at the Abel Joseph Gallery

Fine craftsmanship and clearly focused content make “Aristotle Georgiades: Post-Leisure” one of the best gallery shows in town. Concerned with the shrinking role of the blue-collarworker, Georgiade’s mixed-media installations examine the past, present,and possible future of this troubled sector of the work force. These engaging pieces challenge the intellect without intimidating–they prove that art doesn’t have to be inaccessible or elitist to be cutting-edge.

The Abel Joseph Gallery, situated at the busy Damen-North-Milwaukee intersection, couldn’t be a better location. Whining semi engines and impatient car horns create the usual urban cacophony just outside the door. conforming to the geography of the three-way intersection, the gallery is wedge-shaped rather than rectangular. Pedestrians on North or Milwaukee can and do peer through the gallery’s large display windows. While I was there, people came in off the street two or three times to ask directions or questions about the neighborhood.

Georgiade’s most complex work ingeniously incorporates one of the gallery’s North Avenue windows. Called History Painting, it consists of an elaborately carved but unpainted wood picture frame hung on a free standing partly hollow wall made of several sheets of drywall painted white. In place of a picture, the wall behind the frame has been cut away to reveal a box-shaped area. Through this space a toy train runs backward on a track laid out in a figure eight; small archways cut out of the drywall panels allow the train to wind through the different layers of the wall and around the frame.

From the opposite gallery wall, a slide projector throws a series of images through the empty frame and onto the back panel of the freestanding wall, where a rectangular hole covered with white paper serves as a screen. Because this screen faces the North Avenue window, the images can also be seen by people walking along the street. Of course, the images are hard to spot during the day, but they’re quite noticeable after dark. Those are black-and-white pictures of the 1920s and ’30s workers, union gatherings, and captains of industry, interspersed with color images of present-day workers from Wicker Park. This installation’s clever construction allows for a dialogue on the history of American labor, its current and future conditions, and even the accessibility of fine art to the working class. The only flaw here is the number and repetiveness of the slide images–many could be deleted without reducing the overall impact.

As the superbly crafted frame of History Painting shows, Georgiades is a master wood-carver. This type of highly skilled labor and the place it occupies in society is the topic of another piece, Proto-Fax. Consisting of two toy shopping carts placed on a low shelf, it is perhaps the most succinct work in the show. As we compare the orange and yellow plastic of the store-bought toy with the smooth brown wood of the handsomely crafted homemade one, a cultural paradox emerges. Such a wooden cart might be made by the parent who can’t afford to buy a factory-made one. At the same time, a more affluent adult would pay much more for the wooden cart because it’s handmade and finely crafted. Cultural conditioning, however, would probably mean that any child would prefer the brightly colored plastic toy. Proto-Fax cogently shows how handmade and machine-made objects shift in value according to their contexts.

Two separate wall pieces that have the same kind of structure buy employ different materials also seem meant to be compared. Charm Bracelet #2 is actually a pink and white Hula Hoop to which 12 plastic toy tools have been attached at regular intervals by 12 short white chains. Charm Bracelet #1 is in a display window facing Milwaukee Avenue, and because a gallery wall obscures our view of it, one must go outside to see it. In this piece, the hoop is steel and the 12 attached items are real tools–a saw, a hammer, a wrench, etc. Because it appears in both works the number 12 seems significant, possible referring to the hours on a clock or the months of the year. The two works together seem to produce a dialogue on time, on the transition from childhood play to the adult working world. If these works are taken separately, however, the child/adult duality of the bracelets falls away, and a rich layer of meaning disappears. On the wall that blocks our view of Charm Bracelet #1 is an installation using wooden objects processed to various degrees. Company Man features a small stylized man, wife, their child, and a dog standing on a high shelf near a carved house and car. The odd thing about this family is that they have no arms. In addition, they are neatly painted and entirely lacking in personal characteristics, which makes them seem generic or universal. A light source hidden behind the figures provides a subdued theatrical effect. On the floor directly below, a branch cradles a varnished wood box, which holds a few handfuls of new, unsharpened yellow pencils. An old tin cup hangs from a hook attached to the box.

Of all Georgiades’s works, this one seems the most ambivalent. The family’s armlessness may imply the obsolescence of manual labor in a machine age. But rather than make a clear judgment, Georgiades looks at the good and bad sides of the issue. Natural resources diminish, but mass-produced goods increase our standard of living. And as we literally lose touch with nature, our affluence increases–but Company Man seems to suggest that our individuality decreases proportionately. The cool perfection of the anonymous family contrasts poignantly with the cut branch and the old cup.

The appeal of “Post-Leisure” is that it focuses attention on a frequently overlooked topic–the role of labor in a service-oriented, high-tech society–without being self-righteous or obscure. The visual elements are interesting, well-made, and appropriately to the subject matter. The installations are open-ended enough to allow for a multilayered reading but concrete enough to communicate a great deal to the average person.

It was wonderful to see a “worker” come into the gallery with a young boy. We all stood watching the projections for History Painting. suddenly this man’s picture appeared on the screen, in the act of performing his job. When the two saw this image they laughed, then they talked to the gallery director for a few moments and left wearing big grins. To my mind, that’s one sign of a terrific show.