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Wrapped in Mystery

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Ron Grenko

at Beret International, through May 17

Joe Litzenberger

at Tough, through May 17

By Fred Camper

In recent years conceptual and minimal art have converged, as artists have used minimalist approaches to hint at content. Both forms, however, require a heightened level of viewer participation; art that seems intentionally incomplete enlists the viewer as a kind of comaker. Ron Grenko encourages such an approach in his ten works at Beret International.

Three were made by placing an object--a brick, a lead pipe, and an ice pick--on top of a boxy white base and covering it with a cloth dipped in molding plaster, which hardened in the shape of the object. Grenko then removed the objects and placed a small amount of frozen blood under the cloths; a tiny amount of blood is now leaking from under the cloth in one, and Grenko's intention is that with time more blood will leak out. The covers, he told me, were meant to emulate the way police cover up a weapon to preserve evidence--and each object is, of course, a potential murder weapon. These thought-provoking works set up several contradictions--between the antiseptic white paint and the creeping blood, between the implied crimes and the "pure" gallery setting, between simple forms and the messy world of tabloid news.

For several of his five "blood paintings" Grenko bought gold or silver frames and covered the paintings they contained with animal blood, either dried black or black with red lines, a color he added. In another contrast, the ornate frames are composed, symmetrical, decorative, and the blood patterns are organic, random. The blood also introduces the idea of decay, replacing the naturalistic depictions that might typically be found in such frames with a kind of elemental essence.

Both series are a bit unsettling. Yet there's perhaps some ironic humor here as well: Grenko appears to be tweaking the aesthetic "purity" of traditional minimalism, in which geometrical forms seem designed to exclude the daily world, by using blood and murder weapons. Both series seem unbalanced, however; it's hard for such simple forms to hold their own against the tabloidish content. One can see this problem clearly by contrasting these works with Grenko's two "covered canvas" pieces, which make gentle jokes on the subject of aesthetic purity without resorting to blood.

One is a diptych of two 14-by-14-inch canvases; the other is a single 28-by-56-inch canvas. In both, white canvases are covered with white canvas cloth on the front and sides; laces attached to the cloths are tied together, holding the front coverings to the side ones. Here Grenko achieves a precise balance between conflicting possibilities. There is a contrast between the purity of color-field paintings and the rather theatrical coverings. But whereas in the blood paintings the theatrical, ornate frames seem to heighten the luridness of the blood, here the closed "curtains" gently make fun of artistic pretense, reminding one of the story of the emperor's new clothes--commonly alluded to in arguments that the "less is more" aesthetic is an excuse for a put-on. At the same time the works seem honestly self-abnegating: these nothings wrapped in nothing leave the viewer questioning what art is, what an artist does, and how much the viewer should add to the experience. Humor and emptiness are balanced precisely enough to leave the viewer free to reach his own conclusions.

Joe Litzenberger in his 11 works at Tough also uses spare forms to elicit the viewer's contribution. But Litzenberger, like Grenko a Chicagoan, does so by referring to the ways in which the works were made. Rather than thinking about references, the viewer is encouraged to think about materials and process.

Litzenberger's four "paintings"--Eenie, Meenie, Minie, and Mo--at first reminded me of Grenko's covered canvases. Each is an inch-thick white plaster square mounted in an elegant wood frame, its surface a pattern of barely visible squiggly bands arranged in a loose lattice. The elegant frames, like Grenko's tied covers for blank canvases, seem a humorously pretentious setting for these modest pieces. As it turns out the squiggly lines were made with an initial pour of plaster, the background filled in later with another pour. And though Litzenberger doesn't make a big point of it, he added phosphorescent paint to one of the two plaster batches for each "painting." So if the gallery turns off the lights (which it will do on request), part of the design glows green. Even stranger, in two of the pieces the irregular bands are lit up and the background is dark, while in the other two it's the reverse.

The monochromatic glow dematerializes the slabs, almost converting them into mental images; it also intensifies the contrast between the bands and the background, suggesting some sort of hidden structure. The difference between the two groups--the lines glowing or background glowing--gives them a certain mystery, and the symmetry of these opposites produces an elegant balance. These variations may cause one to wonder how the pieces were made and why they differ, but it's part of their charm that they aren't fully explained.

Litzenberger made six other works in the show using welding techniques, though not in the conventional way of bonding two surfaces together. In Squirt a very thin pole, perhaps nine feet tall, rises from a cube on the floor. Litzenberger melted a welding rod and dripped it in a careful pattern to create a stack of rings, somewhat irregular in width, with an occasional bead adhering to the side. The weight of the rod exactly equals the weight of the small cube, Litzenberger told me. This choice partly helps him "figure out where to stop," but he also likes the idea of "two different masses--a very architectural man-made form, and coming out of it a naturalistic excretion." Indeed, the rings of Squirt are a bit like irregular tree rings, not surprising since they result from the movements of the artist's hand. As one's eyes move from ring to ring, one relives the obsessive repetition involved in the creation of the piece, becoming almost a cofabricator. The rod and the small block on the floor are like a tree growing out of a Miesian skyscraper; knowing that the weights are equal heightens the irony suggested by their very different shapes.

The idea of the viewer as cofabricator is at its strongest in Litzenberger's large Whorl, an awe-inspiring monument from which the viewer must remain distant, partly because it rises from a large, flat mahogany base. More than other art, this work precisely articulates the central contradiction of all participatory art: the artist must make something, to distinguish his products from the detritus of the world, but if the thing made is too distant or self-contained it won't engage the viewer. Whorl is a huge, elegant, funnel-like shape that rises almost from a point to spread at the top like a mushroom. Like Squirt, it's constructed of hundreds of tiny rings the artist made by melting a welding rod. And again, viewing this elegant yet organic surface echoes the obsessive, repeated activity involved in creating it.

Litzenberger documents his work in a nearby video installation, Degradation, that records the welding of Whorl and in a printed diary, Whorl Data, that memorializes its construction in 293 hours over 72 days. Making Whorl, Litzenberger says, muted his self-awareness. "The repetitiveness of the task puts your mind almost on auto control, in the way that you can lose yourself on a long drive." Looking at the bands in Whorl can produce a similar dizzying effect, heightened by the way the piece splays outward, projecting into the space of the room: it seems these rings might go on forever.

For Degradation Litzenberger had a single video made of himself working on Whorl, then made nine copies, each a further generation from the original. Visitors can choose to view a bit of each tape in turn, and the degradation of each progressive generation is quite noticeable: by the third tape the color is gone; by the seventh, the action is seen through a pattern of mostly vertical black and white lines; and the tenth is almost completely abstract.

In the genre of "print generation" films a representational image is copied until it degenerates into high-contrast grain. These works make a point about the nature of film as a medium, but Litzenberger has other goals in Degradation. "I felt a relationship between video degeneration and the process of continually welding, in the sense that as I'm reusing the material or transforming it over and over again, it becomes something else." And in fact what's most interesting about Degradation is the way that virtually all the copies formally resemble Whorl: the video lines that start appearing have an organic wigglyness that recalls the sculpture's many rings, and the image's instability--which initially seems a contrast to Whorl's mass--is echoed by the movement of one's eye from ring to ring, encountering unpredictable differences. Seeing the two works together I was reminded that, although we might think of the video as decaying, the end product is very similar to the artist's creation, built up over a lengthy period of time. The concepts of "growth" and "decay" are human interpretations that may have little to do with impersonal nature--and technology--which know no such values: the decay of one form is the growth of another.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Blood Painting" by Ron Grenko and "Degradation" by Joe Litzenberger.

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