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Ideas on Display 

'Cone Field,' a work in video, stands out in an uneven show at Spaces.

"Untitled," by Jeanne Patterson, linoleum, resin, and - oil paint.
  • "Untitled," by Jeanne Patterson, linoleum, resin, and oil paint.
The nine artists whose work is included in Surface Tensions , the new exhibit at Spaces, are like deep-sea divers. As the title of the show suggests, they explore beneath the surface of personal and societal tensions and bring them to conscious awareness. Some are more successful than others in this endeavor.

Akron artist Kate Budd wrestles with relevant subject matter, but her results can leave a viewer wondering what she's getting at. In her artist's statement, Budd writes of her desire to examine the dynamics of the "dysfunctional relationship." It's not clear why some of these finely polished sculptures -- especially those fashioned from wax and salt, which evoke breasts and swelled abdomens -- should suggest anything about dysfunctional relationships. It takes two to create a dysfunctional relationship, so where is the male? Her "egg" sculptures might answer that question. These eggs (actually, wax sacs that hang from the ceiling and contain navy beans) could either be ovaries or testicles. What could Budd be getting at here? On the one hand, she could be suggesting that dysfunctional relationships occur because males and females are too much alike (both are human, thus both are prone to stupidity). On the other hand, she could be saying that, because they are so different from one another biologically, a man can't possibly understand how a woman feels (and vice versa?). The assistant professor of art at the University of Akron places her thought-provoking sculptures at the complicated intersection of psychology, art, feminism, and politics. All these elements collide in this ambitious installation, but it's questionable whether the collision leads to greater insight.

Los Angeles artist Jeanne Patterson takes commercially printed images on fabric and integrates them into works that also include paint and resin. The works twist and curve across the gallery wall -- one moment evoking an oil slick, the next a body of water as seen on a map, or from a plane. The interesting thing to note here is that the outlines of these wall works are echoed on the painted portions within those outlines. The inner echoes are hazy reflections of the clear, outer shape. Patterson has noted that one aspect in these works is her interest in "pictures that stay in your mind later." This is reminiscent of what psychologists have called eidetic memory or, in common lingo, photographic memory. Some people purport to have an ability to see a picture in all its particulars after it has been taken away. Patterson, by echoing the outlines of her wall pieces with similarly shaped curves within the piece, seems to be suggesting that, while it may be possible to make mental photographs of images that we see, the photograph is only a pale substitute for the sharpness of the original image. We remember, but never with perfect clarity. This is a clever piece that accomplishes much by understatement.

Shona McDonald of Chicago is represented by five works from her "Envelopes" series. She started by saving personal and business envelopes, then cut them into strips and stuck them onto a linen surface. By "conveying the carrier rather than the contents," the artist says that she is "commenting on the secretive and secure nature of mail as it floods the system." This might interest some on an intellectual level, but whether the art exists satisfyingly, apart from this highly specific conceptual agenda, is another question. In "Sea of Envelopes," the artist has arranged hundreds of these strips into a repetitive wavy pattern that becomes a representation of the sea. When you look at it from a distance, you see colors and patterns, but up close, it's just the scraps of everyday life. Ultimately, the piece disappoints, because the artist hasn't found a way to energize bits of envelope.

The strongest piece in the show may be "Cone Field," a video installation by Megan Roberts and Raymond Ghirardo of Ithaca, New York. It consists of about a dozen white cones (some as tall as three feet) onto which are projected a series of videos that animate their surface and make them seem to move. In addition, there is a sound component -- a low hum that is sometimes punctuated with what sounds like running water. This is an ingenious piece. First of all, it has a stereophonic quality. The sound comes from three different positions in the darkened room, and so does the group of images projected onto the cones. Those images include natural textures, pages of text, and computer-animated figures. There is a ritualistic feel in all this. It's as though one is witnessing the religious rites of some obscure cult. The cones evoke hooded Ku Klux Klan members, icicles, or spare pieces of modern sculpture, but once the light-and-sound show begins, they shed their previous associational baggage, and we have to revise our preconceived notions. That, it seems, is the key to this piece. These cones change meaning from moment to moment, and they challenge us to be flexible enough to account for all the changes. This is a subtle, multilayered video work that casts a spell. It's one of the best video pieces to be seen in Cleveland in recent memory.

Surface Tensions is a show more about expressing ideas than anything else. The viewer only sporadically has a sense of an artist starting with an interesting concept and then following through by creating a visually compelling work. The best work here -- "Cone Field" and Patterson's resin- and paint-covered shapes -- combines both aspects: the conceptual and visual. It's an uneven show, but certain works in it make it worth a visit.

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