Say It With Feeling

Abstract pieces are long on theory, short on emotion in CSU's new art exhibit.

Abstraction: Two to Three. Cleveland State Art Gallery, 2307 Chester Avenue. 216-687-2103. Through November 24.
"Crossfire" (detail), by Christine Tarkowski, mixed media.
"Crossfire" (detail), by Christine Tarkowski, mixed media.
There is an ongoing debate in the art world about which is more powerful -- paint on a flat surface or the arrangement of shapes in actual space. Stated another way, is sculpture intrinsically superior to painting? It's fitting that a gallery affiliated with a university should tackle this academic question, but, ultimately, work stands or falls not on whether it addresses an issue, but on whether it is any good.

The 12 artists in Abstraction: Two to Three, the current show at the Cleveland State Art Gallery, grapple with the middle ground between two and three dimensions. In doing so, their works often combine painting and sculpture in an attempt to reach a rich hybrid. The artists represented in this exhibit are the scientists of their profession: They want to engineer abstract three-dimensional sculpture that nevertheless includes elements of painting. But most of these artists fail in their admittedly difficult task. Because it has neither the physicality and spontaneity commonly associated with sculpture nor the mysteriousness associated with painting, much of this work is confusing on a conceptual level. It's not surprising, then, that the work is uneven in terms of quality. Although one sometimes admires the intentions of these artists, the results are what count. And since the results are often prosaic, this exhibit is ultimately disappointing.

The work of Gary Mesa-Gaido typifies the major problem here. Although his artistic statement leads one to expect revelations (he, after all, was influenced by "the new science, post-structuralism, fractal geometry, post-structural philosophy, and non-Euclidean and non-Platonic solids"), the experience that one gets when viewing the art is along the lines of "I wonder how long he had to spend at his sketch pad in order to come up with those unusual shapes?"

Resembling brightly colored Rubik's Cubes affixed to the wall, these are not conventional shapes that one sees every day. Instead, the artist has modified squares and triangles, and has applied color to their surfaces in an attempt to "show how modernism has separated the two worlds of art and science, and distorted their relationships." To get there, the art first "questions the ideas found in the Fibonacci number series, the Golden Section, the ideas of Fuller and Le Corbusier, and human systems in general."

When one is contemplating a new piece of art, it is not a good sign when the artist's statement comes across as more creative than what's on the wall. Perhaps this is the viewer's fault and not Mesa-Gaido's. (If one does not understand the ideas of visionary thinker Buckminster Fuller and French architect Le Corbusier, the artist might argue that this significantly limits one's ability to appreciate his work.) Even so, there is something disquieting about this artist's statement that seems to be telling viewers not to expect to be moved unless they understand the Fibonacci number series (and all sorts of other stuff). It's work like this, with its combination of a priori knowledge and emotional coldness, that keeps people away from galleries in droves and gives frequent gallerygoers a headache.

Less brainy but no more successful is work such as Kuniko Tanaka's "Untitled," a board on which the artist has affixed hundreds of aspirin. So uniform is the surface, one could confuse it for a white rectangular board from a distance. Tanaka's take on abstraction has something in common with pop art, which uses commonly found materials such as air-mail stickers to explore the repetition and standardization found in all phases of modern life. The question is not whether it's been done before (it has); the question is whether there is anything striking about Tanaka's variation on the theme. Tanaka might be suggesting that people who may have nothing else in common are nonetheless common consumers of this product. Or that mass production, supposedly a bane of modern life, can't be all bad if it churns out something that has such demonstrable benefits. There is nothing unusual -- no interesting quirk or turn of mind -- in such ideas. The problem with work like this is not that it evokes an earlier style, but that it does not add anything of its own to that style.

Works such as Christine Tarkowski's installation called "Crossfire" are purely sculptural. This is a freestanding work that can be approached from all sides. Unlike the piece by Tanaka and the ones by Mesa-Gaido, it is not affixed to the wall and does not, as a result, bear resemblance to the two-dimensional surface with which painters must grapple. Tarkowski's work consists of a hollow rectangular enclosure fashioned from aluminum (the exterior) and red felt (the interior). The aluminum exterior is pock-marked with 9mm bulletholes. The holes in the aluminum, in turn, expose the red felt lining of the interior. This would appear to suggest what can happen when innocent bystanders are caught up in the "crossfire" of modern life: People are trapped in the aluminum enclosure and are susceptible to attacks from the outside.

The artist has taken pains to suggest that there is a connection between the bulletholes and the red felt, so the enclosure might represent the interior of a body and the aluminum outer shell its exterior. Aluminum is a relatively flimsy metal, and so the piece also seems to be about vulnerability and about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This installation might be read as a commentary about the violence in pre-millennial American cities, and it's one of the more successful pieces here.

Also successful are the abstract sculptures of London-based artist John Atkin. If one is willing to ignore certain incomprehensible statements by the British professor, who has written a catalog essay about his sculptures (a sample: "They are mysterious works because they seem so replete with individual character, especially when viewed en masse"), there is much food for thought here. Atkin's work, in the manner of cubists like Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, plays with overlapping planes on a flat surface. In cubism there was a suggestion of depth that evolved from the use of such overlapping planes, and Atkin's sculptural work is a continuation of that tradition.

For instance, Atkin piles on several similarly shaped plywood blocks, paints the surfaces, and then affixes the finished product to the wall by way of a hook at the top. The subdued reds, blues, and browns -- often manipulated to simulate the mottled surface of rust-coated industrial objects -- are skillfully alternated. Color becomes a compositional element: A blue shark-fin form at the bottom of "Whorlton Lido" is repeated in a larger but similarly colored shape at the top right of that sculpture. Although the placement of shapes guarantees that one can never be sure about what is in the foreground, what is the background, and what, if anything, is in between, there is pleasure in seeing how the artist has taken disparate shapes and turned them into integral parts of a sculptural drama.

This exhibit, with the exception of Atkin's fine sculptures and Christine Tarkowski's thought-provoking installation, is a reminder that much art nowadays has withdrawn from the rhythms of everyday life to delve into subject matter that, if it is to reach the audience's mind and heart, requires rare communication abilities. Artists always take a big risk when they reject their personal experiences to illustrate theories out of a textbook. Such art, unless one has the wherewithal to personalize it by infusing it with feeling, is invariably boring. Erudite artists' statements will not conceal that fact.

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