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Tony Berlant

at Klein Art Works, through December 30

Nancy Nainis Gargiulo: Handle With Care

at ARC Gallery, through December 22

A five-year-old at Klein Art Works during one of my visits to the Tony Berlant exhibit immediately asked a key question: "Why are these paintings full of nails?" While from a distance Berlant's Night's Light No. 41 seems filled with pale stars, from closer the stars seem gray, and from closer still it's clear that many tiny brads are punctuating the surface. For the truth is that, though these 24 recent works use the vocabulary of abstract painting, they're actually constructions of metal Berlant salvaged from thrift shops--TV trays, wastebaskets--printed with brightly colored designs. He also uses factory rejects, nearly monochromatic metal sheets--"the beautiful 'mistakes' the painting machines make," he calls them. He cuts up his found metal and nails the pieces, collagelike, to wood. The brads are everywhere, more than one per inch, of necessity: Berlant told me that with fewer nails the metal would eventually curl or buckle. But he also allowed that he'd probably use as many brads even if they weren't essential: "They build up the energy of the surface the way brush strokes or pencil marks do."

The brads' texture also reminds one that these are surfaces made of metal despite their painterly designs. Though Berlant's strips of patterned metal form abstract shapes, they also contain fragments of illusionistic images, creating a powerful tension between abstraction and these little windows onto a recognizable world. The brads, silver points distributed evenly but almost randomly, bring the viewer's eye back to the surface, adding a third level of interest.

Berlant, 54, a Los Angeles area resident, cites a wide variety of influences. He collected minerals as a child and still recalls the "minimalist structure and the geometry of crystals." In his late teens he was drawn to the work of Joseph Cornell, John Chamberlain, Robert Rauschenberg--artists whose work confounds the traditional distinctions between painting, sculpture, and collage. In about 1962, watching from his studio in Venice as a little market was being torn down, Berlant was struck by the beauty of its layers of metal signs. He brought them back to the studio just to look at them but soon started cutting them up and using them in his art. He also loves "Chinese and Japanese scroll paintings where you can't get everything in one big bang, but which you have to explore like real life, in your own kind of time sequence." He collects pre-Columbian Mimbres bowls in which the forms are "so perfectly balanced" with the surrounding spaces "that figure-ground relationships disappear. There are no negative spaces." The same might be said of his own work: the large areas of abstraction or of dark metal are as compelling as the "figures."

The collector in Berlant seems to want to reclaim as art not only scrap metal but nails--the viewer comes away feeling that raw materials like brad heads can be as rewarding to look at as "completed" imagery. In some ways Berlant's work stops short of the greatest art: while his designs hint at a grand pattern, they never quite reach the iconic, perfected shapes one finds in the paintings of Clyfford Still (whose work helped inspire Berlant to become an artist when he first saw it in his teens). The streaks of color in Night's Light No. 41 seem tentative--but this incompleteness also leaves room for the viewer to find his own patterns, make his own stories, and appreciate the sensuality of the materials.

Woman on a Pedestal No. 40 suggests an indecipherable narrative: the "woman" is a bone-shaped mass of mostly white metal with streaks of color that include map fragments and a hooded superherolike figure. Above her there's a strange "bird." Whatever the story may be, clearly the dark, foliagelike pattern on the left is as important as the figures, and each brad is as important as every other element. One bounces from one to another, never finding an answer, always thinking of more questions. Respect for the metal prevents Berlant from utterly transmuting it; its solidity, with some plates apparently nailed on top of others, suggests the presence of imagery we can't see, giving the works a kind of impenetrability.

Bloom No. 23 at first seems more explicable, almost a metaphor for art making. Concentric squares of blue and tan faux wood grain--originally the sides of a children's swimming pool--create the illusion of a traditional picture frame, leading the eye toward the center of the image. There a headlike shape floats in darkness, surrounded by brightly colored "petals" almost as if it were flowering, an image suggesting the triumph of human creativity. But if one looks harder, the indecipherable fragments that make up the head reassert themselves.

Some of Berlant's works are shaped like houses, but he shies away from the powerful chain of associations houses have for most of us. Covering these peaked-roof boxes with his characteristically enigmatic imagery, he leaves the viewer to read them. There seems to be much more personal content in several house shapes among the 25 new constructions by Nancy Nainis Gargiulo at ARC, though her work is visually sparser than Berlant's. Her glass house with a broken roof has an immediate, unambiguous impact. "I'm going through a divorce right now," Gargiulo told me. "That's probably what the broken houses are all about." She also acknowledges a need to go beyond the strictly personal, however, a wish to make works that can "be understood by someone who hasn't had the same experience."

Gargiulo usually attains that goal. Her simple arrangements of a few objects draw on the power that actual objects can have and often carry great emotional force. If Berlant's pieces straddle the boundary between untransformed raw materials and works of art, Gargiulo's live on the boundary between a work of art--a symbolic or metaphoric expression--and an actual event.

The sparsely elegant Rock on the House is clearly a carefully constructed work of art. A paving stone balances precariously on the peaked roof of a glass house, inside of which is a large, even more delicate glass bulb. A glass box that encloses the whole thing and holds the stone in place is a bit tilted. It's interesting to look at, but what's moving about it is the threatened event: the stone could crush the house. In Rock Tower four martini glasses support a glass plate that begins a mini pyramid of bottles and plates; at the top is a squarish stone that threatens to bring the whole structure down. There's a stone at the bottom of Precarious Vase, but it doesn't make the whole any more stable: a glass plate atop it naturally sits at an angle, and above that is a glass "vase" holding a single long stem with a wilted bloom at the top. Because the roof of Broken House is shattered in several places and broken glass litters the floor of its rooms, it invokes the moment of shattering. The viewer immediately wonders when, how, and why. But instead of yielding answers the piece adds an even greater sense of precariousness to the other constructions.

Gargiulo, 46 and a Chicago native, writes that this show is "an investigation of what is UP. Often things that aren't supposed to hold up do and things you expect to hold up break down." Most of the works take some paradoxical approach to direction: things that are "up" can crush; climbing a wall can lead to death. Both Gargiulo and Berlant are seeking visual forms that subvert some of the traditional Western hierarchies--up and down, figure and ground, even artwork and viewer.

But Gargiulo, like many other feminist artists, also seeks to recover the personal content largely lost in modernism. Several of her works are based on two snapshots she took of a woman lying on the ground. The woman was actually looking for pretty stones, but in the photo--greatly enlarged with a photocopier in some works--she also could be climbing a wall or lying inert or dead. The Undergoing divides the photo among 16 different plates of glass laid on the gallery floor--a kind of deconstruction, almost a dissection, with a creepy emotional resonance.

"Location Series"--a group of eight pieces incorporating glass-mounted photos of The Undergoing installed outside the gallery (mostly outdoors on the ground)--takes a kind of multidimensional approach that recalls Berlant. But the series also invokes actual events--the artist's placing the work in these locations as well as the actions of the photo's prone woman. Behind each photo in "Location Series" is an object--a glove, a calendar, a child's shirt--pulling the viewer in yet another direction, the realm of actual things. This rich series juxtaposes two stories--the prone woman's, the artist's--with artifacts from daily life, which pull these stories into the viewer's world: these objects, which could be ours, could also be theirs.

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