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Markers and Milestones. In a World Crammed with Signs, a Show All About Them

By Roger Green

Metro Times, 11/28/2007


The map is not the territory," philosopher and scientist Alfred Korzybski famously decreed. Yet from cave painting to computer icons, humans have used representation as shorthand to communicate meaning. That's the multifaceted issue inspiring Signs, Symbols, Gestures, a lively and stimulating group exhibit at Ann Arbor's Gallery Project.

In all, 19 Michigan and national artists are represented in the exhibit, which explores how graphic and other forms of notation impact and shape our lives. Professor Marianetta Porter of the University of Michigan's School of Art & Design curates the show and contributes her own thoughtful works.

The participating artists use a variety of two- and three-dimensional media to investigate signs, symbols and gestures, inventively approaching the topics from multiple points of view. Overall, it's a visually pleasurable, intellectually prickling show, from which visitors may emerge questioning their daily experience in the world.

Porter shows two mixed-media pieces, each comprising found objects laden with associative meaning. "They Came in Chains" combines an iron and an anchor; one resting atop a pedestal, the other propped against the pedestal's base. A gracefully curved length of chain links the scavenged items. Silhouetted against the gallery's bright white walls, the dark metal items pack considerable visual punch. Yet they also read as pictograms, referencing the slave trade and its continuation in domestic servitude.

The same associations inform Porter's "No Time to Die," a wall-hung, wooden ironing board patterned with groups of four parallel vertical lines crossed by a single horizontal stripe. The quantitative markings suggest menial tasks repeated endlessly and thanklessly over time.
Photographer Matt Siber treats signs more directly, literally, in a series of digitally manipulated ink-jet prints portraying Midwestern highway scenes. In them, familiar commercial signs have been loosened from poles and buildings and float in the sky.

Siber's signs bear a striking if superficial resemblance to the mysterious banner floating above combatants in Albrecht Altdorfer's panoramic "The Battle of Issus," painted in 1529. Yet Siber's signs, he explains in an artist's statement, have pressing, contemporary meaning. Supplanting the natural environment, they signify corporate hegemony.

Other artists address vintage symbols and signs. Sculptor Robert Mirek places visual symbolism in historical perspective with relief pieces that suggest medieval talismans or charms. His fanciful, memorable sculptures are constructed of unlikely materials: scorched paper-pulp and inked Mylar in some cases, rubber and oil on aluminum with etching in others.

Another sculptor, Luke Engel, treats a set of icons known to hobos during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Comprising a secret, shared language, the linear markings in chalk and charcoal appeared on fences and buildings throughout the United States.

Among the messages communicated in hobo code were "Not a Safe Place," "Kind Lady Lives Here" and "Present Self as Veteran." In Engel's sculptures, the informative markings appear on square blocks of rough-textured barn wood, arranged in framed grids of 12 units each.

Like Engel's sculptures, works by other participating artists are composed as grids, whose use may be a stylistic device or — more compellingly — reprise evolutionary means of organizing and communicating ideas. "Delirium" by El Shafei Dafalla Mohamed is a grid of 128 fingerprints, reproduced at inflated scale with laser technology, on painted paper.

Much is conveyed by "Delirium" which, according to the artist, references dispersal, refugees, immigrants, checkpoints and border controls. The magnified fingerprints also illustrate the simultaneous individuality and universality of humankind.

Importantly too, the act of fingerprinting is a gesture. Some artists investigate this idea more persuasively than others. Titus Heagins' photographic portraits, while engaging, document gestures too subtle to register evident meaning. At the opposite, overly obvious extreme is an arrangement of untitled ink-jet prints by Mona Jimenez, portraying successive phases of washing hands. The vertically grouped prints suffer from exalting an action with little inherent interest. Worse, they too strongly recall photographer Eadweard Muybridge's 19th century studies of human and animal locomotion.

Infinitely more successful is Larry Cressman's installation, "The Nature of Drawing II," a network of slender twigs secured to a blank white background with invisible pins. The delicate installation refines the slashing gesturalism of abstract expressionism to a sublimely sensitive state.

At the same time, Cressman's installation expands "The Nature of Drawing" into three dimensions. The meshwork of twigs precedes and casts shadows on the white background, altering the work's appearance as the viewer shifts position.

That's an apt metaphor for Gallery Project's themed group shows, which address topical issues with sensitivity from many perspectives. This exhibit continues that practice satisfyingly.