Pop and op art by Britt Spencer and Michael Porten stun viewers and illuminate the southern art scene.
Lauren Ericson reviews the exhibition ‘Imaginary Friends’ (March 29 – June 1, 2018) and artist talk at Spalding Nix Fine Art Gallery, Atlanta.
On May 19, 2018, Atlanta’s Spalding Nix Fine Art Gallery hosted an artist talk with Britt Spencer and Michael Porten of Savannah, Georgia. The intimate event took place among Spencer and Porten’s works, among others by Laura Dargan and Carlyle Wolfe in the group show Imaginary Friends. Approximately fifteen attendees perused the gallery, enjoying light refreshments and conversation with the hosts before Spencer began his talk. His slideshow included his commercial illustrations, close-ups of his paintings, and other tidbits of his art practice. He kindly answered questions about his process and inspirations before welcoming Porten to begin. Porten essentially provided a guided tour of his website, which features all of his work from graduate school to his most recent series. He, too, answered several questions, the audience itching to learn more. For those unfamiliar with the contemporary art scene in Atlanta, this talk illuminated the processes and markets of local artists.
Britt Spencer is a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), painter, and illustrator with clients such as BBC and Saturday Evening Post. His work ranges in content and scale, from small political illustrations for print to large expressive panels. The latter were displayed in Imaginary Friends – big, bold, and captivating.
Pop Art and Neo-Surrealism appear to be major influences on Spencer’s works. Ben-Day dots playfully accent his perplexing figures, who are often shown meandering or participating in the mundane. Bright colors add interest to the outrageous scenes. In Bindlestiff one figure carries a sack in one direction, while one with a sack and another with a ladder and lantern stride in the other direction, with waves splashing on a beachy shore. In a palette of light pink, bright yellow, blue, white, green and black, the colors are as eye-catching as the scene they create. Although we see what is happening on the panel, each particularity leads to more unanswered questions. This is especially true of a speech bubble that is cut off by the left edge of the panel. Bindlestiff and Spencer’s other works are both surreal and vague, providing viewers with intrigue and amusement.
Indeed intrigue and amusement appear to be fundamental not only to how Spencer’s work is received, but also to how it is created. His self-described interests are nostalgic and eclectic, including MAD Magazine, fast food, and the MTV reality show Teen Mom. These “low brow” influences are rooted in the American tradition of Lichtenstein and Warhol but are contemporary to today’s popular culture. The line which defines fine art is further blurred by Spencer, who often depicts figures who are impotent, overweight, or sexually perverse.
Together, Spencer’s work and commentary on it offer an interesting perspective on the creation of American contemporary art. In his panels we can see ourselves, imperfect and maybe even boring, placed in bizarre and extraordinary settings. The hallmarks of American consumerism and excess are both satirized and revered. Though fundamentally unlike our lived experiences, Spencer’s work is honest in its depiction of the diversity of the human form and the bizarre objects of our day-to-day lives. In the contemporary art scene, Spencer’s work is fantastical but unglamorous, appealing but unconventional, and in that way captures uniquely southern culture and aesthetics.
Although Michael Porten went to SCAD and works in the same studio as Spencer, his work is very different in content, medium, and scale. Porten has a large and diverse body of work, but a few noticeable themes emerge among each series. Repetition, pattern, portraiture, and technology play an important role in creating each piece. His most recent series, Deleted Paintings was exhibited in Imaginary Friends.
The optical art tradition is evident in Porten’s piece Deleted John – a monochromatic and dizzying portrait of John Singer Sargent. Alternating large and small black dots cover the entire piece. Up close the dots create an illusion of depth, as though the dots are actually holes in the PVC. From afar, the dots hint at Sargent, a dark, ghostly shadow of a portrait sitter. Porten’s method for creating such works is rather complicated and involves creating computer half-tone images of the desired product. Porten commented that part of his goal with this piece and the accompanying works was to ask, “How far can you go with a painting to make people not want to look at it?” and “How long does it take for something to become passive?” Though the answers remain to be seen, the works at first, second, and third glance are impressive.
Porten’s work alone is striking, but his reach in the art world is doubly so. He has exhibited across the world, been listed as one of nine artists to know by Savannah Magazine and has completed high-profile commissions. His commission for the Atlanta Mercedes-Benz Stadium, in particular, is an interesting case study in the southern contemporary art market.
A football stadium is an unexpected venue for a robust art program, but as you enter the Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Atlanta’s Westside, you are greeted with Porten’s text work Executive Function (After Hillel) featuring a quote by Hillel the Elder: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” Each letter of the quote is displayed in brightly patterned prints encased in lightboxes, created with modern CNC technology. Porten’s work is one of 180 commissioned art pieces in the stadium – a massive undertaking which involved SCAD, The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, and surveys of sports and music fans.
Together, Spencer and Porten are unique examples of the southern art scene. Spencer’s influences and tradition hint at the pop culture that is often derided by tastemakers. The south and its culture often faces the same kind of ridicule. Some critics might blush at the idea that a reality television show could inspire a fine artist, just the same that some critics might overlook southern art because the region is not known for its creatives. Contemporary artists such as Spencer challenge our preconceived notion of where and how fine art is created.
Furthermore, Porten’s connections and commissions indicate that southern art is highly accessible, and the scene is more fluid than in conventionally established markets. Of course galleries in Atlanta and other southern cities offer exhibition and sale of works, but art can also be found along public pathways, in train stations, airports, and even sporting venues. Contemporary artists such as Porten challenge our preconceived notion of where and how the fine art market operates.
Spalding Nix, who owns and operates the gallery, curated a beautiful show and coordinated a fantastic talk featuring southern artists. If Imaginary Friends is any indication, the southern art scene is at once colorful, compelling, and growing.
Lauren Ericson works as a generalist appraiser for Pall Mall Art Advisors and is an antiques specialist for Enservio. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in History Secondary Education and her Masters of Heritage Preservation at Georgia State University. Since moving from Connecticut to Atlanta in 2015, Lauren has immersed herself in the markets and museums that comprise the city's unique art scene.