American Dream,
American Reality

The High Museum’s Of Origins and Belonging, Drawn from Atlanta finds common humanity through recognition of difference.

by Louis Corrigan

June 20, 2019

Featured image: Xie Caomin, The Broken Other, detail, 2013, graphite on paper (All photos of work by Mike Jensen, courtesy High Museum)

From deeply personal family portraits to profoundly meditative landscapes, the new group show of six Atlanta artists, Of Origins and Belonging, Drawn from Atlanta at the High Museum, humanizes the contentious debate over immigration while delivering an aesthetically powerful punch. The show emphasizes figuration in a dialogue about American selfhood, but it also insists that the artist’s hand and vision can produce pleasures that extend well beyond the confines of socially imposed identity.

Michael Rooks, the High’s curator of modern and contemporary art, has been a champion of Atlanta artists since he took the position in 2010. This show marks his third in a series featuring drawings by Atlanta artists, beginning with Drawing Inside the Perimeter in 2013 and continuing with 2015’s Sprawl: Drawing Outside the Lines.

Installed in a handful of small lower level galleries, Of Origins is more modest in scale than its predecessors, but it has the advantage of featuring several works by each participant, which allows for a deeper understanding of each artist’s style and concerns. Nearly all the work is new, made specifically for this show, the main exceptions being the single pieces the museum has acquired by Cosmo Whyte and Caomin Xie.

Given the show’s theme and the current environment, one might expect the artists to present the personal as overtly political. But that’s mainly the case with the female artists, particularly Yehimi Cambrón and Jessica Caldas, whose text-filled portrait pieces speak directly to the current moment.

Yehimi Cambrón, from the series Family Portrait, 2019, mixed media

Cambrón is an activist and educator at Cross Keys High School best known for her murals depicting and advocating for immigrants. She was born in Mexico and moved to the U.S. with her family, undocumented, at age 7. She grew up in Atlanta in the Buford Highway area of Atlanta and graduated from Agnes Scott College with a degree in studio art in 2014. Like her brothers, Cambrón received temporary U.S. legal status in 2012 under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which has allowed her to teach.

Her Family Portrait series features seven striking portraits on wood panels presenting her family members gazing directly at the viewer. Cambrón produces these works from digital collage, creating drawings from photographs then photoshopping the drawings to accentuate the line work, digitally layering in a scan of the individual’s government documentation (like a DACA card), and then surrounding the image with block text in English or Spanish quoting the individual. The artist’s own self-portrait reads: “My parents are the original Dreamers. They are my first example of leadership because they sacrificed their entire lives to create opportunities for us.” Cambrón and her siblings appear determined, open, even joyful. Her father and grandfather look weathered but soulful, and her mother seems somewhat shy, depicted here in profile, but the image still pops with heroic strength.

While Cambrón’s sister is a U.S. citizen, having been born here, one brother has already lost DACA status. Her family’s future depends on the federal government’s next decisions on DACA, immigration reform and paths to citizenship. Cambrón has said she wants her work to show immigrants up close, telling their own stories in their own words, to counteract negative stereotypes. The humanity, even monumentality of these portraits accomplishes that and more.

Jessica Caldas, yo no me quito, (detail), 2019, mixed media on paper

Although Jessica Caldas just finished her MFA at Georgia State University this past spring, she has exhibited widely in the city for nearly a decade, employing printmaking, painting, sculpture, and performance art, often as an advocate for women’s rights. Her performance work has been especially compelling, politically direct, and often physically demanding. Caldas’ large triptych here is a surprisingly personal turn.

The central mural highlights a blue line drawing of her Puerto Rican grandparents engaged in a loving dance, surrounded by kaleidoscopic portraits of Caldas’ extended family. A side panel depicts a mountain range and stylized street scene behind Spanish text of the Jones Act of 1917, which made the island’s residents U.S. citizens, but without real representation in Congress. The work makes clear that Puerto Ricans have long felt both of and apart from the U.S., a separation reinforced by our current president’s disregard for this U.S. Commonwealth. The other side panel features 16 small colored paintings on wood that together form a larger image of a house that, resonantly, also resembles a wall. Caldas’ handwritten text plays on this ambiguity, asking how immigrants can feel they belong when there remains a “gulf that separates the American dream from the American reality.”

Diana Settles, Left to Themselves, 2019, pencil on paper (Courtesy High Museum)

Artist and musician Dianna Settles likewise felt this gulf growing up in North Georgia where she says she stood out as a Vietnamese American in a nearly all white population. She studied art at Georgia State before finishing at the San Francisco Art Institute with a focus on lithography: she now leads Hi-Lo Press, a printmaker’s studio in midtown Atlanta. Settles has said that her visual art follows from the idea that representing people who look like her in casual domestic settings is a political act, a way to depict and nurture belonging. The most overt statement in her four small pencil drawings comes in a lovely piece depicting a young family in a living room, each parent holding a small child, with a wall poster re-framing the president’s MAGA slogan: “Make America An Endless Expanse of Old Growth Forest With No Certain Borders Again.”  

Settles delights in detailing decorative kitchen tiles, patterns in “Oriental” rugs, and funny pop culture insertions. There’s a hipster vibe to her work, with whimsical scenes of twentysomethings goofing around. These scenes appear offhand, but she stages them by collaging various parts of personal photos. The playful mise-en-scene of Left to Themselves sets your eyes in motion as the foot of a tumbling figure in the foreground seems to appear in the neighboring room. Then you realize you’re looking at a mirror showing a seated woman positioned exactly where you’re standing, her disembodied feet right in front of you. I miss the vibrant color of Settles’ stylized paintings, but the detailed linework and shading offer their own rewards.

The women artists in the show all utilize a highly legible, graphic style (it’s no surprise all three have created public murals for the likes of Atlanta non-profit Living Walls). By contrast, the men’s work here is far more opaque and mysterious.

Caomin Xie. The Buddha on Elysium Beach (Baby Buddha with tiger) (Detail), graphite and silver leaf on paper (Courtesy High Museum)

Born in Shanghai, Caomin Xie came to the U.S. in 1999, completed an MFA in painting from SCAD in Savannah in 2001, and now teaches art at Clayton State University. Buddhist thought influences much of Xie’s recent work. His 2011 MOCA-GA Working Artist show featured enormous loosely painted mandalas, Buddhist symbols of the universe and the cycle of life, one of which recently hung in the High’s contemporary galleries.

Xie’s four large graphite drawings here, accented with silver leaf sprinkles, initially appear so quiet and monochromatic that some visitors may pass them by. But let your eyes adjust to the delicate rendering of light and dark. Two spectral landscapes reference the Jataka morality tales. In one, Xie reworks the story of the Buddha sacrificing himself to feed a starving tigress to reference the 2015 photojournalist image of a three-year-old Syrian boy who washed up dead on a Turkish beach after his refugee boat capsized. An adjacent piece depicts the Buddha as the Golden Deer who forgives a man who betrayed him. The drawings resonate with spiritual mystery.

Cosmo Whyte, Sweet, Sweet, Back, 2015, charcoal and gold leaf on paper. (Courtesy High Museum)

Cosmo Whyte operates in a similarly delicate and enigmatic vein. Whyte grew up in Jamaica and came to the US in 2001 to attend college and obtain his MFA at the University of Michigan. He now serves as art professor and program director at Morehouse College. He received early recognition in Atlanta with a Forward Arts award show in 2010 and has earned steady attention since then as an Artadia award winner and Hudgens Prize finalist. His MOCA-GA Working Artist show opens in November. Notably, he’s the only artist here represented by an Atlanta gallery (Marcia Wood). Whyte operates in various media, but his drawing has always been foundational. His haunting work often speaks to the history of colonialism and the constraints of traditional forms of masculinity.

His three large charcoal drawings on paper depict black men mostly bent over backwards, caught in motion like breakdancers or practitioners of capoeira. The paper’s surface likewise dances with drips of gold leaf and erasures that leave irregular patches of rubbed white pulp, blotting out the drawing, suggesting the effacements and scars of colonial rule. In Sweet, Sweet, Back, the strongest piece, multiple figures spring out of a ghostly grey mist dotted with constellations.

Wihro Kim, What doze d horizon mean? (Detail), 2019, Acrylic, watercolor, gouache, charcoal, and color pencil on paper and wall

Korean American artist Wihro Kim graduated with a BFA from Georgia State in 2015 and gained local attention with notable works at WonderRoot’s Walthall Fellows show, Poem 88 gallery, and elsewhere. His lushly colorful paintings often depict schematic interiors set in motion between door frames and shoots of nature, creating a liminal, dreamlike space of longing.

Kim delivers the show’s boldest visual statement, an enormous, exuberant wall mural titled “What doze d horizon mean?” It’s a mostly abstract collage of textures, strips of color, and diverse materials (acrylic, watercolor, gouache, charcoal and colored pencil). In script that runs through black and white patchwork at the bottom, Kim muses: “Do we know what the land is?… What doze d blue sky mean and how doze it stretch infinitely into an incomprehensible depth or flatness?… What is d edge between me and d world?”

The entire image could be a painting on an interior domestic wall, but the image reads like a quilt of disparate patterns and dynamic energies, coalescing along a series of horizon lines to create something new. Kim’s questions read like contemporary iterations of the work of Walt Whitman, an expansive contemplation of the artist’s place in America and America’s place in him. A blurred vision of nature appears between the different visual plains, and it all floats over a space that recedes into the distance like a map of the U.S. The work seems to echo Caldas’ house/wall challenge but with a sense of hope that feels undeniable.

The High’s recent re-installation of its permanent collection allowed for a more representative presentation of African American artists, and that change in turn created space for an exhibition like this one that addresses issues of identity beyond Atlanta’s familiar black and white dichotomy. The added triumph is that the work in this rich exhibition was produced by young artists mostly in their 20s and 30s, whose varied cultural heritages so profoundly reflect Atlanta’s true diversity.

Louis Corrigan is an Atlanta-based writer. He has previously served on the boards of several Atlanta non-profit arts organizations.

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