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The River, New Work, Ex Libris: Rethinking the Library

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 7/27/2005

At School 33 Art Center through July 30

Group shows are an opportunity for dialogue between works of art. Squandering that option, as done here at School 33’s Artscape entry, is a wasted opportunity and a disservice to the three interesting—OK, two interesting and one mediocre—bodies of work on display.

The first floor’s ceiling is covered with a thicket of branches and plastic bags and a great beard of dirty, knotted newspaper cascading down like a waterfall of trash, as if the viewer is some mud-dwelling croaker looking up from the bottom of a polluted river. That’s fitting, considering artist Maren Hassinger uses the metaphor of a flowing river sweeping debris downstream to illustrate how trouble travels through families. Her installation, titled simply “The River,” includes a projected video of Hassinger’s interview with a long-lost uncle who unskeins their family’s tangled, incestuous genealogy: Hassinger’s troubled grandmother was the offspring of a white woman and her nephew, the son of her father’s Cherokee mistress. Watching the well-made and compelling video through dangling junk is frustrating, but it’s a frustration obviously matched by Hassinger’s desire to separate her family’s past from history’s flotsam. The installation’s only flaw is the slurpy audio. Splurge for a better pair of speakers—this story deserves it. (Hassinger’s companion piece “LOVE,” an accumulation of inflated pink plastic grocery bags covering the floor and ceiling of the adjoining room, is charming in an Arte Povera way but is no great shakes.)

Upstairs, Christopher Gladora takes title and inspiration for his conceptual installation from the Latin phrase ex libris—“from the library of.” Visitors write what book they’d like to contribute to a theoretical library and sign their names to a provided nameplate. Gladora will track down a copy of the requested book (or use your own thoughtfully donated edition), affix your nameplate, and donate the book to one of several “publicly accessible libraries,” including the South Baltimore Learning Center. Seeing the list of beloved books bequeathed by strangers is a more moving tribute to bibliophilism than it sounds. The only thing the exhibit lacks is the satisfying weight of a fully stocked library—so far, there are only a few well-spaced books placed on minimalist metal shelves, like luxury goods in a snooty boutique.

Finally, there’s a collection of Robert Jones’ paintings of figures standing in schematized poses amid overgrown landscapes of cornstalks or forest or wild, tall grass. Random “symbolic” images such as airplanes or bicycles or a circuit of carousel horses dot in and out of visibility in the vegetation. Jones’ palette is unmixed, straight-out-of-the-tube ochers and ultramarines washed onto white canvas in sketchy underpaintings. The end result is unfinished-looking and underripe.

Despite its merits, the show doesn’t feel special enough to merit a detour from Artscape’s main drag. Hassinger’s and Gladora’s works could keep up the rear in a more competitive exhibition, but Jones’ paintings don’t even feel ready for display. And what kind of synergy was intended from the grouping of these three totally disparate bodies of work is a mystery. You leave wishing School 33 had gussied up a little more for the occasion, and wander back to Mount Royal in search of more fried dough.

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