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It's All in Your Head 

Conditions are right when the art speaks to the viewer's thoughts and experiences.

"Seam (An Exercise in Joining)," by Alison Crocetta, mixed media.
  • "Seam (An Exercise in Joining)," by Alison Crocetta, mixed media.
The current group show at Spaces is called Atmospheric Conditions, but it's not as rarefied as all that. It's simply an exhibit that uses common materials in unpredictable ways, and the results can be thought-provoking. But the viewer is so aware of the novel use of these materials that the message sometimes gets lost in the process.

Ed Osborn's take on car racing, for example, is undeniably clever. His video shows scenes at a racetrack in slow motion. Film, according to Osborn, must be dedicated to exposing its own artifice. By slowing the car race down, Osborn goads us into noticing that we are not watching real life, but rather a film. It's as though he's telling us: "Don't believe any of this. It's a lie." If the excruciatingly slow pace weren't enough to drive this idea home, Osborn includes a scene during which some members of a pit crew walk away from the camera, but then one slips as though he's stepped on a banana peel. He falls backward, but never hits the ground. He remains suspended until Osborn dissolves to the next shot.

If the work says anything about car racing (it's really more about the process of filmmaking), it's that this pastime has been invested with too much significance over the years, and that a bit of mockery is in order. The problem with this video is that, once one gets the gist, there isn't much else to sustain attention. Like many filmmakers before him, Osborn is interested in the self-conscious aspects of the medium. But that doesn't guarantee that the results will be compelling. Osborn's only original touch is to play these theoretical games in the process of filming a sporting event -- another game.

A second Osborn work is quirkier than the first, but even less satisfying. In "Night-Sea Music," many small music boxes (all playing the same folk tune, but not in unison) are driven by electric motors attached with rubber cables. As the music plays, the rubber cables wriggle like sperm viewed under a microscope. The title refers to a short story by the prolific American writer John Barth that fancifully chronicles the life of a single spermatozoan. The music boxes play a folk tune called "The Merry Widow," which, Osborn says, is "a wink and a nod towards the overwhelmingly futile energies expended by all those determined sperm." Indeed, this kind of art is all about winks and nods -- it speaks to the converted and shuts out everyone else. What does the music mean? Apparently, these sperm have been looking for an egg to fertilize, but till now, they haven't found it. The music in this context is appropriate because, to quote Barth's story, "It is spent old swimmers, disabused of every illusion, who are most vulnerable to dreams." This work is an example of art that adds up to less than the sum of its allusions.

No more compelling than Osborn's work, but lower on the pretension meter is Alison Crocetta's "Seam (An Exercise in Joining)." This 11-panel piece consists of a series of interlocking circles, cubes, and triangles on wax paper. These shapes are held in place by pins that are hinged but not permanently connected. According to Crocetta, the combination of connection with impermanence suggests "the shape of memory wherein relationships are built through association." Many theorists see knowledge this way (in terms of large networks of associations). If someone reads the word "bicycle," for instance, this concept triggers the recall of related concepts such as airplane, car, and bus. Some psychologists have even attempted to map this procedure: The length of a line between two concepts represents the strength of the association, with shorter lines indicating stronger associations. That, it seems, is what Crocetta is doing with this multipanel work. She's trying to render the processes of the mind visually. The pins, in this context, function like those arrows in medical textbooks that suggest how blood flows through the body's veins. They tell us that the mind is always making new associations. Unfortunately, this art is chiefly verbal. Although Crocetta's concept is sound, the results fall flat because these 11 panels are drab as visual statements.

This work has a redeeming quality, and that is the process that led to it. It is fitting that, in creating a piece subtitled "An Exercise in Joining," Crocetta acknowledges "Stephanie Rozene, without whose generous help this work could not be realized." Association is the basis of memory, Crocetta seems to say, but cooperation with others (another kind of "association") is integral to artistic creation.

Crocetta's use of the concept of association in this second way (as a shorthand reference to friendship) gives her work a feminist charge. Many feminist art historians have emphasized art as a collaborative enterprise. In doing so, they have questioned the popular stereotype of the artist as a solitary genius. Instead, by stressing the notion of art as a shared, communal experience, they have redirected attention to the value of traditional domestic arts such as quilting. Crocetta's cerebral art on the complexity of memory is also a quilt, which she created with the help of someone else.

The work of Andy L. Mauery doesn't have this kind of intricacy, but his brand of simplicity is compelling. These installations, formed from fiber and wax, energize the gallery space: They are both familiar and strange all at once. "Touch Curtain," for instance, is an installation consisting of monofilament and wax. It indeed resembles a curtain -- except that the threads hanging from the ceiling look like human hair, and the chunks of dried wax melted onto the falling hair make it resemble a strange plant form. What is happening here? The piece's fluidity and sense of weightlessness recall plants that thrive under water (in the ocean, the deeper you go, the stranger the life forms get). Although the artist's statement emphasizes our "inability to decide on fixed experiences and definitions," the forms are thought-provoking, and that, finally, is what counts.

Kathleen McCarthy's "Slant" is also an effective piece. The work has roots in the minimalist tradition, which burst forth on the art scene during the '60s. If Jackson Pollock, the abstract expressionist, had said that his drip paintings were expressions of his unconscious, minimal artists sought to deemphasize the role that artists played in their own work. The art wasn't supposed to be about them: It was supposed to stand solely on the integrity of its own forms. Even minimalism had a hidden content, though, and McCarthy's work reminds us of that.

"Slant" is essentially a one-liner about how things are different depending on where you stand, but it works because every word in that one line is well-chosen. The artist has strung monofilament from three columns diagonally across a long rectangular area of the gallery. Different areas of the vertical walls of these wires are illuminated, depending on where you stand. The effect is of moving around in a space that is both there and not there. English poet William Wordsworth once wrote that "we half-create what we perceive," and this clever installation is a reminder of that.

This group show, in fact, is at its most effective when the art acknowledges the viewer's presence. It's billed as a show in which four artists explore the subtleties of space, and this description, the artists tell us, is accurate as long as one acknowledges that the "space" being referred to is not merely the gallery space, but our inner spaces -- where memories and experiences are stored.

Charles Yannopoulos can be reached at charles.yannopoulos@clevescene.com.

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