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Sarah Wild and Larry Lee

at Joymore, through November 17

Interrupted: Tom Torluemke and Geoffry Smalley

at MN, through November 17

Though socially involved art can be simpleminded and preachy, it can also succeed, as four Chicago-area artists demonstrate, by combining commentary with craft, provocation with precise execution.

At Joymore, Sarah Wild and Larry Lee--friends who collaborated on one piece here--mediate between opposites in order to make their points. Wild's four little tableaux, which she calls "visual mini-dramas," refer to the current "rhetoric of the victim" on TV talk shows. Hoping to undercut the talk-show dictum to "get real" by getting unreal, as she writes in her statement, she created Thank You: a toy bunny that seems to weep transparent pink strands (orange threads encased in plastic applied by hand). These trail along a shelf, then come together in a bow atop a little present. Blinded in one eye by an exaggerated stream of tears, the bunny appears to transmute her sorrow into a gift. A color scheme of browns and pinks unifies the piece's parts, rendering the notions that tears have value and victimhood is a prize at once palpable and absurd.

Wild's largest installation here, Back, uses scale to produce unease in a meditation on domestic life: a hulking white mound with a lumpy surface towers over a kid-size armchair and toy puppy on a carpet. A shelf mounted on an adjacent wall holds seven elegantly bound volumes with a single picture per page: 258 in all, showing in sequence video stills of a woman (Wild) walking down a railway platform, at the end of which she greets a man with a smiling embrace. Though the crude video scan lines are vaguely discordant here, they do undercut the luxurious look of the fancy books, just as the homey chair scene seems threatened by the white mound. What's interesting is the balance between emotion and distance, domesticity and alienation: this "home" offers neither protection nor authenticity.

Wild, who was born in England in 1967, told me that in graduate school at the University of Tennessee she was part of an art collective interested in the connection between private and public spaces: for one of their projects, they reproduced bathroom graffiti on publicly visible surfaces. Lee, who's showing two paintings and two installations, creates works that also contrast private and public--autobiography with "the linguistics of popular culture and contemporary art history and theory," as he says in his statement.

Lee was born in Chicago in 1962 to parents who'd emigrated from China, and his installations are made from a traditional Chinese tea table and six stools that his sister gave him when she no longer needed them. In Untitled (For Li-Young Lee), the chairs hang upside down in two groups before two gallery windows, a rope around one leg of each. Lee told me he associates this image with his memories of food hanging in the windows of Chinese grocery stores, but it also has a creepy aggressive aspect, suggesting execution by hanging.

Aggression is certainly evident in Cleaving. Lee sawed the tea table neatly into 16 vertical sections, then arranged them in order and symmetrically on the floor. Combining minimalism's cool geometry with the violent undercurrents of some performance art, the piece hints at the collision of East and West. The table's pieces are laid out with autopsylike precision, but there's no obvious explanation for the destruction. And though Lee writes of exploring "the discourse of Self versus Other," his piece undercuts any easy distinctions: the table is both an "other" he attacks and closely connected to him, while the act of sawing it up is both self-assertive and so illogical that it seems other than human.

"Interrupted" at MN, which includes four paintings and 25 collaged drawings by Geoffry Smalley and ten collage works by Tom Torluemke, has one common thread: all the images are discontinuous, broken. Smalley cuts Sintra, a plastic used for outdoor signs, into elaborate shapes upon which he paints a picture copied from a photo (often his own). The cutout pattern is based on sketches Smalley makes from diagrams for assembling the tracks in Hot Wheels kids' games. The effect is of an elaborate excerpt carved from a continuous painting (though lines are sometimes continued imperfectly, revealing that the board was cut first and painted later).

On Top of Spaghetti offers a witty comment on suburban sprawl: copied from a magazine photo, it shows several levels of roadways and overpasses painted on many sections of board, some connected only by the thinnest tendrils. Its cutout shapes connote disconnection rather than the connectedness roads are usually thought to foster, suggesting that highway systems are fragmented labyrinths, sanitized worlds in which each traveler is isolated just as each road is separate from the others. The mood is balanced between the bland pleasantness of 50s illustration and a nightmare vision of a world coming apart.

Smalley's cutout forms are often suggestive--some might see street signs, others human figures--but never lock into specific shapes. In the sky portion of Gostin and Columbia, a thin, curved band snakes upward from a central oval shape to culminate at top left in a larger shape, part of which resembles a traffic light, hinting at how thoroughly industrial forms have come to dominate our landscape.

Born in 1973 in Evanston, Smalley drew TV scenes as a child and in art school was influenced by the pre-Renaissance perspective of painters such as Cimabue and Duccio; partly inspired by stained glass windows, he also drew lines that would "dissect and slice through figures," he told me. Later influences include Oyvind Fahlstrom and one of his teachers, Tom Torluemke, a Chicagoan born in 1959.

Formally, Smalley and Torluemke share a 50s look and the decision to "interrupt" their imagery, at least in this show. But a more significant likeness is that both retreat from meaning, a choice often made by current artists, aware of cultural contradictions--and of their own inability to completely understand or resolve them. Smalley is less an incisive critic than a somewhat amused spectator, choosing his cut patterns arbitrarily; he abjures the idea of revelation in form that has been much of the basis for modernism.

Torluemke's collages of preprinted contact paper offer a wry commentary on imitation surfaces that fail to convince. Juxtaposing several different designs and textures in jagged patterns, they resemble jigsaw puzzles that don't add up to a whole picture. In one of the three circular panels that make up Eclipse, for example, fake wood grain clashes with checkerboards and flower patterns, suggesting that all designs are arbitrary, meaningless choices. In the central panel, the wood-grain paper is cut to suggest legs and feet while to their left is a cloud pattern. Together they suggest travel--and also, as with Smalley, subvert the usual symbolism of the sky by equating it with the pedestrian.

Torluemke's upbringing may have made him suspicious of easy meanings. As a child, he told me, he spent a lot of time with an uncle who couldn't hear or speak, and they drew together as a form of communication, depicting activities they were planning. His parents fought frequently; after their divorce, his alcoholic father was often homeless, and Torluemke would sometimes take him in. For the artist, contact paper recalls the "nasty, peeling" drawer liners in the "yucky places" where his father sometimes stayed.

I considered Torluemke's restraint, his lack of obvious commentary, to be a strength--and was startled to learn that the events of September 11 influenced much of this work. He'd agreed to do the show with Smalley and was already thinking of returning to the contact-paper collages he'd done more than a decade earlier. The attacks suddenly made them seem even more appropriate: among other things, Torluemke thought that the patterns of the contact paper, which he connects with 50s suburbanization, "would be nostalgic and somehow warming in a way that would have lent some hope and maybe counteract aggression." On the other hand, these collages present abstracted views of planes crashing into towers, while the arcs in Eclipse suggest "the whole idea of the eclipse."

I didn't see any of this, which was fine with Torluemke. The gray "elephant" at the bottom of Death of an Elephant is distanced from any representational connection by its wood-grain pattern--and it's certainly not obvious that the elephant represents America attacked. One does see forms and textures interlocked, as in a struggle, and when the stripes of one pattern flow into the stripes of the plaid above it, the designs are so different that this "link" becomes a joke on false connections. While the patterns do convey warmth, the collisions between them suggest a hopelessly divided world.

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