at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through November 6

I knew Hollis Sigler was in trouble when I saw the compliments Chicago Tribune critic Alan Artner paid another artist, Kay Rosen. Working his way through current shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Artner dealt with Rosen first. He noted her training as a linguist, admiring her focus on the meaning of words. She never “scolds,” he said approvingly, then added: she is so good she makes her superstar competition, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, look “schoolmarmish.”

You don’t have to be a linguist to understand the subtext of compliments like those, or to suspect what might be coming next. Sure enough, when Artner got to Sigler’s 20-painting series, “The Breast Cancer Journal,” he found her “frail” symbols overworked, her oeuvre pervaded by a tone of “romanticized hysteria,” her images mute. “Perhaps this series will speak strongly to women,” he mused doubtfully, admitting that her text is moving.

In fact, the day I saw the MCA shows, a woman began to weep in the room where Sigler’s paintings hang. First one unsuccessfully stifled sob, and then a little cascade of them broke the silence and hung in the gallery air. Everyone noticed, heads turning involuntarily toward the source, a healthy-looking woman of about 30 clad in khaki shorts, accompanied by a man of her own age. His head turned too. He peered into her face to see if the surprising intrusion had really come from her. Then he raised his arm to encircle her shoulders.

The painting they were standing before is called The Future Moves in Much Closer. Like all of Sigler’s work, at first glance it looks as if it might have been done by a talented child. It presents a sparsely furnished room opening to a forbidding landscape–the whole thing afloat within a blood red border teeming with black and blue molecules. The room is furnished with two steel-frame chairs, a console television set with a shimmering round screen, a lone potted plant, and a verdant green carpet. The rear wall is almost entirely consumed by a gaping window that looks out on encroaching, treacherous waters and what appear to be unscalable mountain peaks. The window is too large for the space, nightmarishly large, and cannot be closed.

Sigler started this series of paintings in 1992, after learning that the breast cancer she’d been diagnosed with seven years earlier had spread to other parts of her body. The spacers and frames contain hand-scratched messages about the incidence and impact of breast cancer. Her idea is to make the disease more visible through her art; her method is that of the confessional poet–using the events and objects of her own life.

Accordingly, the images and symbols she chooses are the simple, deliberately banal things of home and garden: birds, trees, lawn chairs, ironing boards, dressing tables, billowing curtains. Most of all, she uses clothing as a stand-in for people and their fates: wasp-waisted frocks, cardigan sweaters, nylon stockings, Barbie-doll shoes. The present is a torn and bloodied dress; a promising future is a filmy new gown.

Are these symbols frail? Well, sure. Isn’t that the point? Without getting schoolmarmish about it, Sigler’s awkward, dollhouse interiors and tenuous, stick-woman artifacts are pretty good shorthand for the mortal condition. But they are not the source of her work’s impact. Nor does it come mainly from her text. In the hands of a good confessional poet, an autobiographical story is a vehicle for a passionate dance with words, and in Sigler’s paintings what we’re mainly looking at is a transcendent encounter with color and pattern. And here the MCA has done us a favor.

They’ve set the shows up so that we have to walk through the galleries containing Rosen’s bloated puns and Vincent Shine’s nearly invisible miniature sculpture to get to the Sigler exhibit. It makes for great dramatic contrast. Her richly colored oil pastels, with their intricately overworked borders and frames, vibrate against the white gallery walls: birds, stars, dots, specks, and snowflakes soar and swarm across kaleidoscopic borders of sapphire, emerald, ruby, and amber. There is a concept here, but it’s subsumed by a passion for life in all its brilliant color. And, in the end, it is passion that moves us.

A photo caption that ran with Artner’s review mangled the title of the Sigler painting it identified. In a switch that could be grist for Kay Rosen, To Kiss the Spirits, a particularly lyrical work, became To Kill the Spirits. But Sigler’s spirit isn’t dead yet, and neither is she. She’ll partake in a panel discussion about breast cancer Wednesday, October 26, at the MCA.