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at the Abel Joseph Gallery

Big red letters spelling the word “LOVE” beckon from one wall of the gallery. They lead the gaze to a pair of binoculars clamped to the wall’s freestanding edge. The binoculars are aimed at a nearby window that looks out onto the Damen/North/Milwaukee intersection, now dark and desolate in post-evening-rush-hour quietude. Accepting the invitation, I peer through the binoculars and see the word “LEAVE” spelled out in pale green neon in a third-floor window of the Flat Iron Building across the intersection. Somewhere in my body a vague memory of pain resuscitates. The physical and semantic distance between love and leave activates a feeling of nostalgic sadness that is both personal and cultural, visceral and cerebral. This deceptively simple piece, called Platitude no. 1 (Love/Leave), is just one example of Adam Brooks’s highly engaging approach to an aestheticized critique of language.

Many of Brooks’s works, through single words etched or stenciled onto sheets of glass or mirrors, demonstrate the fragility and ultimate failure of language as a communicative device. The shared precariousness of glass and communication–both are easily shattered–is so literal and direct that the metaphor risks slipping into cliche. But Brooks transcends the danger by adding, with appealing formal elegance, references to the human body. Unflect no. 2, for instance, consists of 36 sandblasted rectangular mirrors spread across three adjacent walls. A different “un” word has been traced through the layer of pale dust covering each piece. As we read through the litany of negativity–“unimaginative,” “unrepentant,” “untenable,” “uneasy”–the words and portions of our own reflected image materialize and vanish as we change position relative to the mirrors. At nonreflective angles, the rectangles take on a handsome minimalist, almost corporate look. Unflect no. 2 presents language as a fragmenting and alienating mediator of human experience. Seeing bits of our own reflection reminds us that we are not just victims of linguistic manipulation but perpetrators as well. We all use words every day not only to express ourselves but to advance our private goals.

In other pieces Brooks combines words with three-dimensional, body-referencing objects like cocktail glasses, soup labels, and hand-soap dispensers. Because they link intangible linguistic meaning with concrete human physicality, these works are the most satisfying in the show. In a display window facing the street, several shelves holding glass objects have been arranged in Crate & Barrel fashion, each shelf containing multiples of a single glass item. There is a shelf of martini glasses, a shelf of wine carafes, and so on. The repetition of transparency and form produces a symmetry that seduces and flatters the viewer/buyer. These attractive “goods” are meant to beautify our dinner tables, impress our friends, and help quench our various appetites. But the artist makes us pay for this visual flattery through the provocative words sandblasted onto the surface of the objects. Most powerful is the group of carafes, called Secrete Set. We usually identify a carafe’s primary function as dispensing wine or another beverage, but these carafes are labeled with words like “urinate,” “defecate,” “ejaculate,” and “menstruate.” Because bodily secretions are often tested for harmful “cultures,” here the carafes seem transformed into specimen jars. The artist makes the connection between physical and cultural disease with impressive simplicity.

Words, objects, and materials don’t always synthesize so smoothly in Brooks’s work, but even in other instances, intriguing visuals capture our attention. Dispenser features eight mass-produced soap dispensers, each filled with a different liquid, ranging across one wall of the gallery. On the floor below each one rests a stainless steel bowl ready to catch inadvertent drips. Subtly engraved on each dispenser is part of a word–a clue to help identify the type of liquid inside. The letters are difficult to see because they are small and thinly etched. To make matters more difficult, the words they stand for are only general categories for the specific substances in the dispensers. Some word-clue/substance combinations are more accessible than others. With a little work we might guess that “ADHE” indicates adhesive, and that the white liquid in this dispenser in glue. But other combinations are more obscure. “CATH,” which I found refers to catharsis, could just as easily point to catholic or catheter. Figuring out that the liquid in this container is a laxative requires a substantial mental leap. Despite such ambiguities, Dispenser establishes a strong physical relationship to our own bodies through its hand-washing theme. This, coupled with the objects’ rigid public-restroom installation, makes the experience of the piece an engaging, almost familiar one.

Brooks doesn’t always limit his critique of language to English. His Morse Mnemonic takes a look at two lesser-known systems of communication. Six groups of black dots and dashes applied directly to the wall are paired with their English “translations” on glass panels. The panels have been sandblasted and tilted so that the words they bear appear in pale shadows on the wall behind. The phrases include “a wet jacket’s comfortable, very!” and “turnips make oxen cheerful.” Silly or awkward sentences like these are often the result of mnemonics, a system used to memorize another system–in this case Morse code. Here Brooks shows how little light one system sheds upon another, for we leave the work without any understanding of either. We still can’t interpret the dot-dash system because we don’t know how it relates to the word phrases.

This lack of coherence between different language systems is perhaps more cogently treated in the Crit series. In five glass-framed diptychs, Brooks pits a sandblasted word in the lower half of each frame against a computer-generated scan line in the upper half that charts the spoken sound of the word. So these delicate graphs are visual translations of the words they’re paired with. Below each frame a glass placard names a specific art critic, magazine, issue date, page, column, and line number. With these pieces the artist deftly critiques the critics, transforming their written medium of expression into a visual one. This visually pleasing series also comments on the way words and images obscure rather than clarify meaning when they attempt to comment upon or interpret one another.

In this strong, amazingly comprehensive show, Brooks acknowledges our physical, emotional, and intellectual dependence on inevitably faulty systems of communication. In this respect his viewpoint is extremely critical, even pessimistic. But it is not nihilistic. Hope lies in the works’ appealing formal qualities and in the show’s scope. Spanish, Polish, and even Esperanto are represented. The inclusion of so many different systems seems to indicate Brooks’s belief that we will never stop trying to find new ways to share our thoughts, ideas, and experiences. Despite infinite boggled attempts, it is this drive to communicate that makes us human.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Tropea.