at Northern Illinois University Art Gallery, through April 13

Up From the Underground

at Lineage Gallery, through April 24

By Fred Camper

One of the more peculiar trends in late-20th-century visual art is that a lot of it is becoming less visual. Beginning with 60s conceptualism, art started to purposefully lead the viewer away from optical appearances, perhaps in reaction to the sprawling, sensual canvases of abstract expressionism and pop art, which spoke through lines and rhythms, shapes and colors. Though this trend is often decried by traditionalists, it’s not always a bad thing. Art’s more likely to provoke thought and reflection when the locus of the aesthetic experience more obviously shifts to the viewer’s mind.

Most of the art in “Clarity”–an exhibit of 28 works by eight artists at the Northern Illinois University Art Gallery–may seem a little less than clear to a viewer accustomed to art as a primarily visual medium. Indeed, many works are about the inadequacy of eyesight, like Barbara Bloom’s texts printed in Braille. At a glance, the four house plans by Mark Bennett obey the standard conventions of architectural drawings, giving us overhead views that mark the the locations of doors and windows. Each drawing carries an inscription at the bottom in block letters–Home of Rob & Laura Petrie, for example–in the manner of a house plan. But closer inspection reveals these plans are more specific than usual: Bennett documents which side of the bed husband and wife sleep on, the models of television sets, a “pull-chain toilet” in a bathroom, a hole in the floor. In one drawing, a plot of land is marked “grazing area” and another “withering crops.” Bennett provides minute details about each home’s inhabitants, introducing the messy variety of daily life into the usually pristine realm of architectural plans.

But to fully understand these drawings you can’t just look at them–you have to know the residents. Rob and Laura Petrie? They’re the main characters on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Emily and Bob Hartley? The Bob Newhart Show. Oliver and Lisa Douglas? Green Acres. Bennett attempts to reconstruct the actual spaces that television implies through editing and camera angles. An art school graduate who now works as a letter carrier in Beverly Hills, Bennett began his research as a child, sitting in front of the TV making drawings that detailed the houses and environs revealed in each sitcom episode. “I’d see an episode where they featured the bathroom and draw that real quick,” he says. The present works are composites of these early drawings. “My fantasy was to build a utopian neighborhood out of all those sitcom houses, to actually live in them.”

Much of postmodernism’s TV-inspired art seems overly worshipful beneath its cutely ironic surface (I’m still recovering from an entire wall of Gumby-inspired sculptures at a local gallery some months ago). But Bennett, apparently acting out of similarly worshipful desires, offers a trenchant cultural commentary. The whole style of television–with its ersatz sets, flat lighting, character-centered panning and zooming, and talking-head close-ups–is only interested in rooms, and the objects within them, to highlight characters or to provide comic relief. We’re actively discouraged from trying to visualize where things are in space in relation to each other, lest we gain a free and independent view of the doings before us. Bennett’s drawings chronicle an obsession with TV, to be sure, and in trying to document the world of his favorite shows he gives them a degree of “realness” they typically lack. Yet at the same time his drawings provide us with exactly the kind of view that the shows exclude, illuminating the nature of commercial TV and, in a sense, releasing the viewer from its grip. In a sitcom entrances and exits are presented only when relevant to the story or for the sake of a gag; in Bennett’s drawings we can always navigate about these houses, and consequently we always know how to leave them.

Uta Barth’s series of photographs, “Ground,” do for portrait photography what Bennett’s drawings do for television. Once again, the images are puzzling at first: five out-of-focus views of colorful but apparently random landscapes. One has fuzzy red leaves; a second shows green flowering leaves; a third has a beach scene. These lovely but enigmatic images feel incomplete, and in fact that reflects the way they were made. Exhibition curator Grant Samuelsen writes in the exhibit’s booklet that “Barth selects a subject, places it against a background, removes the subject, and then photographs whatever remains.” What remains are the fuzzy backgrounds frequently seen in portraits when the lens has been focused on a subject in the foreground. It can be argued that this technique also does damage to the reality of the trees and beaches that so often provide a scenic backdrop for head shots. Barth’s images, with their oddly partial feeling, force the viewer to look at something that portrait photos commonly deny. Like Bennett’s drawings, they point to a more complete and continuous view of physical space. These two artists, perhaps the strongest in this show, critique conventions of representation by illuminating what those conventions leave out.

Spencer Finch also directs our attention to things we don’t usually notice. His five “odor” drawings purport to diagram the smells of things like the armpit of the Statue of Liberty and an abstract painting by Ad Reinhardt. These smell-o-grams are mostly blank white or pale gray sheets of paper, sometimes with a faint band of color on top. They’re witty but don’t reward repeated viewings; instead of reaching some deeper understanding, I found myself wondering why Finch’s nearly blank drawing for the smell of a Reinhardt painting looked almost identical to his drawing for the smell of the New York Stock Exchange.

Adelheid Mers’s Swarm/No Color Pink is the most eye-catching work in the exhibit, but the tricks it plays with perception make it impossible to look at passively. Each of three spotlights on the ceiling projects two adjacent light patterns on the floor; each jagged-edged shape seems to be facing its mate. The shapes are made by templates Mers placed over the spotlights. But their effect is surprising: the flat patches of light on the floor have a nearly sculptural presence. Mers’s patterns cut into the surrounding darkness, almost like a chisel cutting into stone, giving the light a powerful solidity. This almost tactile light reminded me that unless we actually touch objects their forms are known to us only through the light they reflect.

All these artists are walking along a razor’s edge; by making work so distant from the sensual and tactile qualities that served past art so well, each faces the danger of slipping into the sterility of art as theory. Tom Denlinger’s photographs, in which scenes are blocked out by some kind of dark mask, partly fall into this trap. In one photo, three small openings in the mask reveal pieces of a venetian blind, suggesting larger scenes behind both the mask and the blind; in some others the fragments are less connected. I liked their mysteriousness, but ultimately they seem contrived, and the fragments don’t always cohere. Samuelsen writes that Denlinger “problematizes” vision, using an increasingly common neologism. But is simply “problematizing” something enough? “Problematize” as a verb suggests an interest in paradox, in making something seem less rather than more comprehensible. Yet it implies a bias I cannot accept. Denlinger’s blocked-out views never become something of their own, and remain instead images of pure obstruction.

Bennett and Barth direct the mind elsewhere, ultimately offering not only a cogent critique of art but also suggesting an alternative way of looking at things. It’s nonetheless nice to be reminded that many artists are still trying to work with shape, line, and color rather than with a nexus of ideas. In “Up From the Underground,” an exhibit of 25 works by five artists at Lineage Gallery, no one has an art school degree and all but one artist are members of “minorities”–this is work far from the studied and troubled products of the mainstream art world. The best and worst works in “Clarity” are beset by a kind of “dare I paint a picture?” angst; the “Up From the Underground” artists just go ahead and do it, accepting the validity of the lines and shapes that flow from their hands.

Dzine began his artistic life doing unauthorized street paintings on Chicago’s southwest side, and his work is alive with movement; each canvas explodes with color and rhythm. Timeless is a near riot of splotches and lines, of circles and color fields. A light blue streak snaking across the center points upward at right, inviting the eye to continue its movement. Many other lines continue to the edge of the picture, as if the colors were bursting beyond the picture frame. Lines pass in front of and behind each other, suggesting depth; the inclusive mix of line, circle, and soft-edged color fields subsumes all elements into the overall dynamic movement; it’s no surprise to learn that one Dzine painting (not in this exhibit) is titled The Universe Revolves Around a Rhythm.

Lee Quinones, a New Yorker who also began as a graffiti artist and who Dzine has long admired, shows three representational paintings that convey near-explosive speed. Death on Top End is a schematic view of a car crash; a tall thin image, it has a bright car headlight at top center, and the beams of light diverging from it create the illusion of a rapidly approaching automobile. Two figures are below; one covers his eyes. Superimposed over this cringing figure is the red-and-blue outline of another car flipping over. Much of the imagery is in gray, with the feel of collaged newspaper photos; I liked the way the shapes collide with the force of a wreck.

McKinley Wells’s steel sculptures are enlivened by their upward-pointing flame shapes, and I liked Kevin Orth’s almost goofy icons and altars. Orth creates faces that have some of the intensity of religious figures–the black-lined clay head in a hubcap frame called Guardian Figure reminded me of the complex repetition-with-variation patterns on many pre-Columbian figures. But these aren’t icons for the kind of religion that comes complete with a creation story–unless that creation myth involves Looney Tunes.

Jerome Robinson’s found-object sculptures have some of the qualities of traditional religious art as well as modernist collage. Native Shout is an assemblage of diverse materials in which each element keeps its separate identity. The shovel at the center is clearly a shovel; the curved branches beside it look organic. A thick rope and an old chain hang from the center, their downward slopes bow to the force of gravity even as the upward-soaring branches seem to defy it. What’s extraordinary is how the diversity seems to heighten the power of each object; the shovel, with its blade painted in bold colors, is almost like a tribal totem, while the extreme fraying of the rope’s ends suggests entropic decay. One of Robinson’s influences, he told me, is the Yoruba belief that “if you wear or work with something long enough that piece becomes part of your aura. If it breaks you don’t throw it away; you turn it into an artwork.” The shovel in this piece had been in his family for 25 years, used by both his father and himself in construction work before it broke. Robinson, unlike the “Clarity” artists, still has a kind of faith in the expressive potential of materials, and he redeems that faith by bringing objects together in a way that makes me think about growth and decay, the natural and the organic, and the mystery inherent in all things.