludes to prickly pears and oozing fruits, but it's also clear Beall intends to convey something deeper.

In the even more humorous "Birds and Bees," the artist has affixed an array of brilliantly colored objects to the wall that look like martian desserts or a variation on Atlanta sculptor David Isenhour's cartoon gestures. Wildly kinetic and slightly perverse, these objects pucker, open, dangle and rise, evoking an array of objects from flower blossoms to genitalia to a splash of water bursting from the site of impact. These nearly Pop forms have the artificially intense colors of a plastic toy, but that same surface slickness also deflects understanding and evokes frustration that instead of the artist's technical skills serving content, content is now secondary to surface.

In "Coming Up For Air" a blue phallus or amoeba backed into a corner of the gallery is covered with clusters of milky eggs like conglomerations of tapioca beads. Again, there is a suggestion of sexual content, of eggs or hatching that is more explicitly conveyed in "The Hanging Tree." Beall returns to form in this eerie sarcophagus creature suspended from the ceiling and crafted of artificial leaves. The human-sized being has the unsettling presence of a ripe sac containing something about to hatch. It is while confronting this disturbing thing, like the mound covered with butterflies in Gregory Crewdson's well-known photograph, that you get some sense of the creepy, lovely, mysterious elements of nature that continue to fascinate the artist.

After Life runs through June 22 at Solomon Projects, 1037 Monroe Drive. Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. 404-875-7100.

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