Take a Letter -- Please

A new show about text in modern art getsan "A" for effort and a "zzz" for relevance.

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The Mandel Jewish Community Center's decision to put an art exhibit in the atrium of its athletic facility is a risky enough proposition. Most joggers at the conclusion of a workout don't want to struggle with complicated linguistic concepts; they'd rather just have a cold Snapple. But apart from the question of whether Beyond and Between: Text in Contemporary Art will garner the attention it demands is whether these artists, who've been gathered here to collapse the distinction between text and visuals in contemporary art, are able to do what they've set out to do--and, secondly, whether it really matters. The answer to the first question is a qualified yes. The answer to the second is, for the most part, a resounding no.

To understand why a group of artists would care about such things, it helps to revisit the 1960s, when people like Sol Lewitt set out to disassociate art from long-held assumptions. Where previously many artists had attempted to dazzle the eye, Lewitt and others sought to deflect attention from the visual appearance of artworks by emphasizing the ideas they expressed. As Lewitt and others practiced it, "conceptual art" was made to engage the viewer's mind rather than his emotions. The idea got a makeover in the 1970s, when artists like Arakawa began creating paintings in which words or phrases were seconded by threadlike forms. Arakawa's goal: to stimulate the eye as he went about his main task of setting the imagination spinning.

Most of the artists in the Mandel exhibit are closer in spirit to second-generation conceptualists like Arakawa than founders like Lewitt. But though they want to erase the boundaries between text and visual images, there's a conceptual fuzziness about most of the entries in this exhibit that lessens their impact. Often, in place of ambiguity, we get Berlin Wall implacability.

Take for instance John Byrum's work, which represents a throwback to the most austere phase of late-'60s conceptualism. In a series of ten individual pieces titled "1.1-1998 through 1.10-1998," Byrum arranges block letters on predominantly gray backgrounds in an effort to explore the way words are used to create meaning. Byrum challenges the viewer with a counter-intuitive notion: that the gray areas stand for places where there are actually so many words there's no sense trying to depict them. One thinks of atlases of the world in the old days, with unexplored regions marked in white and given the designation "unknown."

Still, mental gymnastics like this leave the viewer with close to nothing in the end: The gray surfaces are mind-numbing rather than engaging, and any content must be gleaned from Byrum's written statement, in which the artist states his intentions with all the subtlety of a pamphleteer. The idea that a surfeit of language can make you draw a blank may be interesting, but it hardly needs visual elaboration. A sheet of paper with that idea written down would achieve the same effect as this ten-panel series.

More communicative is the work of Peggy Kwong Gordon, which is constructed from ancient Chinese pictograms. Anyone who has marveled at the intrinsic elegance of Chinese script and wondered how Chinese schoolchildren are taught such a complex calligraphic technique will understand why an artist would consider layering pictograms together in complex prints. Indeed, these works have the richness of oil paintings, with dense textures and swathes of dark color temporarily relieved by the brightly rendered pictograms. Unfortunately, however, the full meaning of the works will be lost on viewers who can't read Chinese; the symbols are translated in an explanatory panel at the beginning of the exhibit, but not alongside the artworks. As a result, Gordon's textures and colors are appreciated as independent achievements instead of as elements that vivify a larger whole.

An accident of placement might be partially responsible for this. For some reason these prints have been hung on a wall that's inaccessible to the viewer (unless the JCC wants to supply a crane). The wall stands behind a railing and across from a hallway that leads to a basketball court, so one is forced to view these works from at least ten feet away. Prints are a medium that demand the closest kind of scrutiny; many only begin to make sense after you view them with your nose practically touching the frame. Lack of display space is the likely culprit for the JCC's long-distance approach, but the effect is to conceal the works' virtues.

George Fitzpatrick, who has gained a reputation as one of Northeast Ohio's most important artists, and who is currently represented by the Salander O'Reilly Gallery in New York, transcribes an-cient texts in a calligraphy of his own devising. Fitzpatrick's art is painstakingly precise, and his calligraphy is a canny combination of dots, "S" shapes, and abbreviated letter formations. The net effect evokes the intricate pattern of a snake's skin--an appropriate effect, since the text he's chosen to illustrate in "A Stroll Through the Lower World" is the ancient Greek rhetorician Lucian's venomous dialogue about Diogenes and his friends taking a walk through Hades.

A far cry from Fitzpatrick's clever blending of visuals with text is the guilelessly simple "Journal Drawing Series" by Liz Maugans, which evokes Depression-era folk art. Maugans discovered a journal from a Lima, Ohio woman who, during the teens and twenties of this century, described her life and her social milieu in exacting detail. Maugans set about illustrating the journal, and she proves an empathic translator, lending literal and figurative color to some of its more touching passages. For example, the Lima woman expresses bewilderment at the "names of the crowd" who remembered her 53rd birthday. Maugans chooses a rough, cardboard-like surface and pins to it strips of paper bearing the names of the well-wishers. She encloses all the strips in an irregularly drawn circle and relies on vivid reds and purples to unify the work. With this off-circle--the kind a kid might draw on a blackboard--she finds a visual analogy to the diarist's childlike astonishment.

Folk art typically assumes that the common life is good; even art produced in prisons during the Depression seemed convinced of a better life beyond the chain gang. Maugans appears to be straining to draw some inspiration from her long-dead subject, but with the exception of the birthday collage, she never really differentiates between emotionally charged insight and crushingly boring reportage. The woman was thrifty, but so was half the country after World War I ended. She documented changes in the weather; so did millions of farmers. She was delighted that people remembered her 53rd birthday. That's potentially very interesting, because it's idiosyncratic, but it also begs the question: Was the woman delighted because people had forgotten her birthday before (which would suggest the childlike vulnerability of which Maugans seems convinced)? Or did she express the same amazement when people remembered her 52nd birthday (which would suggest that mock emotion was part of her emotional makeup)? Maugans doesn't convince us that her appropriation of these journal entries is anything but an attempt to understand how the Waltons must have lived before they were on TV.

Maugans leaps from The Waltons to NYPD Blue in her gritty "Commandments" series, which is as postmodern as the journal series is reactionary. Typical is "Fill Out This Form," which places the title phrase in stenciled letters against a muddy, blue-black background. In the lower portion of the frame is a picture of a woman's dress. This is the form waiting to be filled--and the title of the piece is thus charged with sexual implications. Maugans's point is that context is critical--a less than striking observation, delivered without any compensating visual heft.

One work seems to sum up the problem with which many of these artists are struggling. In Wendy Collin Sorin's "A Language Malfunction," a collaboration between the artist and an unnamed poet, a number of parentheses are punctuated by two nearly identical images of a mountain. In one image, the sun has risen above a cliff; in the other, the sun isn't visible, but its rays of light are. Beneath the first image is the caption "what we see"; beneath the second, "what is true."

The point being that context is all. And that artists are the true arbiters of the relationship between text and visuals. Relevant concepts, both, and ones to which Lewitt and the other conceptualists of the past devoted much time and attention. The artists in Beyond and Between return to these conceptual stomping grounds, but with rare exceptions they fail to significantly alter the terrain. In the end, it's as though they weren't even there.

Beyond and Between: Text in Contemporary Art, through May 28 at the Mandel Jewish Community Center, 26001 South Woodland Road, 216-831-0700.

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