at Prairie Avenue Gallery

Artists like to title their paintings literally, with something specifically descriptive such as “Woman Standing in Front of Mirror” or “Still Life With Apples, Grapes, and Pear.” With the exhibit currently at Prairie Avenue Gallery, curator Katherine Cantwell has gone a step further, labeling the whole show quite simply “Work.” The five artists represented in this show–Cantwell, Susan Hammond, Jan Dean, Adria Pecora, and David Rabago–are all hardworking. Many of their pieces took hours to assemble and then place in the unique gallery–no matter how often one visits it, one is always surprised that the first-floor rooms of the charming old house are exhibition spaces.

Cantwell’s own pieces, which are some of the most labor-intensive and poignant in the show, are environmentally conscious in subtle, startling ways. The Holy Spirit is a suspended sphere the size of an average globe that’s black and white with areas of gray. It’s wrapped with layers of cloth, and the beads that are stitched into it are almost camouflaged by pigeon feathers, a number of which also hang from the bottom like fringe; the feathers are “environmental garbage” that the artist collected on daily walks. She calls the work a meditation piece that was inspired by the image of the final dove Noah released from the ark–which never came back. One wonders if it prospered, as Noah surmised, or met with an accident that prevented its return. Then one shifts to thinking on a universal scale–will its fate be shared by the rest of the birds on our planet? The grayish feathers have an ashen, dead look. The work suddenly becomes a symbol of the species man is destroying. Yet there is a ray of hope in the spiritual cast of the piece. Jehovah did, after all, save Noah and the animals. Cantwell happened to tell me at the opening that the beads stood for the times she had said her prayers with a rosary, and the way she described the hours spent making the piece made them seem Zen-like. All of which gives the work a mix of Eastern and Western religiosity that contains something of the American Indian’s reverence for a sacred object.

Cantwell’s History Is an Angel could have been constructed by one of those contemporary-garbage archaeologists who sift through people’s trash cans to assess their habits. It’s made of a series of corrugated cardboard boxes covered with a collage of everything from grocery-store ads to unrecognizable paper scraps. The central focus is a black marble square with a poem adapted from a Laurie Anderson song etched into it. The work covers an extensive wall area from the floor almost to the ceiling, a size that makes one think of garbage taking over the world. Here, too, is a touch of Native American sensibility: taking ordinary objects and by working elaborate designs around them “honoring” them.

More impressive are the lyrical complexities of Cantwell’s Glass/Grass, a large-scale circular shape that sits on the floor and is made of thin brass tubing about an inch in diameter. Real grass–so long and bright green that it looks artificial–grows from inside the tubing. It is meticulously cared for by the artist, who waters it twice daily with a special syringe and has created artificial sunlight for it. At first glance Glass/Grass seems to be a uniform circle of grass, but upon closer inspection one finds that half of it is actually thin vertical slices of transparent glass embedded in the tubing, the cut edges of which give it a green tinge. The work is both an uneasy truce between disparate elements and a miracle of unity of the man-made and the natural. It is quite moving, and I could have stared at it for hours, taking in the quiet beauty that leads to more and more meditative questions and images.

Cantwell’s This Place, with its many colors and textures, is bulkier and prettier than Glass/Grass but not more powerful. The inspection of one layer leads to the discovery of another. Like Glass/Grass, the piece has a copper-tubing circle of grass, underneath which is a square constructed of a number of smaller squares made up of a number of materials, including brick, granite, wood, glass, metal, and shingle. The variety of materials makes the scope of this piece too universal: they are both everyday and ubiquitous.

In another smaller room of the gallery an ornately carved but battered antique bookcase that’s built into the wall–an integral part of the house that often gets incorporated into exhibits at the gallery–serves as a poignant counterpoint to the works of Jan Dean and Susan Hammond, some of which they did collaboratively. It is the backdrop for Dean and Hammond’s Return, which sits near the middle of the room. This work consists of an empty chair frame with ornately carved wooden legs and an antiquated look. It has been stripped of all other ornamentation, and white chiffon is draped over it. But when you stand next to the work, you see that what looked like a length of plain chiffon has a blueprint on it–an accurate blueprint of the Prairie Avenue Gallery building. It’s a ghostly image that brings to mind the demolition of buildings–the loss of Chicago’s architectural wonders and the wanton destruction of buildings to create more parking lots or shopping malls–as well as the sheets one puts over furniture to prevent it from gathering dust when one goes traveling for a long time. This act of preservation also hides the object, obscuring its beauty. A sheet thrown over something also implies an intention to return but no guarantee. And because the chair is only a frame, its austerity belies the piece’s hopeful title, making it even more ironic.

Three other works also incorporate chiffon, with the same ghostly effect: Carbon and Close and Far by Hammond, and an untitled piece by Dean. In Dean’s work, white chiffon shrouds a nameless woman’s head made of cast bronze–it’s like a sack placed over the dark features. I couldn’t help thinking of white oppression in South Africa, but this obvious image gave way to the suppression of women, then to the existence of truth under a murky or ambiguous reality, emotion clouded by form, form clouded by emotion. It might also seem that the artist is using realism, but instead of deconstructing it, she is simply masking it.

In Hammond’s Close and Far, a chiffon cloth is draped against the wall like a curtain, hanging loosely from a rusty “window” bar, whose lines parallel the horizontal lines of the built-in bookcase. But beyond this “curtain” is no view but that of a blank wall, a dead-end “landscape.” And because the work is next to the empty bookcase, it looks even starker. Hammond’s Carbon incorporates more chiffon, though this time it’s inside a real window frame. The material is doubled to give it more of an opaque sheen–it looks like parachute silk. Hieroglyphic marks are drawn on it with charcoal, and bits of charcoal and charred wood are sewn into pockets across its length and breadth. Silver thread and wire stitch glistening, snaking lines and bunched shapes. The overall impression is of a topographical map, but it’s a desolate vision–charred, scarred, and fragmented. It’s what we leave behind in our wastefulness and our greed for the new and novel, though again there is a tiny ray of hope: carbon is, after all, one of the elements necessary to life.

Preservation, a collaborative book by Dean and Hammond, carries an even sadder message. Inside an old scrapbook are black-and-white snapshots that document the many landmarks that once stood in the neighborhood around the gallery. It’s a hollow abundance, since all but two of the buildings have been torn down. What’s left are placards on the six-foot-high fence surrounding the area that inform us of what used to be there. The fence now guards nothing of value; inside is only empty space–though it could be sacred ground that has lost its magic power. The photos also have captions next to them that include the year each landmark was built and the year it was demolished. The work marks a tragic chapter in Chicago’s history; it’s a map of destruction. A large number of blank pages follow the photos, as if anticipating the ones to come.

Ahead of the landmark photos in the book are old sepia-toned landscape snapshots that were painstakingly selected by Dean and Hammond on trips to antique stores and bookshops. These are idyllic landscapes that never quite existed outside the photographs’ romanticized vision of nature–much like the idealized image of the American west painters and sculptors created to suit their vision of reality, even though most of them lived in the east and never set foot in the west. These photos are a bastardized version of reality rather than a preservation of it.

The entire album points up the countless discrepancies between what should be someplace and what isn’t. It’s the kind of piece–like so many in the exhibit–that makes you want to do something to put humans in harmony with nature.