at the Robbin Lockett Gallery

Previous shows at the Robbin Lockett Gallery may have been too idea-oriented and esoteric for many Chicagoans, but the current group exhibit, “Get Well Soon,” should communicate provocative ideas to a wide audience. Its accessibility comes from the show’s references to the human body, of which we have intimate knowledge–and of which we’re ultimately ignorant. In the best theme-show manner, each piece seems to converse or connect with the others, giving the exhibit a satisfying sense of wholeness. This show should not be missed, for it aptly demonstrates the new humanism afoot in the art community.

Sunlight pours through the storefront windows of this space, so that the first tiny, all-white room glows in a misty, almost heavenly fashion. This effect initially clouds our vision so that even the room’s contours are difficult to define. The same holds true for the room beyond, which is also very small. As our eyes adjust, its corners and edges sharpen into normal focus. This remarkable ambience usually benefits the exhibited work, just as a gorgeous setting enhances a precious stone.

In the first room, the pristine elegance of a work by New York artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Blue Mirror), soothes the senses while raising disturbing questions. A two-foot-high stack of offset-printed paper has been placed on the floor. On each sheet, a medium blue rectangle is framed by a pale blue outer border. This deceptively simple work comments directly on the value and relevance of a “unique” art object in a world of limitless reproduction. (Gallery staff invite viewers to take home a sheet from the pile gratis, but outright purchase of the entire work would be $7,000.) On another level, this piece seems to recall the blue paper gowns worn during a medical exam, or the paper place mats used to cover hospital meal trays. These allusions lead us to wonder who or what is sick. What’s the diagnosis? The prognosis? Considered in this light, the “mirror” of the title is jolting. It makes the work almost accusatory, placing responsibility for the current unhealthiness, both inside and outside the art world, with each of us.

Steering this discourse into an environmental realm is gallery regular Mitchell Kane, whose untitled wall piece reads like the menu for some industrial monsters. This medium-sized aluminum panel is coated with an olive-colored substance called Imron in a beautiful wavy pattern. Various strange recipes have been hand-lettered on its surface in red or white enamel paint. This freehand lettering is crucial, for it brings the results of industrial exploitation down to an individual human level. Some of the noxious-sounding ingredients of Rio Grande Red Snapper and Licorice Flavored Slag, for instance, include European mercury and sisal hemp. Other entrees call for three cups of petroleum by-product soaked in natural cotton, and one yard of Gortex fabric. We’re reminded that we must now carefully monitor the foods we eat. To keep up with the latest toxic events and discoveries, we should read or watch the news daily. Someday, however, ingesting dangerous substances may be simply unavoidable. The defiled and diminished earth represented by these “ingredients” reflects the diseased aspects of the social and economic forces that have produced them.

The last piece in this room is Sheet B, by Canadian artist Alan Belcher. A large black-and-white photograph mounted on a white cotton sheet pinned to the wall reveals a pale, grainy image of strands of brunette hair on a section of white blanket. The massive hair loss that accompanies many serious illnesses may also symbolize here a kind of global loss. But it is the cotton sheet itself, with its multiple contexts, that piques the greatest interest. In this gallery setting, the sheet is a framing device whose purpose is to further tempt the potential buyer. But it never loses its identity as a sheet. Its generic whiteness brings to mind not only gallery walls but also hospital bed sheets. In conjunction with the photo, it could represent a sickbed or a deathbed. And we cannot ignore the fact that a bed is the usual scene of sexual interaction. Sheet B seems to suggest that we examine the healthiness of all our desires.

As we enter the second room, we are forced to step around the white, four-sided column of Chicago artist Wendy Jacob. Though this untitled seven-and-a-half-foot-tall work crowds obnoxiously close to the entrance, its size and whiteness almost make it blend with the gallery walls–viewers might not realize it is an artwork unless they examine it closely. But this work actually “breathes,” thanks to an electric motor inside it. Two opposing walls are made of rubber; the other two are of wood. As we hear the motor kick on and off, we can see the rubber walls subtly expand and contract.

Like Belcher’s piece, this work has a generic look: it might infiltrate any number of different settings. At first the column’s smooth white sides seem the perfect architectural camouflage. But what are they hiding? Then the motor’s sound clues us in to the movement of the walls. As we watch this motion, the motor’s noise becomes irritating, then oppressive, and finally ominous. Sound and motion together give a new meaning to the phrase “the walls have ears.”

It is then a delightful surprise to come upon the next work, by German artist Isa Genzken: a large color photograph of a human ear. Simply titled Ears, it plays off the Jacob piece; it “hears” the sound of the column’s breathing. Ears also reminds us of various ways of hearing, from the voyeurism of eavesdropping to the necessity of listening carefully during any meaningful discussion. A round white earring persuades us this is a female ear, and a feminist reading might interpret the work as critical of women’s relegation to the status of passive listeners in a world of patriarchal talkers. In physical terms, the ear is a pathway to the mind itself. And when we recall Van Gogh’s famous ear severing, this work suddenly clinches the link between artist, body, illness, and the world.

On the wall opposite this piece is Chicagoan Joe Scanlan’s cloth “sculpture,” Extended-wear Underwear. The title suggests a new, low-maintenance type of apparel, perhaps for invalids; but the Velcro snaps and multicolored fabric panels look sporty, like men’s warm-up gear. The snaps on the front panels are open at the waist, fly, and inseam to display the interior construction of the crotch and back panels. Gallery lighting models the garment, heightening its sexual drama. Although not a readymade, it seems to comment with a similar Duchampian irony on the fetishization of both gallery art and human health. In addition, the easy-access Velcro seems to implicate a public that would like to get in and out of the gallery as quickly as they do the locker room.

The final piece in this show is an untitled work by Chicago artist Pamela Golden, a tiny black-and-white oil painting on paper that depicts an IV bottle and stand positioned behind a cart full of objects. Because it’s been painted with an instrument too blunt to achieve any precision in this small format, we can’t identify the objects on the cart; the work seems a metaphor for the frequent lack of precision in the medical profession. But because it is so literal, this piece is the show’s least engaging. An important bit of information that might give it more resonance–the fact that it’s painted on newsprint–can be read on the title sheet but is not apparent in the work itself. With all the connotations newsprint has, it’s a shame its presence couldn’t somehow have been made more evident.

“Get Well Soon” gives these seven pieces a consistent thematic base. Each of these works, in a different context, might have a dramatically different impact. Nevertheless, the show’s appeal is that it blends intellectual concepts with the physical experiences we hold in common. It shows concern for human debilitation by acknowledging it and synthesizing it with other, less personal concerns. Unlike most conceptual art of the 70s or poststructuralist work of the 80s, much of the best artwork kicking off the 90s is not only smart but socially engaged, and in a particularly humanistic way. If this show is any example, we’re in for a very exciting, challenging decade.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Robbin Lockett Gallery.