at the Randolph Street Gallery

The phrase “talking back” connotes a certain amount of defiance, a tone with an edge, probably confrontational. But the works included in the current show of five artists at Randolph Street Gallery are anything but overtly confrontational. They’re thoughtful, complex, and even poetic, which is not to say they lack anger or spirit. The artists in “BackTalk” cull significant fragments of information, both visual and verbal, from popular culture, historical documents, and their own lives and piece them together into new combinations, calling attention in the process to troubling aspects or previously unseen meanings of the original texts and images. Their specific concerns are wide-ranging, but they are linked by a common interest in problems of difference in American society.

Who Dis/Covers–Who Dis/Colors is the title of an installation by Esther Parada, a photography professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She utilizes photographs, videos, newspaper reproductions, and other documents to chronicle the efforts of the National DuSable Memorial Society to erect a memorial in honor of Jean Baptiste Point DuSable (the black man who was the first settler of Chicago) at the Century of Progress Exhibition in 1933. For viewers unfamiliar with the subject, Parada provides a wealth of information: on one wall are reproductions of letters between the DuSable Society founders and World’s Fair officials; on a second wall, a series of 21 descriptions of DuSable, culled from books, magazines, and newspapers dating from 1884 to 1982; on a third wall, 12 reproductions of pages from the Chicago Defender of 1933 and color Xeroxes of World’s Fair souvenir postcards. Shown continuously are video interviews conducted by Parada–the video running when I saw the show featured Lillian O’Neil, daughter of a DuSable Society founder–and placed on a shelf are a number of ring binders containing such materials as a Xerox copy of the 1933 World’s Fair guidebook, texts on DuSable’s role in Chicago history, blank pages for viewer comments, and scholarly articles on black representation at the fair.

Parada does more than display an impressive amount of information–the manner in which she has arranged it calls attention to issues not directly addressed in the displayed documents. For example, the 12 pages of the Defender, hung in two horizontal rows, describe fair exhibits as well as incidents of racial strife; cutting across the wall between the two rows is a long line of colorful souvenir postcards commemorating the fair’s many attractions–but there’s no postcard about the DuSable cabin, and all of the depicted fairgoers are white. The only blacks to appear in these souvenir images are included on a postcard advertising the production of rubber on a Firestone plantation in Africa.

In her video interview, O’Neil notes that after finally overcoming opposition from fair officials, raising funds, and erecting the DuSable cabin replica, the society found their memorial was virtually ignored in the fair publicity materials. The only mention DuSable receives is buried on page 125 within a long section on Fort Dearborn. No photos of the cabin replica are included, though space was found for a photo of Rutledge Tavern, where (according to the guidebook) Abraham Lincoln “wooed and won Ann Rutledge.”

Parada has devised a strategy that rectifies this omission: in large vinyl photomurals hung on the gallery’s exterior she has superimposed over an enlarged image of the Fort Dearborn replica a photo showing the women of the DuSable Society gathered around the memorial cabin at the fair. By retrieving and repositioning existing images and texts, Parada shows that art can be a catalyst for change in the viewer’s awareness and indicates one way in which historical exhibits can incorporate diverse experiences and viewpoints.

Celia Munoz, an artist from Arlington, Texas, has also created an installation for the show, which fills the gallery’s large back room. Composed of paintings, street signs, and porch chairs, Postales (“postcards”) constitutes a complex reminiscence of childhood desires and perceptions revolving around issues of identity. Hanging from the ceiling are nine pairs of street signs referring to a dual cultural identity. They bear such names as “Ibarra/Eyebara,” “Telles/Tays,” “Cypress/Seepres.” Placed on the walls are large paintings depicting various houses, with an emphasis on porches, greenery, and flowers; interspersed with these are scrolls made of primed unstretched canvas bearing both text and images. Finally, at the rear of the room Munoz has placed three metal porch chairs painted pink, yellow, and blue.

The design of the scrolls’ lettering and illustration recalls that of grammar-school primers. But instead of the stories about Dick, Jane, and Spot that the style leads us to expect, Munoz provides first-person accounts of a child’s life that poignantly chronicle experiences of difference. Their meaning is paralleled by the actions of the colorful, precisely rendered insects that accompany them.

The large paintings of houses, porches, and flowers evoke a varied community but perhaps also many moves or ruptures in a child’s life. Painted mostly in black and white, with the edges of forms blurred as though slightly out of focus, they have the look of snapshots retrieved from memory. Only certain parts of the paintings are rendered in color–flowers mostly–and only exteriors are presented; for me, these paintings evoked endless summers spent outdoors. Munoz’s roses are especially bright–they press forward in space, nearly separating themselves from their black-and-white surroundings, as if bridging the gulf from the past to the present. It’s nearly impossible to summarize the effect of Munoz’s installation; somehow both pain and joy lurk beneath and between her images and props.

David Keating, an artist residing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, also offers poetic combinations of images that are both topical and highly personal. The central element of his piece titled Bride is a gilt-framed formal black-and-white photograph of a young bride dating from the 50s; in the eight sections of a larger frame surrounding the wedding photo Keating has placed text fragments that illuminate each other as well as the life of the young woman. Placed on each side of the photo are handwritten letters, one from a young woman to her mother, explaining her decision to enter a convent and asking for her mother’s acceptance, and one from mother to daughter expressing love, misgivings, and her intention to support her daughter’s decision. Other sections of the larger frame contain what appear to be excerpts from instructions for novices: “There will always be crosses and worries to remind us that we are really and truly Spouses of Christ so let us take them gently and resignedly as God wants us to.” At the bottom Keating has included a typed section of an unidentified manuscript citing instances of misogyny and sexism in the writings of church fathers–it quotes, for example, Saint John Chrysostom as likening a woman’s body to “a white-washed tombstone, for inside it is full of filth.”

Keating’s juxtaposition of words and image quietly allows us to enter an individual woman’s life and ponder her key decisions. We wonder if the pictured bride decided to leave the convent and whether the oppressive attitudes about women conveyed in the texts affected her decision. Certainly the lacy gown and veil she wears suggest another set of stereotypes and conventions that can be just as oppressive. Far from being merely sentimental, the letters are crucial elements in this piece. Through them we glimpse the hearts and minds of the two women; their words ring truer than the stilted admonitions and condemnatory writings of church authorities.

This piece, along with Keating’s other two in the show–The Pope and Will Rogers and The Kiss–shows us that neither photographs nor texts can wholly convey the fullness of an individual’s self, which dances only half-materialized between words and images. The differences Keating explores are those between public perceptions and private realities, and between institutional or societal expectations and the needs of the individual.

Chicago artist Philip Soo uses both photography and sculpture to explore the theme of difference in urban and suburban settings. His Nine Cubi, a group of mixed-media sculptures arranged in a grid, recalls the settings children build for model trains. Each of the nine two-foot-square wood stands bears a different configuration of similar elements: fake grass, black sandpaper driveway, four trees made of twigs and what looks like raw wool dyed green, a tiny deck, shrubs, front steps, and sidewalks. These models of suburban property emphasize conformity as well as isolation: literally separate from one another, they don’t form a continuous whole, a community. And the expected central element–the home–is missing. This omission raises questions–is the home itself, as a locus of individuality, not admissible in a perfect model? Or does its absence indicate a lack of soul or center? This ambiguity is the work’s greatest strength; on the surface its critique of the presence or absence of difference in the suburbs covers well-worn territory.

Soo’s black-and-white photographs explore notions of difference as well. In a group of self-portraits titled Headshots he dons a variety of clothing props–a baseball cap worn backward and a sleeveless T-shirt in one, a white dress shirt, tie, and glasses in another–suggesting that stereotypes of dress reveal little about an individual even as they seem to define a person’s identity. In one of the photographs he pulls his eyelids up and back; in appropriating this gesture he renders it absurd. Another series of black-and-white photographs titled Chicago Candids observes economic and racial differences between servers and consumers in business transactions at a shoe-shine parlor, a hotel, a dry cleaners, and two fast food restaurants. Here, too, clothes are telling: the servers wear unattractive uniforms while the consumers retain individuality of dress. With their richness of detail and apparent spontaneity, the Chicago Candids give the viewer much more to ponder than do the staged Headshots and the abstracted suburb of Nine Cubi.

Gary Simmons, a young artist from New York, is represented here by two “erasure drawings” and his Eraser Chair. The latter, a school chair covered with dark gray felt from blackboard erasers, is placed in front of two large rectangles (one green, one black) painted directly on a wall of the gallery. On one of these oversize blackboards Simmons has drawn in chalk and then partly erased the cartoon birds Heckle and Jeckle; on the other he has drawn and also partly erased a flock of crows from the animated feature Dumbo. The blackboards, as sites for the transmission of knowledge and “truth,” are obvious symbols of the power of authority; in turn, the eraser chair can be seen as a symbol of empowerment, signifying the ability of an individual to erase untruths. But more contextual information is needed if the piece is to prompt the viewer beyond such superficial considerations. Viewers unfamiliar with the cartoon birds and the fact that they represent negative portrayals of blacks in popular culture will unfortunately miss an important point of the piece.

Overall, “BackTalk” is a compelling show. For the most part the artists shown here prove adept at effectively combining their materials, simultaneously peeling away falsities and constructing a much richer and more accurate picture of American society. Parada’s installation in particular amply rewards time spent viewing and reading its many elements–without being didactic it educates the viewer, serves as a model for nonconfrontational yet actively committed art, and cautions us to be wary when evaluating historical documents, to question whom they are written for and whom they exclude.