Unconventional art: in search of more 'showplaces' across the South

You step through a black-curtained doorway into what Atlanta artist Chriss Mills calls ''my little world'': a large room whose floor is covered with 11 tons of sand. In the middle of the room is a tilting, model lighthouse you can climb up into. Its revolving beacon splashes a slow, nonstop spray of red-and-blue light across three lifeguard-like stands and other objects in the room.

Mr. Mills calls his exhibit an example of the ''middle ground between architecture and sculpture,'' and says he can find only a few places in this city where he can show such works.

It's not just that few art galleries want 11 tons of sand on their floor, he says. Most galleries exhibit what makes money, and art such as his is not seen as a moneymaker, he explains.

So, in a region that a variety of Southern artists say is less accustomed than some to various unconventional forms of art, including ''performance art,'' the trend is toward greater use of unconventional places to show off such works.

Former school buildings, abandoned warehouses, and long-closed theaters are being used as galleries and places of performance. And artists are stepping up their efforts to contact other artists in the region, exchanging information on where their works can be shown.

Their works vary. ''Performance art'' productions, for example, may include use of tape recordings, live music, various props, and narration to create an atmosphere.

But the search for places to show off such works, their reconversion into usable spaces, and the business of promoting their exhibits and performances is hard work - so hard that some of the artists involved are finding themselves feeling ''burned out,'' with little time for creating new art.

''Artists are out on the edges,'' says Janet Higgins, an artist in Murfreesboro, Tenn. ''When you walk on the edges, you have to convince people, to pull them in,'' she says.

''You're always talking,'' she says. In the process, some of the artist's creative ''spark goes away,'' she adds.

She recalls the 1977 indoor-outdoor show she put on at Middle Tennessee State University and how she was unsuccessful last fall in getting permission there to put on a similar one. The audience was led along some of the university's outdoor walkways and through various rooms decorated in a variety of ways to enhance her themes of probing human emotions.

Dancer Marcia Plevin found a way around resistance to her kind of artistic performances by renting an abandoned warehouse in downtown Winston-Salem, N.C. For $150 a month she has 7,000 square feet for her dance company and the ''freedom and flexibility'' she couldn't find or afford in other locations.

She does performance art, she explains, admitting her difficulty in defining the term. It is, she says, ''an intense personal statement.'' A performance may use a musician, a painter, and a filmmaker. One of her productions was a 20 -minute satire on eating habits, using a table setting as a ''visual sculpture.''

She does this out of ''love,'' she explains.''I'm not making money. I'm constantly fund-raising'' to put on the next production. To survive financially she is also a part-time music teacher.

But while some artists say they are wearing themselves out in the search for places and funds, Adrienne Anderson, a tenured faculty member of the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, says she plans to quit that job for full-time attention to her art, in which she uses paper she makes herself.

She was among more than 40 Southern artists who gathered here recently to exchange ideas at a conference sponsored by the Atlanta-based Art Papers, a publication that seeks to promote the not-so-well-known artists in the Southeast as well as nationally and internationally recognized artists.

A co-host of the conclave was Nexus Inc., which provides working space for a number of artists in a former school building - and exhibited the sand and lighthouse work of Chriss Mills.

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