If men are from Mars, the protest artists at SPACES must be from Pluto.

Prattle of the Sexes 

If men are from Mars, the protest artists at SPACES must be from Pluto.

Relationship gurus like John Gray (of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus fame) and Deepak Chopra (is anybody anxiously awaiting the hip-hop musical he's preparing based on his tips and incantations?) would feel right at home with some of the art on display at Cleveland's SPACES Gallery. This Side Up, an exhibit featuring five artists, explores the conflicts that arise in personal relationships while also scrutinizing more formal matters such as the effects of a light source on spray foam. And after the pasty lessons on dangerous liaisons, these formal works are a restorative, like a cool mango ice following a heavy main course.

Taking the dance of intimacy as one's theme requires quite a bit of courage. The early twentieth-century German poet Rai-ner Maria Rilke once remarked that it takes a fully ripened talent to create insightful and original work in genres where great artists have already achieved success. But though the artists at SPACES work assiduously to nurture new growth in genres where good traditions exist in abundance, there is no fully ripened talent here--or even a partially ripe one. Instead, one comes away with the feeling of depths unplumbed and ambiguities scarcely appreciated. Even simpletons like Gray and Chopra would be unimpressed.

Bryan Bennett's "Love ... Contact," for instance, is a silly work. Silly not in the way that Barney is silly (a smiling dinosaur that makes children sing can't be all bad), but silly in the way that someone like Adam Sandler is silly (as a guy who attempts to make arrested emotional development funny, while trying to show that Mrs. Graham in the third grade was right when she said you could do anything if you put your mind to it, can be). A wooden wheel about six feet high has little floral sculptures made of wood affixed to its outer edge. The wheel is crumbling at its base, as though it has landed on the gallery floor with a thud, and it's fitted with an audio mechanism that repeats recorded messages (nothing here that could impeach a president, though).

Every few moments, a man's voice says "I love you" (the intonation sometimes changes, though the accent is always on "love"). Then comes a statement such as "My car sounds funny." Or "Can I have another pillow?" Or "Damn, my watch stopped." The fact that the circle has crumbled at its base suggests that things don't always go well when men and women get together (circle = harmony; circle disturbed = disharmony; get it?). We never hear the woman's voice. How she might feel about being given a steady diet of "I love you's" from someone who immediately follows them up with these idiotic rejoinders is, alas, left to the viewer's imagination. Love, Bennett might be telling us, is not inconsistent with these gaseous mutterings, since the very fact that a man is free to act idiotic in front of a woman only shows how much he loves her. Sandleresque logic. Our anonymous male says many things, and as he does, the audio portion of this work almost makes one forget the circle's crumbled base. Sandleresque perseverance. And all the benefits of Chinese water torture, with no wasted water.

Works by Noah Loesberg, such as "Foam and Lights" and "Pallet, Mo-tors," are modest in their intent. But what a relief after "Love . . . Contact" to encounter an artist who is interested in shapes and repetition and shadows and rhythm. In "Foam and Lights," light bulbs affixed to foam boards reveal unexpected variations in the texture of the foam, and since some of the bulbs haven't been turned on, shadows are cast. The foam boards are propped against the gallery wall, and each has at least one bulb that hasn't been illuminated, so the shadows are cast in different places, and texture is explored in different sections of the board. One does not focus on where the power source for all this light may be; one is drawn to the way the light hits the material and the unexpected variations in texture that are disclosed. It's a simple work, but strikingly clean in its concept and execution.

That same clarity informs "Pallet, Motors," a metal base upon which the artist has arranged a series of little motors. The motors are in the shape of fire hydrants, and their circular red tips seem to emit heat when you bend down to inspect them. This is a clever study in repetition; the motors seem evenly spaced from one another, but the red tips never fall where you expect them to fall. It is ironic that these fire hydrant-like motors give off heat; Loesberg is encouraging us to look at the shape and design of the objects that he has set before us rather than their purpose. Without hoopla, he manages to raise questions about the relationship between form and function.

Sadly, the viewer is led back to the sickroom of relationship dysfunction with works by Kim Humphreys. "Mickey's Quilt" is a quilted comforter on which the artist has arranged a series of flattened beer-company bottle caps, each of which bears the same image of a humanoid bee, its fists clenched, its face screwed in anger, and its stinger exposed. It seems the idea here is to contrast the comforter with beer and the insects (men) who consume it. To make the obvious even more obvious, the comforter echoes the shape of a woman's dress. Protest art is tiresome when it is this shrill.

Humphreys also mounts and frames a print of a 1950s snowball fight between two ten-year-old boys and accompanies it with the caption, "You're Fucked." Expectations are shattered, all right: These kids could be Wally and Beaver Cleaver. But if the artist is suggesting that male violence has its origins in prepubescent snowball fights, she needs to find a more convincing means of conveying that opinion. A provocative caption is too slender a vehicle to galvanize an artist's anger into a convincing statement. These works might serve a private therapeutic function but are no stronger as art for having fulfilled that function.

Jan Zorman, the only Clevelander featured in the exhibit, takes a ball of yarn and weaves a spell of enchantment with the whimsical installation "Sitting in the Imaginary Chair." Thin dark yarn (suspended with the help of transparent filament) is arranged in a white room to suggest the outlines of a chair. Forms are suggested with the yarn, and the viewer completes the space by connecting imaginary dots and reconciling the rudimentary chair in the center of the room with its real-life variants. Along the way, Zorman poses the platonic question, "What makes a chair a chair?" Above all, though, there's a sophisticated kind of playfulness that comes from the artist's skillful manipulation of unprepossessing material.

The art in This Side Up that deals with relationships or the war of the sexes is either grating (in Humphreys's case) or laughable (in Bennett's). And that's unfortunate for anyone who wants to see artists assume their rightful place in the social discourse. Pseudophilosophical commentary about male/female dynamics, after all, is rife in contemporary life. But art will not even be able to get a word in edgewise on this debate if arrested emotional development and confessional theatrics rule the artistic day. The work that succeeds in This Side Up--Zorman's "Sitting in the Imaginary Chair" and Loesberg's journeys to a place where form and function don't mix--does so because it knows what it's about. It's not earthshaking, but it's honest and inventive. And it's self-confident enough not to kick Beaver Cleaver when he's down.

This Side Up. Through February 19 at SPACES, 2200 Superior Viaduct, 216-621-2314.

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