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Forest of Symbols



Michael Piazza

at Beret International Gallery, through November 25

Michael Piazza's work is cerebral rather than sensual, engaging the intellect rather than the body. His sculptures of found objects take us on mental journeys through forests of signs and symbols in constantly changing contexts. An Italian-American who's had a deep awareness of his ethnicity from childhood, Piazza may draw on that heritage: "Reliance on symbols," wrote Luigi Barzini in The Italians, "is the fundamental trait of the national character."

Piazza's childhood taught him that seemingly chance encounters are never coincidences but that their symmetry reveals a hidden meaning. Both his grandfathers suffered major accidents, and both his parents were small children of the same age when these accidents occurred. Hearing stories about these accidents led Piazza not only to an obsessive interest in the images surrounding them--leg amputation, madness, incarceration--but also to an impulse to connect the incidents. This tall tale grows even taller through the convoluted working of Piazza's mind, in his art. But his work is also marked by a rigorous self-questioning, which may help explain why it's changed over the last 15 years even though he continues the same obsessions and the same style of presentation, which can only be described as curatorial: how he installs the objects, which might be seen as artifacts, is as much a part of his art as the individual pieces.

Among Piazza's obsessions are bibliophilia, measurement, leg amputation, and imprisonment. This latter theme has become increasingly important since 1993, when he started collaborating with the inmates of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (formerly the Audy Home). In fact many of the pieces in the current exhibition are works in progress from that collaboration. These pieces will undoubtedly evolve over time, because change is central to Piazza's working process: he constantly dismantles and reassembles objects and gives them new contexts or groups them differently, recycling the elements. The two massive law books that act as the weights in the barbell piece Ina-Way, for example, had a previous life as the wheels of a train advancing toward some broken crutches in the 1992 piece As Safe As Houses.

In the current show, Piazza's works have become simpler in form, more stripped down. Gone is the intricate piling on of symbols and materials that characterized his work in the 1980s. That tendency reached its most extreme expression in the 1988 exhibition "Preparations for Madness," an exhibit so hermetic that it seemed the threads of meaning had been buried, and that the mental process of unraveling them might really induce madness. It's not that the current work has become one-dimensional or minimalist--it's too image-centered for that. In fact, it reveals many layers of meaning. But those meanings are closer to the surface. If "Preparations for Madness" seemed to lead to some alarming and obscure nowhere, the pieces in "Unimpressed" are arranged and lead round in a circle: the connections between symbols seem to evolve naturally. A process that was once torturous now seems playful. I suspect that the years have led to a greater command of his craft and development of his language. It's not uncommon for artists to become more economical, excising elements that no longer seem necessary. It's as if the confluence of elements, once willed, now occurs on its own.

Piazza seems to like the limitations of imposed themes and spaces, modifying his pieces to suit the site and often the theme. Beret International Gallery came up with the title for this show, "Unimpressed" (which also includes work by Patrick Collier), and one of the threads of meaning in Piazza's work is an ironic response to elitism and pretensions of superiority. This is expressed in the absurd height of objects like Pencil, a nine-foot-tall pencil constructed from pencils and rubber bands. Or the nine-foot-tall chair in A Good Place. Or the 30-foot, separate trouser legs of Taller Walker.

In Taller Walker many of Piazza's strands of meaning seem to intersect. Certainly it's the tallest piece, although we don't actually see it stretched out to its full length. Two 30-foot pant legs are neatly folded on adjacent shelves on the wall, apparently two separate piles of pants, above the viewers' heads. The ends of the legs hang down to the floor, ending in neat cuffs. On the wall at eye level is a rack of leaflets bearing the phrase "Taller Walker" and a reproduction of a 1919 magazine illustration by the German artist Adolf Shinnerer, "The Stilt Walkers." The drawing shows two politicians of the time walking on stilts high above the crowd. Together the satirical drawing and the long pant legs provide a simple but poetic image containing subtle references to some of Piazza's obsessions. The extreme length suggests power but also impotency. This is, after all, not a pair of pants but the pant legs for two separate, useless, perhaps amputated legs. Second, the piece recalls the books Piazza so often turns to for his quotes. Finally, it refers obliquely to prison. Piazza told me that in this piece he had in mind former Illinois governor Dan Walker, who ran his political campaign by walking the state. Later Walker was imprisoned for financial wrongdoing.

Piazza takes his stand on the ground, so to speak, among the ordinary, powerless prison inmates. Looking up at the absurd pretensions of Taller Walker, he is unimpressed. Two other pieces mounted together on a low stand use a squeegee and a pack of cards to refer to the dominant activities of prison life: cleaning and playing cards. In For Real People the squeegee has a handcuff attached to the handle. The more we study this image, the more absurd it becomes. The purpose of a handcuff, after all, is to immobilize the prisoner by attaching him to a person or object that will prevent him from fleeing. If he's attached to a squeegee, the handcuff's value is lost. Or is the squeegee the prisoner? The more the viewer tries to give the handcuff a meaningful function, the more ridiculous it becomes. This is also the case with two other handcuff pieces: Lot, a flimsy card table with four sets of handcuffs dangling from the edges, and Peek-A-Boo or Neighborhood Watch, a large chain fence composed of interlocking handcuffs. In all three pieces the handcuffs have been liberated from their usefulness, and this estrangement forces us to view them in a new light, as symbols.

The box of playing cards lies next to the squeegee. But Stol 'N' Cards is no ordinary pack: it was made with the help of the incarcerated youth in the Audy Home. Based on the traditional pack of cards and printed in an edition of 100, it has four suits: compasses, gym shoes, mugs, and moons, each complete with a jack (praying mantis), a queen (lioness), and a king (falcon). This piece was first exhibited in a one-night-only exhibition, "A Night in the Grand Court," in July 1994, when the Audy Home was opened to the public for the first time in its 70-year existence. No doubt the cards contain a code, a secret language of the oppressed. And if the inmates made up a game, the rules must be known only to them.

Perhaps the most personal and poignant pieces in the exhibition are the ones that deal directly with books. In Name, which has been manipulated to make full use of a gallery wall, a book is illuminated by a reading lamp, both on the same wall stand. The book is open, but it's bound so tightly and completely by a 30-foot lamp cord that it's impossible to read a line of the text, or even the title. The cord leaves the book and enters the first of seven double electrical outlets that Piazza has spaced evenly along the wall. The electricity is led from an invisible source to the lamp and then from one outlet to another by short loops of cord. This is a bibliophile's nightmare. The book, the object of love, is in some deep trouble. Bound and captive, it seems to have become the object of interrogation. Under the interrogator's lamp, the book is being commanded to give its name.

In Synapse a book of essays by Jonathan Swift is lying open on a wall stand with an electrical wire passing through its pages to a voltmeter: it's as if the book were being tortured or given electrotherapy. Of course, it's possible to see the book's plight unsympathetically--to see these works as the antiintellectual's justified revenge on the mystifying authority of the published word. This attitude--being unimpressed by book learning--is definitely evident in Art Spirit, but here Piazza's tone isn't resentful or fearful, it's light and ironic. An old, battered copy of the American artist Robert Henri's well-known treatise on painting The Art Spirit has been attached to a wooden handle and transformed into a paintbrush. Reduced to a function that it's incapable of performing, the object lies dipped in white paint in a roller tray lying on paint-spattered newspaper.

But Piazza is fundamentally a book lover. He may position himself on the floor with ordinary people among ordinary objects, but his desire, I believe, is to escape and lose himself in the world of books. The objects or sculptures in this exhibit have been arranged in an ellipse, with the taller pieces at the back wall, the medium-height ones at the sides, and the floor-level pieces at the front, with Lot, the circular card table, in the center. In the middle of the back wall is one of the tallest pieces and the most elaborate, A Good Place. A nine-foot-tall chair with steel-scaffolding legs faces the wall, and it is there, close to the ceiling, that Piazza can occasionally be seen during gallery hours. He presents his back to the viewer and faces a "sliding bookshelf," his coffee cup and ashtray on a stand attached to the wall, quietly getting some reading done. A glance at the titles on the shelf reveals a range so eclectic that it might at first be taken as a haphazard selection. But in Piazza's symbol-laden world, everything has a reason and a meaning; nothing is arbitrary. These books were all recommended to him, whether by artist friends, his young sons, or his boss. In this piece he's constructed his own time and place, removed from the demands and stultifying effects of domesticity and work, in which to read the books he's been told he "must read."

The pressures of daily life have the effect of making our surroundings habitual and our actions automatic. Viktor Shlovsky, the Russian formalist, wrote, "Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives and at our fear of war....And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar.'" Piazza makes his found objects strange by altering their contexts and liberating them from the drudgery of their usefulness--they take on a new, metaphorical life. For those who like a visual art that speaks primarily to the mind, this exhibit is essential viewing. And those who've seen it must await the next installment of Piazza's semiology of objects.

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