Beth Reitmeyer: You Mean So Much to Me

at Standard, through June 15

Steve McQueen: Nov. 7th

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through August 4

Donald Moffett: What Barbara Jordan Wore

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through September 1

Critical Mass

at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, through June 23

The viewer of a painting or photograph will usually evaluate it in relation to the medium’s rich history and current conventions. But installation art is relatively new, and a work that sprawls across one or more rooms can be momentarily disorienting for the viewer who must come to terms with it.

The front room of Standard, containing about half of Beth Reitmeyer’s installation You Mean So Much to Me, is itself provocative: 18 paintings of abstracted roses hang on walls covered with wallpaper made by screen printing similar patterns in red. In part a joke on the neutral white walls of the typical gallery or museum, Reitmeyer’s background both sensualizes the space and competes with her paintings for attention. Another distraction is that the paintings are of different sizes; one wall has a single 30-by-40-inch painting while another displays a grid of 15 8-by-8-inch ones. This excess gives the room a pleasantly “hot” feel just this side of obsessive nuttiness.

A great deal of work in recent years, much but not all by women, has celebrated the decorative possibilities of art, and Reitmeyer’s front room seems to fall into that category–but the back room adds a conceptual element. Printed booklets explain how roses in different colors have come to symbolize different states and feelings, from modesty to passion to impossible fantasy. Vases of cloth roses in a single color, which Reitmeyer made, are for sale, but the booklets are free, and visitors are encouraged to take a free cloth rose from other vases along with a matching “poem card” explaining the color’s symbolism. The card can be tied to the rose before it’s given.

Though there’s an element of childish kitsch here, Reitmeyer is hardly a naif. An Evanstonian who earned an MFA from Northwestern in 1998, she combines the wallpaper, paintings, and sub-Hallmark-card poems in a knowing way that suggests conscious choice. But there’s also something heartfelt about the installation. Her handmade flowers are considerably more supple in color and shape than the typical kitsch object, and though Reitmeyer described the exhibit to me as “a little funny, like something you might do in eighth grade,” she added that “you’re sincere in eighth grade.” The fact that the artworks for sale are so similar to those being given away–and that the latter might help the recipient build or rebuild a relationship–suggests generosity and hopefulness. Reitmeyer has given away work in earlier shows but says she was reacting to the September 11 attacks, if only obliquely: she intended to create a more direct response but found her natural optimism made that impossible.

In contrast to Reitmeyer’s work, Nov. 7th–a piece by British film- and video-maker Steve McQueen that’s now at the Art Institute–is visually severe. But it too challenges the viewer’s expectations. Entering a darkened room with a few benches, one hears a recorded monologue: a man who identifies himself as Marcus recounts in gory detail and with great anguish his accidental shooting of his brother, Jonathan, and its aftermath. Meanwhile a single slide image of a man–the speaker, in fact–is displayed, showing his shaved head from the top as he lies on his back. The 24-minute recording creates the expectation of a film or a video, and so the figure’s complete stillness makes him seem corpselike. The cruciform shape of the image–from protruding nose to the back of the skull, with a shoulder projecting on either side–also seems appropriate. The scar running across his scalp (the result of a fight, I was told) functions as an indirect metaphor for the shooting.

Nov. 7th is being presented on the half hour, and I’d recommend visitors experience it from the beginning. Marcus’s story is so compelling, and he tells it with such skill and conviction, that I thought it might be fiction or a scripted account. But Art Institute curator James Rondeau says that it’s a true story that was recorded without rehearsal. Viewers don’t usually stare at the same still image for 24 minutes, and this one takes on a disturbing forensic quality, constantly returning the viewer’s attention to the monologue, whose lapidary details are as precise as the few hairs visible on Marcus’s scalp. Image and sound alike establish a vaguely disturbing intimacy, and the focus is on the physical particulars of one accident and on one man’s grief. The old feminist saying that the personal is political seems appropriate here: Marcus’s story makes an implicit argument for gun control.

Reitmeyer’s and McQueen’s attention to individual emotions represents only one strand of installation art, whose disparate elements also enable artists to explore social or cultural subjects. Successfully addressing political issues in art is never easy, but lower expectations for coherence in installations undercut any tendency toward propagandizing. Donald Moffett’s provocative exhibit “What Barbara Jordan Wore”–consisting of 12 paintings, drawings, and prints plus audio and video recordings spread across two floors of the Museum of Contemporary Art–makes a point of bringing together elements with no obvious connection. (In the fine catalog for the show, which the museum organized, director Robert Fitzpatrick mentions its “tradition of presenting an artist’s first solo museum exhibition.”)

In a fourth-floor gallery we see three large, sensuous abstract paintings, Untitled (We the People #1-#3), and hear a tape recording of the speech Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan gave at the outset of the House Judiciary Committee’s 1974 Watergate hearings. Eloquent and forceful, she never stoops to personal attack, instead defending constitutional principles. At first one is startled by the disjunction between abstract paintings and political speech, a disparity surely intended by Moffett, a Texas native who lives in New York and whose earlier work in the AIDS collective Gran Fury was even more specifically activist. Though he started making abstract art after that, in the mid-90s, it’s almost as if he were arguing with his own paintings, wanting to add a social context and forcing the viewer to negotiate both looking at these visually rich works and thinking about the principles enunciated in Jordan’s speech.

The two elements work together not as echoes but as parallel explorations. The bottom part of each painting shows a net of lines in an irregular grid against a silver background; the top is plain silver. Novelist Jim Lewis in his catalog essay says the grid resembles “a piece of knitting that is coming undone”; it reminded me of fishnet stockings. Curiously sensual, the lines’ woven pattern suggests fabric, while the field of reflective silver suggests the skin beneath it. In fact Moffett paints each line in a painstaking, time-consuming process, making the grid’s skewed and unevenly spaced lines seem to represent the artist’s individuality–and the politician’s.

On the third floor, Moffett projects looped videos of a small portion of the same hearing on three canvases painted gold, accompanied again by a recording of Jordan’s full 13-minute speech. In Untitled (Ms. Jordan) we see her in medium shot, an image dominated by her red dress; Untitled (The Public) shows people listening. These videos at once abnegate the artist’s work–we can’t really see the paintings–and ennoble Jordan. Gold in art has long signified the precious and the holy, and by obliterating his painting with her image, Moffett suggests the artist’s function is no more important than that of leaders like Jordan.

Most everything is thought provoking in “Critical Mass,” installations commissioned by the Smart Museum from five artists who reportedly “pursue an ethical, self-reflective” art using “experimental approaches.” For I Am NOT My Office Gregory Sholette collected actual and photographed prosthetic devices, including artificial arms that he constructed based on workers’ replies to his questionnaire asking what “prosthetic device…they wished they possessed while doing routine jobs.” Groupings, by the collective Temporary Services, includes a large wall of found photographs of various groups, from Muslims praying to families to people having group sex.

Two installations by Chicagoan Laurie Palmer, both finer than any others I’ve seen this year, are interactive in the way Reitmeyer’s show is and political in a more contemporary, pertinent way than Moffett’s. Opened Lands includes 38 photos of undeveloped Chicago lots currently in use as gardens, parks, or small farms. Exhibited in single lines on two walls, all the photographs but one have fastened on the wall beneath them a large folded-up print that includes a map of the lot’s location, some descriptive and historical text, and sometimes additional photos. The map that goes with the 38th photo is displayed on a wall, and a label invites visitors to look at the others. Palmer told me she hoped the unfolding process would give visitors a sense of “expanding beyond the space of the photograph”–and this is precisely what happens. The photos alone are informative: taken in late winter, they reveal the layout and geography of each site, not a mass of vegetation. The texts provide much additional information, often about the way the community and city politics came together to make use of the lot possible. We learn that one site is filled with lead-absorbing plants that make kids at play safer, and that an organizer was murdered in response to his tenant activism.

Palmer presents images as incomplete in themselves, inviting further exploration: her take on “ethical” art goes beyond an interest in connecting people with their political and natural environments. Most viewers, finding they lack the time to read all 38 texts, will nonetheless gain the sense of standing in an open doorway leading to a vast and relatively unexplored terrain. Though there are rectangles on the wall, as with Moffett’s work one is encouraged to look beyond them.

Palmer’s other installation–Land Mass, made with Wendy Jacob–consists of 16 benches in the same room where people can sit while reading the maps. Each dark green top is different, repeating the shape of a vacant lot in the city. Set on casters and easily movable, the benches can be rearranged, and the process of putting them together in new ways conveys a wonderful feeling of possibility. Together the photographs, the maps, and the benches give one the sense that taking action can bring seemingly incompatible realities together–and improve the world.