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arts: Pack Rats

At Artspace, six artists display their collections with wit and intelligence.


Collecting things is an almost ubiquitous human behavior, and the six artists in "Collected Evidence" approach the subject in diverse ways. Richard Roth's collection of student palettes — thick with globs and smears of dried paint — are accidental abstract expressionist paintings, "found" by Roth … la Duchamp and displayed precisely as their previous owners abandoned them. Chance and intuition combine in each to interesting — at times even beautiful — effect, but there are no de Koonings hiding here. Roth's palettes mostly prove that everyone will execute the same task — in this case organizing paints and mixing colors — in a unique manner.

Susan Eder collages groups of "like" images from other works of art onto long rectangular surfaces that evoke chronological charts and then paints out the area surrounding each image. In "Seeing Through (Artists' Eyes)" she collects the gazes of artists from their self-portraits. Familiar sets of eyes — including those of Van Gogh, Warhol and Kahlo — share space with less familiar ones that include those of poet ee cummings, Eder herself and Hollywood ladies' man Billy Dee Williams.

John Lehr's photographs of thrift-store merchandise document the dreary ambience of these department stores of the working class. In one photo, thousands of record albums are stacked on shelves like an audiophile's gold mine, but every single title and artist's name is illegible — obliterated by the worn edges of the cardboard. In another, a single roller skate, pristine and white, sits on a metal Pegboard shelf beside a tiny pile of floor sweepings. These are lonely images of hoarding and futility, shot in bland color under harsh artificial light.

In "Passing," a haunting work by Jennifer Blazina, anonymous family snapshots are screen-printed onto thick blocks of glass cast in the shape of big, clunky envelopes. Their diagonal folds lead the eye back and forth across the murky images, which, while recognizable, are faded and blurry like the memories they signify. The vessels that contain them — thick, heavy, transparent and precarious — add rich associative layers of content to these remarkable objects.

Humor dominates the work of Caryl Burtner, who extracts definitions and illustrations from dictionaries and reorganizes them into new groupings. In one such group, illustrations are incorrectly linked with words because they happened to be printed beside them. So a frumpy Victorian woman with a gargantuan bustle is used to illustrate the word buttock, and an unctuous portrait of O.J. Simpson illustrates the word sincere. In another group, complex diagrams are absurdly linked with obscure dictionary terms like erysipelas, borneol or infundiblium. Perhaps the funniest group consists of pages from a dictionary that have been annotated, diary-fashion, by the artist. Beside the word impeccable, for instance, one finds this note written in magic marker: "11-30-84, Peter said my legs are . . ."

The gently satirical work of K. Johnson Bowles is constructed of things — purses, kitchenware, embroidered aphorisms — we associate with domesticity and middle-class life. "Never Fix His Plate" warns the title of one piece, composed of five frilly aprons decorated with kitschy images of flowers, leaves, fruit and an ocean liner. An embroidered sentence on one of the aprons completes the sentence: " . . . or you'll be doing it for the rest of your life." Humor and familiar objects usher us into each work, where a closer look reveals seriousness and a degree of mystery. In "The Content of My Mother's Purse (Trying Not to Lose Faith)" a wall is covered with purses hung with rosaries and Catholic icons. On one purse, an image of the Blessed Virgin that bears the legend "Praying Doesn't Help" is superimposed with "Help Her Damn It." Is this a good-natured lampoon of a fervent Catholic? Or a memorial to a mother, dead from disease? Perhaps it is both. In the exhibit notes, Bowles' work is described as both narrative and autobiographical. It is a testament to her talent that her work feels simultaneously universal and personal, easily understandable and ambiguous.

The exhibit notes also refer to collecting as "a hedge against nothingness." Perhaps this is the central truth of collecting, as well as one of the things it shares with art-making: It allows us to face fears of mortality by symbolically re-creating ourselves in objects. And perhaps we feel we cannot die so long as our collection remains incomplete. S

"Collected Evidence" is on display at Artspace, 6 E. Broad St., through Feb. 2. Call 782-8672 for more information.

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