Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Getting the Message: Knowledge Distilled

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Getting the Message: Knowledge Distilled

Article excerpt

START LOOKING at the new show at the Forum for Contemporary Art with Gary Cannone and you'll get a good idea of what is going on.

Cannone is one of the bright young artists whose work is part of "Mixed Messages: A Survey of Recent Chicago Art," which opened at the Forum recently. His art is composed of photographs of shelves of books, which - as closely as possible - he replicates, using the actual books. The shelves Cannone singled out for examination and exhibition weren't ordinary shelves. They were owned by such celebrated people as Sigmund Freud and Carl Sandburg and Abraham Lincoln and James Dean.

By looking at the books, you can learn something about the people who read them, or at least had the books around. And by looking at these books, you can learn something about how the accumulation of facts, information and misinformation, memories, impressions, observations - all the things that make up the bundle we call knowledge - is assembled.

Furthermore, you see how what is read (or experienced or seen or touched) varies wildly, exotically, fundamentally, from person to person. You see how offbeat, unpredictable and bizarre some people's tastes are, and also how tediously conventional. (Freud had book after book on Egypt; James Dean, among other things, had the Bible and "Charlotte's Web.") From looking at this art, you go home from this show and look at your own bookshelf, the real thing and the bookshelf of your mind. And you begin to realize how various our learnings are, and how - in ways large and small and obvious and not so - they affect the way we think, behave, live and love.

There are 19 artists or collaborations represented in this challenging exhibition. None of them are artists of the funky, figurative Chicago school that got a lot of attention in the 1970s and '80s. Some of them have reputations that extend beyond Lake Michigan and the Tri-State Tollway; others are known only in Chicago.

Although you'd be hard put to come up with some single name or category to describe them, all in some way or another approach art the way Cannone does. That is, they look at what we know or think we know and examine how that affects the world. They look at the body and its functions and at objects and words and pictures and see how they affect us.

In the main downstairs gallery at the Forum, you encounter art by a group called (Art)n, art to the nth. These are pictures of great and unusual beauty - a compelling combination of photography and holography and computer-generated imagery. The images have a certain polish, a scientific sleekness, and seem to radiate out into the viewers' space. It is difficult not to like what you see before you. But then you find out what is pictured, that it is an image of the AIDS virus, and the contrast between beauty and the horror of the plague confounds you.

Artist Inigo Manglano-Ovalle works with gangs in Chicago, using art as a means of reducing hostilities. For this show, he took an object that has only one purpose, painted it, isolated it and hung it on the wall. Like Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades, it thus became art. It is serene in its isolation. But even in the gallery, this object bristles with various contemporary meanings, not to mention violence and danger. It's a billy club - a "Lifetime Monpac Perm-A-Stop Grenade Grip Baton."

Your reaction to it depends on your collection of knowledge. And on the most basic level, it depends on which side of this instrument you are on or have been on at one time or another.

What does a bench in an art museum mean to you? Is it simply a bench, a machine for sitting, or does it take on special significance because of where it is? Gary Tasset's "Sculpture Bench" invites you to explore that idea. Do ordinary things mean more to us when they exist in "important" places?

Does knowledge of something make it less frightening? …

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