Callahan McDonough and Jill Ruhlman

Ersatz Gallery

Contemporary art in the South is heavily influenced by visionary folk art, but the influence is too often limited to the use of folk motifs in the service of an uncritical primitivism or a regional academicism. Callahan McDonough, whose work is well-known in Atlanta through her participation in the Atlanta Women’s Art Collective (AWAC) since the ’70s, has developed during the last few years the language of visionary art into a personal style that avoids both atavism and imitation. She has learned from folk art the double vision that overlays the symbolic universe of myth and religion with the ordinariness, even trashiness, of everyday life, but she has substituted post-Modern uncertainty and skepticism for mystic certainties and revelations. The strongest pieces in her recent show, mounted along with the work of Jill Ruhlman (another AWAC veteran), were large canvases and small works on linen whose simplified central figures are surrounded by fields of dripped and sprayed color, in a narrow tonal range (usually copper, silver, and lavender) that avoids the cheerful primaries of much folk art.

The central figures are abstract totems that neither fetishize old religions nor offer new ones, but instead project a hazy world at the margins of everyday life, a world labeled as spiritual only by the occasional presence of such traditional apotropaic symbols as a single eye, a handprint, or a hieroglyphic bird. Peripheral to both the main figure and to religious tradition, these symbols arc the devalued remainders of a religion reduced to superstition. In large pictures such as Remembered Ancestor, The Lover and the Loved, and The Realm of the Crimson Rose, all 1986, she attaches beads, glitter, and metallic strips embossed with hearts and peace symbols to the canvases at the necks of the roughly drawn totemic figures. These ornaments (as well as the occasional rock reference) tie the figures to the world of K-Mart rather than the world of myth. Her totems are the debased post-Modern cousins of Max Ernst’s horned Surrealist gods. McDonough’s shift from a more cluttered collage technique to the centrally focused, simplified paintings in this show has given her work a cumulative power and resonance a more declamatory folk-influenced style lacks.

Jill Ruhlman’s work, however, was a disappointment after seeing her work in the AWAC show last year. The pastels and clay sculptures, exhibited in the gallery’s two smaller rooms, lack the nervous edge of her confrontations with child abuse, psychological harassment, and phallic sexuality in the previous series of pastels. Her work is still figural, but her characters have turned away from the terror she thrust on them—and us—in the earlier work.

McDonough’s new work does not directly confront the awesome or the terrible in contemporary life. But she offers a direct look at the trashy vestiges of the spirit world. Her creatures are not the monsters of Goya’s “sleep of reason” but rather are dream creatures of the middle world of confusion and ordinary fear, of a life with neither confidence in reason nor consolation in transcendence.

Glenn Harper