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Gerda Meyer Bernstein

at Fassbender, through February 5

Jeffrey Wolin: Telling Stories

at Catherine Edelman, through February 12

The Exquisite Corpse

at Printworks, through February 12

Marco Nereo Rotelli: Art and Poetry and Art

at Bianca Pilat Contemporary Art, through January 29

By Fred Camper

"To live," as Anton von Webern quoted German poet Friedrich Hšlderlin, "is to defend a form." Webern gave that maxim vitality in his own highly structured 12-tone music, spare and precise and almost pointillist. But in recent decades the idea that every element of a work should feel perfectly placed in a self-sufficient whole has been challenged. The reasons for this shift doubtless range from our media overload to postwar revulsion at everything associated with the Nazis, who claimed great admiration for formal "order" in the arts. Four exhibits within a few blocks of one another in River North demonstrate not only the ubiquity of intentionally messy work but its virtues and limitations.

Windows, the stronger of Gerda Meyer Bernstein's two installations at Fassbender, has the confrontational feel of a wound--a feeling entirely appropriate to its subject, female genital mutilation. The single entranceway is surrounded by cloth she painted bright red, and the walls of the room within are covered with old windows, some broken. Most of the windows frame newspaper and magazine articles on the subject, rusty razor blades, groups of knives, a photo of a woman crouching after undergoing this "surgery"; Bernstein has hand-lettered texts on the glass of other windows.

On the floor are wood shards and chips, which not only give the room a rustic feel but unsteady the viewer a bit. A bright lamp mounted near the ceiling sweeps over three of the walls like a searchlight. What makes the piece effective is not the information it imparts--that might be better conveyed in an essay--but the way it suggests a call to action. There's no special beauty in Bernstein's juxtaposition of frames or texts within the grid of windows, no hidden meanings in the visual disjunction between knives and a newspaper article. But such planned beauty would be out of place--the whole point of the work is to mimic the horror most feel at this surgery. The uninformed will presumably be encouraged to learn more, and the educated will not forget the piece's broken glass, remnants of wood, and searching light, all reminders of the pain of others, which should compel us to do something.

One problem I've long had with political art, however, is that it rarely seems to go against the presumed audience's dominant views. Though female genital mutilation has been defended by Africanists, who argue that Westerners don't understand this traditional practice, it's hard to imagine that many River North gallerygoers will think twice before agreeing with the artist that female genital mutilation is revolting and evil. Male circumcision, though performed on infants without their consent, is of course in no way comparable in damage or brutality, but it is a subject of debate. Prescribed in Jewish and Islamic law, it was arguably introduced for most other Americans in the 19th century because it supposedly decreases sexual pleasure and would thus discourage masturbation. It might be a fruitful subject for contemplation, yet like other tough questions it's usually ignored by political artists.

Bernstein's other installation, Tribunal, addresses a subject on which there's little controversy: the evil of the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews. Anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers don't usually go to art galleries--and if they did, it's not likely they'd be persuaded by this work, while the rest of us would agree 20 times over that the Shoah was a horrible thing. Christian Boltanski, whose dimly lit shrinelike installations Tribunal somewhat echoes, has dealt with the subject poetically, and Judy Chicago has done so stupidly. What more can be said?

Tribunal isn't bad, but it reveals how familiar the rhetoric of Holocaust art has become. A grid of 35 empty chairs represents the murdered multitudes (Bernstein calls them "witnesses who are no longer there"); a bare lightbulb hanging above each chair indicates the victim's inextinguishable soul; and a table of books related to the Shoah, which the chairs face, symbolizes human attempts to understand this calamity. The piece is somewhat emotionally evocative, however, given its dramatic use of light and dark and the fact that it's autobiographical: a resident of Highland Park, Bernstein fled her native Germany as a teenager in 1939, later losing much of her extended family. And at least she protests other acts of barbarism as well as the Holocaust.

Jeffrey Wolin's 36-photograph retrospective at Catherine Edelman also includes art about the Holocaust. For one of the four series represented here, Wolin--who lives in Bloomington, Indiana--interviewed survivors and hand-lettered their testimonies directly on each print. Another series documents residents of a Bloomington housing project called Pigeon Point, and a third Wolin's own life--these two series are also hand-lettered with extensive texts. (The fourth, which shows his children, has much shorter texts.) A former book designer, Wolin blends studied offhandedness with great care in his placement of these testimonies. Most often they're written on the background areas, stopping at the margins of the depicted figures. The effect is to make the photographic composition subservient to the text, leading the viewer away from aesthetics and toward facts.

The subject of Henryk Werdinger, one of the Holocaust photos, stands barefoot in front of a vast body of water, about half of which is covered by his account of being a slave laborer: he wouldn't eat dead rats but did eat sugar he retrieved from the mud. There's no way to read this work in terms of such traditional issues as the balance between figure and water--the text visually and emotionally obscures such relationships. In Assault, from the "Pigeon Point" series, text wraps around the heads and shoulders of a mother and her daughter; it describes how the mother has been victimized by violent neighbors in her housing project. The bruise on her lip gives the text a creepy vividness--the other texts mostly describe things that can't really be depicted. In fact that seems the point of Insanity, which shows a model of a brain surrounded by Wolin's description of his first wife's mental illness.

Part of what's effective in Wolin's work is the somewhat messy way the texts are presented. These words are not the neat marks of someone printing with great care, and the way the text divides around parts of the image often makes it hard to read. References to things we can't see add another level of what a formalist might regard as "impurity": we're asked not so much to look at Henryk Werdinger's figure as to imagine the things he tells us he's endured. In terms of the old art-life debate of the last half century, Wolin comes down decidedly on the side of life.

Almost by definition there's scant formal coherence in the 21 works by 63 artists in the current show at Printworks. In a modern replay of the old surrealist game "exquisite corpse"--first applied to poetry, then drawings--three artists created a single work without seeing the others' contributions. The gallery's owners, Bob Hiebert and Sidney Block, and artist Audrey Niffenegger chose the participants, who include some photographers and book makers as well as painters. They were grouped and assigned head, torso, or legs at random.

The results are engaging, even charming. For the first figure on the checklist, Mark Ottens has made a head out of many heads, and Charles Slatkoff's torso is an accretion of pink fluff, in contrast to Maria Tomasula's legs, composed of anatomically precise plants and flowers. Each part seems to come from a different world. In number 13, a carefully drawn head by Robert Schultz is blindfolded, suggesting the original surrealists' source, the world of dreams; the head splays out suddenly into Nicole Hollander's broad torso, covered with drawings of bras; Amy Madden's legs are octopus tentacles. In number 18, Holly Greenberg's profile silhouette of a head turns into Don Baum's suit of armor covered with actual hair; wrapped around one of Gary Justis's hairy legs is a giant penis. The use of hair, sexual references, unusual shapes, and unusual representational modes all capture the surrealist spirit of playful attack on convention.

There's one slight problem, however. The first exquisite corpses, drawn in the 1920s with little thought of salability, came out of a different ethos: they were in part a political attack on the bourgeoisie, on its devotion to good taste--to decorative paintings that would fit nicely into well-ordered interiors. But today these mildly bizarre pastiches look right at home in River North; no one is likely to be shocked by them, or even terribly challenged. Each artist was given three sheets of paper to take home, allowing for discards in the event of a mistake, which itself seems a rather unsurrealist approach; as a result each drawing is quite elegant and internally consistent even if the assemblages are not. Nicely framed and offered for sale--on my last visit only one remained unsold--each figure is a possessable bit of whimsy. These composites are more stylistic variations on a time-honored theme than challenges to a culture. Indeed, it seems that the really avant-garde artists today are those reacting against postmodern pastiche--those who construct their work around artifacts from nature or represent subjects they really love.

Marco Nereo Rotelli's 15 untitled works on fiberglass at Bianca Pilat serve as an excellent reminder that messy, random, strange-looking art can exist for other than political or historical reasons. All of his four long scrolls and 11 smaller framed works have been partially burned: as documented in seven accompanying photographs by Antonio Radaelli, Rotelli pours alcohol on a sheet of thin fiberglass and then sets it on fire. A Milan artist who's previously worked with glass (one example of which is displayed on top of one of the scrolls laid out on the floor), Rotelli achieves an effect that often eludes contemporary artists: a feeling of genuine strangeness.

If the frames around the exquisite corpses at Printworks tame them a bit, the frames here seem unable to contain the unruly marks within, which often appear to continue beyond the work's boundaries. Color patterns as well as burn marks have been applied to the framed fiberglass, which has been placed in front of a hand-colored sheet of paper whose patterns are only dimly visible, producing a strange depth effect. One work that's mostly gray and black has a white disk at the center of the paper suggesting the moon; two large, irregular burn marks in front seem to mar its perfection, but their resemblance to Japanese or Chinese calligraphy also suggests hidden meaning. Yet these marks are hardly uniform or planned: their thick dark lines are punctuated by white bands, tiny unburned white circles, and lines of such circles that almost congeal into bands.

The show's title refers to Rotelli's collaboration with a poet, who read at the opening, but despite two short catalog essays referring to this relationship it remained obscure to me. It doesn't matter: these works have an odd, disturbing quality authentic in itself. The burn marks constantly challenge the limits of the frame, their random shapes defeating formalist ideals as effectively as Bernstein's broken glass or Wolin's text. But Rotelli's ends are different. Here the violence captured is primal, not connected to any specific culture; it speaks to our inner rather than social selves.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Windows" (detail) by Gerda Meyer Bernstein; Exquisite Corpse by Mark Ottens, Charles Slatkoff, and Maria Tomasula; "Assault' by Jeffrey Wolin; Fiberglass work by Marco Nereo Rotelli.

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