at the Hyde Park Art Center, through July 16

Detour: Sculpture, Drawings, Video, and Photography by Robert “Jake” Jacobs

at RX, through July 12

Elizabeth Newman

at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, through July 12

By Fred Camper

What constitutes interactive art is no easy question. John Dewey made the broad claim that any artwork is completed only “in the experience of others.” Yet many go too far in the other direction and confuse interactivity with physical interaction, as Adelheid Mers and Jackie Terrassa point out in the exhibition booklet they wrote as curators of the Hyde Park Art Center group show “Present.” For this exhibit they chose to tread a fine line, looking for artists “who were interested in exploring possibilities…but [who] resisted the impulse to impose definitive answers to the questions their own work raised.” The result is an open-ended playfulness and a balance between the viewer’s and the artist’s roles.

In this respect “Present” is a welcome contrast to the Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Performance Anxiety” exhibition, now in its final days. While the interactivity of the MCA works is overly literal, almost authoritarian, only some of the artwork in “Present”–by seven current art-school students or recent graduates, all but one from the Chicago area–suggests it should be touched. And one of the appealing aspects of the show is the variety of physical and mental interactions offered, in works from Arthur Myer’s enigmatic arrangement of artifacts like old photo albums and canceled checks to Lili Martinez’s couch, with its sheaf of papers filled with her hand-written reflections.

Shuko Wada’s humorous, sprawling Masking Tape and Carpet invites the viewer to walk on it. A rectangular rug with red and tan stripes lies in a corner of the exhibition hall, great skeins of tan masking tape looped over the wall and ceiling above it like a rapidly spreading shrub. Some viewers have simply walked on the carpet, but others have gotten more involved, pressing the masking tape to the wall, where it makes a contrast with the more billowing forms of tape higher up. Together the carpet and tape make the room itself more visible, filling the negative space of the corner. A clump of tape hanging across the room suggests that these tape blobs are growing and have taken root elsewhere.

David Meyer’s similarly playful two sculptures also invite the viewer to participate directly and provoke thought: “Play,” he writes, is “an activity where knowledge can be obtained.” In Virtual Pairs, a square piece of Corian lying flat with a plate of glass on top holds hundreds of tiny lead beads; framed like a picture and mounted on a pivot, it tilts and sends the beads rolling. Stopping the beads’ motion, one can make one’s own patterns, though the method implies there’s considerable arbitrariness to image making. For The Pole of Inaccessibility, Meyer mounts five slate wheels on a pole that projects horizontally from the wall, each smaller than the one behind. An outline of Antarctica is etched on the slate wheels, which are weighted so that the coastlines match when the wheels come to rest. The viewer can spin any or all of the wheels, but the artist has the last word–make whatever image you like, Antarctica always returns in the end. One could also give this piece an ecological reading: landscape endures over human endeavor.

Lisa Conrad’s video installation, Basketball Was Her First Love, #2, combines intellectual and physical interactions with an emotional component. This work is best when viewed at its full seven-minute length and more than once. Facing the monitor and speakers is what looks like an old gym bench inviting one to sit, which immediately implicates the viewer in the piece’s autobiographical story. The speakers play the repetitive, echoing sounds of one player bouncing a ball in an empty court, while the video displays only text: scrolling rapidly from right to left are white letters on black so large that often only a part of each word is visible.

Conrad begins a statement on her piece with a quote from Roland Barthes–“To read is to make our body work”–and by presenting her story the way she does, she asks the viewer to struggle to absorb it. There’s a tension in the video too between letters as repeated abstract shapes–akin to the repeated sounds of the basketball–and as components of words and sentences, which because of the scrolling cannot be grasped at a glance. The text is fragmented as well, a mixture of specific recollections–of basketball camp, for example–and more poetic and philosophical statements. The last phrase–“patterns that the mind could replay as one continuous motion”–could describe both basketball and reading. The steady movement of the text ultimately tends to fuse its disparate subjects, suggesting that writing and reading, like life itself, are forms of play. But what’s so affecting about Basketball Was Her First Love, #2 is that the fusion is never complete. Autobiographical fragments stand out in memory–inexplicable, living facts that won’t be homogenized into pure shape or rhythm by writing or play. I still wonder why the young Lisa felt the need to get away from Joe, a need to which she ascribes her obsessive basketball practice.

Playing is also important to the works of Robert “Jake” Jacobs, eight of which are on view at RX. Only one is physically interactive, however: Play is a model railroad track that snakes like a roller coaster from about waist level to the floor. It’s supported by piles of books, most belonging to Jacobs, a few borrowed from the gallery. The track has three “rails,” and viewers can place marbles on the tracks two at a time and watch them descend. Their speed varies on different portions of the track, apparently depending on their size, offering a sort of physics lesson: one can think more calmly about gravity here than on a stomach-twisting roller coaster. Play also invites the viewer to consider the use to which these books are put. Closed, their titles are often hard to read; one might infer that Jacobs thinks every volume, from Roland Barthes to a cookbook, is less important for its content than for his own play. In his statement he writes, “A deviation can be viewed as an obstruction; it can also lead to distractions and destinations otherwise overlooked.”

Jacobs, 37, who teaches art at several Chicago colleges and compiles gallery listings for the Reader, cites Dennis Oppenheim and Marcel Duchamp as important early influences. He speaks of Duchamp’s sense of play as well as the scientific aspects of his work–and Jacobs, like Duchamp, does play with language, though in fact most of his work seems to negate it. Just as the books in Play are closed, so in two other pieces he blots out the letters of the Declaration of Independence, leaving only the upper and lower loops of its cursive script. In Declaration of Independence he literally cuts out the words, whereas in Virtual Independence he blots them out using a computer.

Jacobs, who recalls that “as far back as kindergarten I really loved to cut things out,” doubtless sees such work as another form of play. Yet it seems not insignificant that he’s obscuring our nation’s founding document–not so much to attack patriotism, however, as to undermine canonical texts. In Dictionary Pages he mounts the first four sheets of definitions from the American Heritage Dictionary one atop another with sheets of glass between them. Cutting out all the defined words on both sides of each page, he creates intelligible patterns as well as apparently random ones. Often, when the cutouts match up, one can see through to one or two lower leaves, making the piece a kind of labyrinth of absences.

Jacobs’s 20-minute video, Construction Zones, hints at a reason for these negations of words. An assemblage of long takes from a moving car of expressway construction areas, it occasionally includes the usual road signs–but more often we see construction signs, flashing lights, barrels. Here road signs–cited as languages by semioticians like Barthes–are actual impediments. Like Conrad’s video, Jacobs’s should be seen complete: it converts the irritation produced by getting nowhere into irritation at this sign-based set of barriers.

Only some works in “Present” and one of Jacobs’s are literally interactive. Yet in both cases the art requires an active viewer engaged in part by the absence of a clear primary “message.” One can have a complex and interactive relationship with an altarpiece, but its elements do not encourage argument. The playfulness of Wada’s carpet-and-tape piece and of Jacobs’s cutouts is due partly to the lack of representational imagery and apparent functionality, involving the viewer from the start.

The same might be said of Elizabeth Newman’s 29 untitled new works at Zolla/Lieberman. They look as if they were made for household use, but you wouldn’t want to eat these eggs or bathe your baby in this tub. In number 2 (on the gallery checklist) two miniature chairs affixed to the wall hold stacks of what appear to be pancakes; they also resemble communion wafers. In number 3 a curette sits next to a bowl of pinkish wax balls; possibly the piece refers to abortion, though whether it’s pro or con is impossible to determine. Number 15 is a baby-size bathtub filled with talc; a turdlike stone sits in the middle. The sides of the tub are discolored and worn, hardly the picture of cleanliness, and indeed many of Newman’s surfaces look aged or decayed. The six eggs set on racks in number 21 are pinkish with irregular discolorations; translucent yellow spots at the top of each evoke yolks–except that yolks belong inside.

One writer on Newman, who based her essay on an interview, declared that the artist’s desire is to “reconstitute, or heal, the world.” The sponges in milk in number 11 might support this view, but many other works, with their rough surfaces and odd displacements (are these mutated eggs?), suggest disease rather than healing. Newman, 44, who now lives in Connecticut but graduated, as did Jacobs, from the School of the Art Institute, expressed some reservations about that earlier essay but was reluctant to offer any other interpretations of her own work. Acknowledging her frequent references to food and our need for sustenance, she told me, “There’s something slightly abhorrent about the image we have of ourselves as animals.” Mostly, though, she wishes viewers to bring their own interests to her work, hoping that it functions “on a rather universal level.” Eva Hesse, arte povera artists Mario and Marisa Merz, and Louise Bourgeois are among the influences she mentions; I found the latter reference especially helpful.

Bourgeois’s sculptures have a psychological dimension expressed through unsettling dislocations that deny any single interpretation. Newman’s ordinary objects are familiar and readily comprehensible, yet their oddities provide defamiliarizing shocks, forcing the mind to make new connections, just as Conrad’s video and Jacobs’s cutout words do. But unlike their work and the other art in “Present,” Newman’s pieces offer singular, unforgettable images–improbable, irreducible combinations to which one can return again and again.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Masking Tape and Carpet” by Shuko Wada; “Play” by Robert “Jake” Jacobs (photo by J.B. Spector); Work by Elizabeth Newman.