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Giving The Finger

Map Show Offers Interesting Timing

TOUCHED: a Detail of Christopher Witty's "The Body of Work (Part 1): One Hand Washes The Other."
CONVOY: a Detail of Christopher Witty's "Addendum I."

By Bret McCabe | Posted 12/19/2007

Creepy tactility, audio and visual disorientation, and permeable barriers--the mixed-media work exhibited in Maryland Art Place's Time and Measure, ostensibly a show about "the notion of timing as it relates to perception," is above all a confounding visceral experience. Sounds you hear correspond and don't to the things you see. Metal screens partially obscure the works. And some 15,000 cast fingers become a shag rug of uncanny minimalism.

Northern Virginia artist R.L. Croft was last seen around Baltimore in the Whole Gallery's All That Remains in October, where his "Silo" felt like a mirthful, almost playgroundlike use of his sculptural panache with found metal. Here he turns his recycling mind toward making objects of improvisational post-industrial clamor. "Guardian" is a customized dolly outfitted to hold the fencelike metal-tubing perimeter that runs the length of the front gallery. The dolly itself is a quasi anthropomorphized beast--in the sense that you can, if you so wish, project "eyes" onto its "face"--and it hides behind the extended barrier, which, with its differently colored pieces of metal, feels like a very well-made and artfully executed dividing line in a shantytown. Tubes of various lengths strike different shapes and profiles as you peer through the fence, and the result is an ambulatory collage, the cumulative effect of looking at, through, and behind the barrier.

That sense of porous interaction is at play in Croft's other works here. "Perpetual Notion Machine," a combined metal contraption atop wheels, also hides in plain sight behind the barrier and feels like something other than what it may be. It's solid, looking like a refreshment cart to an airline that cobbles its fleet together from other carrier's castoffs--fly the salvaged skies--but something about it also feels a little like a Rauschenbergian black box, where you're not sure what its surfaces are containing. It has a few openings near its top, as if seeking coin deposits or ball-bearing feedings or some other placating token to keep it from turning into whatever it well may be on the verge of perpetually becoming. Croft's three graphite-on-paper pieces also work their camouflage into their quotidian vocabularies. At first viewing, "Stockpile," "Legs and Hog Legs," and "The Human Condition on a 3 Legged Table" look like, admittedly, fairly accurate renderings of what their titles suggest. Spend a moment peering into their intricacies, though, and other shapes, forms, and ideas bubble out of Croft's lines--think of those 1970s paperback book covers for things such as Siddhartha, where an illustration appears organically fused out of a group of other illustrations, and you have an idea of what's going on here.

Christopher Whittey is the back-room artist who collected the fingers. Dean of Maryland Institute College of Art's department for fiber, foundation, and interdisciplinary sculpture, Whittey's three installation pieces here attest to a high level of conceptual rigor, meticulous process, exquisite craftsmanship, and art-historical critique. His 1996 "The Body of Work (Part 1): One Hand Washes the Other" is a large-scale installation featuring a number of elements, the most immediately arresting being the large white-on-white square composed of 16,000 casts of fingers. The total, as the artist explains in accompanying wall text, represents the number of fingers lost by American laborers over the course of a year. The visual allusion is to Kazimir Malevich's "White Square on White" painting from 1918, an example of early 20th-century abstraction known as Suprematism.

Whittey's wry commentary here is the very literal subversion of an avant-garde form: Where Malevich's Suprematist paintings evoke an enigmatic, almost otherworldly vibe, Whittey's white square on white instantly draws attention to its corpulence even before you know the digits' subtext. The innate human source of the piece stands at disturbing attention over the floor, looking like the creepiest Donald Judd piece outtake you've every seen. That that sense of human toil remains inescapable even as you read the piece as Judd-ish empiricism adds an additional layer of cheeky wit to it, since Judd was every so often prone to, well, coming across like he was disappointed by the very notion of human beings.

Whittey's elegant combination of socioeconomic commentary, daft observation, and pristine constructions is also seen in his "Addendum II" artist book, which imagines a road trip around America to various museums of industry. Photos of these institutions--which Whittey didn't visit, requesting the photos from others--accompany a photograph of a man's torso. His arms are crossed in front of him, and his left arm--the one that would be hanging out of a car if the window were down--grows increasingly more tan over the duration of the imaginary trip.

Kevin James Wolff's video installation comes closest to speaking to the show's organizing rubric, and no piece does so better than "Untitled (Marbles)." The two-channel projection features side-by-side images of a rectangular vase of water. On the left, a red circle falls into the water, makes a plopping sound as it breaks the surface, comes to rest in the vase, and then fades away. Immediately on the right, a marble of the similar circumference as the red circle falls silently through the surface of the water, pachinko-rattles about the bottom of the vase, and then comes to rest and stays on screen. Over the next few minutes, red circles splash through the vase on the left and then disappear as marbles cling around the right vase and build up. Neither projection is an accurate representation of what you would see in the natural world, and yet, after a few rounds of falling circles and bouncing marbles, you find yourself rationally accepting what's happening on screen merely because it fulfills the typical sound and vision requirements for simple observational comprehension. If it feels like a simple trick, it's not--more a persuasive manipulation of your immediate environment, a deft achievement all three artists accomplish with their sly works.

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