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Nicolas Floc'h: Epicerie and the Portable Store

at Temporary Services, through September 27

Nicolas Floc'h: Ecriture Productive: Documentation

at I Space, through October 9

Ivy Crest Garden

on Kolmar just north of 16th Street, continuing

Kenneth E. Rinaldo: Flickering Signifiers

at Gallery E.G.G., through October 9

Judith Geichman and Frank Piatek: Studio/Process/Residue

at NFA Space, through October 3

Andrea Polli: Nineteen Ninety-Nine in Chicago

at Artemisia, through September 25

By Fred Camper

A few years ago, when I was on a critique panel at a university, we found that one graduating senior had assembled all his photographs on the floor of his gallery. He explained that he'd been up for three days straight finishing the work and hadn't had time to hang it. What surprised me was how little trouble the faculty gave him: I think they did him a real disservice by letting him graduate rather than teaching him the ways of the real world. Imagine a gallery's response to a young artist saying, "I haven't been able to get my slides mounted--can you look at the roll of film?"

Again and again I've been confronted as a critic with ill-conceived or poorly executed presentations that undermine the art being shown. Especially when it comes to conceptual work, where there isn't all that much to look at sometimes, many artists don't seem to realize the importance of the details of design and display.

Nicolas Floc'h, a Frenchman who recently did a residency in Chicago sponsored by the French government, is an artist whose interesting and important ideas are unevenly presented. His three "shows" here are a small epicerie, or grocery store, on display at Temporary Services; slide and video documentation of some of his work at I Space; and Ivy Crest Garden in Lawndale. The epicerie is created with folding and modular furniture Floc'h designed: little stools, hanging shelves, tables--all the furnishings of a "portable store," which can be packed into a single shipping container whose sides become the tabletops. Floc'h displays various manufactured commodities alongside growing plants and harvested vegetables and fruit, all from Chicago community gardens, including the one in Lawndale. I bought and ate a small apple, which wasn't bad, and learned from gallery director Brett Bloom that the tree it came from, on 61st Street, is soon to be cut down for a school expansion.

Bringing nature into a gallery both challenges traditional definitions of art and makes an ecological point about the way human constructions divide and delimit space. Even a tiny plant makes us aware of its potential for growth and thereby invokes the whole world of blossoming nature. And by placing his plants in a carefully constructed store--everything here is for sale--Floc'h challenges the standard model of art collecting: there are no unique or precious objects here. This show has also created a dialogue with members of the community where the gallery is located: people see the plants in the window and come in and learn about the project, sometimes buying something.

The temporary, almost guerrilla nature of Floc'h's installations--he'll use the same furniture in France for a small clothing store--underlines his marginal relationship to existing systems of distribution. Grow food, sell it yourself, his piece seems to say. Of course this doesn't quite work economically. Bloom runs his gallery at a loss, subsidizing it himself--in fact, this is his last show in the current space, and he's still looking for a new one with rent he can afford. If the Lawndale teens who worked on the garden had been paid a living wage (some were volunteers, and some were paid minimum wage), the produce and plants would have been prohibitively expensive.

Floc'h's epicerie seems a worthwhile if not particularly aesthetic project. But one aspect of the installation troubled me greatly. Store-bought packaged goods occupy about the same amount of space as the produce and living plants. Floc'h carefully removed the original labels and substituted generic ones of his own making on such items as canned vegetables, shampoos, and fabric softeners. In an essay in a booklet accompanying the show, Bloom suggests that multiple meanings lie behind each of the épicerie's numerous objects. But I cannot reconcile the meaning of a mass-manufactured bottle of shampoo with that of a recently harvested apple. Floc'h hasn't clearly articulated the differences between items in his installation, treating all his products nearly identically. How does selling relabeled mass-manufactured items add to the powerful provocation of selling community-grown plants and produce in a gallery setting?

Things get a lot sloppier in Floc'h's presentations at I Space. A short slide show documents his "Ecriture Productive," a project in which seeds were sown in patterns to spell out the plants' names. We see greenery from above arranged to spell the French word for "radish," followed by slides of people eating radishes; this juxtaposition is repeated for other plantings. After decades of French-based semiology and deconstruction, there's something appealing about a Frenchman who grows plants in the shapes of their names, but the idea isn't exactly profound.

A Floc'h video called Poisson ("Fish") documents an overnight fishing trip: using a sophisticated navigational system, the boat was able to spell out the word "poisson" in the water--in the video its course is shown on radar. In a document available at Temporary Services, Floc'h says of Poisson: "The most perilous point we had to face...was [making] the point of the 'i.'" I couldn't help thinking of something much more perilous: for centuries, men who fish for a living have lost their lives at sea. And for the residents of Lawndale, peril has meant trying to survive and live decent lives in the face of unemployment, drugs, and crime. For Floc'h, peril means that his little writing game might fail--and again he doesn't seem to see a difference, this time between fishing for life and fishing as play.

Furthermore, as works of visual art the slide show and video are awful. The variations from one slide to the next--between close and long shots, between one kind of composition and another--are neither used nor acknowledged in this banal documentation. The video is even worse: the camera just points in the general direction of what Floc'h wants to show, with no sense of the importance of framing, light, color, or rhythm. Also, I Space had no documentation at all on Floc'h--a casual visitor is likely to have little or no idea what's going on in the slides or video--though the gallery may soon remedy this. Floc'h's clear one-page statement on his "Ecriture Productive" is available at Temporary Services only if you ask for it. Fortunately it gives visitors some idea of what his work is about, because this "documentation" explains little or nothing.

Given that Ivy Crest Garden is enclosed by a high fence, I was fortunate it happened to be open when I visited. Much of what was grown here, in a former vacant lot still somewhat littered with urban detritus, has already been harvested, but a few greens still spell out part of the word "lettuce." Ducks, kept for insect control and fertilizer and egg production, wander about. No one would mistake this for a garden that's meant to have an aesthetic impact, but anyone who contributes to making something grow in Lawndale and providing a positive experience for the community is something of a hero in my book. Some things can be more important than art.

The relationship between the three shows isn't nearly as carefully articulated as it could have been, though. The slide show and video at I Space don't document anything in Chicago. The show at Temporary Services doesn't include documentation of the three community gardens that grew the produce. And since no prices are visible at Floc'h's epicerie, some visitors won't know that everything is for sale. The address of Ivy Crest Garden appears nowhere in print, and it's not open at regular times, so it doesn't appear in art listings. The URL listed on a poster for all three "shows" is incorrect, and the correct one (megsinet.com/-nobudget/temp_serv.html) has almost no information.

With an installation by Columbus, Ohio, resident Kenneth E. Rinaldo, "Flickering Signifiers," Gallery E.G.G. rather than the artist has failed in its presentation. Each of Rinaldo's five video sculptures consists of a small television stripped of its case and enclosed in a bubble of blown glass, revealing the whole mechanism. Just outside the glass a concave piece of painted plaster is mounted flush with the screen so it's almost impossible to see what's on it. What you're supposed to look at is the reflected light, a diffuse blur. The idea is to make visible the weird, almost diseased quality of light from a cathode-ray tube: Rinaldo includes in his statement a quote from philosopher Paul Viriglio, who calls television an "infection." And Rinaldo's modified TVs elegantly negate the way television's pleasurable images seduce and their flickering light hypnotizes.

The problem is that these sculptures need to be seen in darkness, and the light-filled gallery is never open at night: daylight greatly softens and evens out the video light. Only by making a special appointment was I able to see the show at night. And that was something of a revelation: what had seemed mildly interesting by day was intensely, creepily seductive at night. The disk of light each monitor throws changes colors as the image changes, and the sensual beauty of the light strengthens Rinaldo's point about TV's power. Ultimately the light changes are not aesthetically coherent but seem driven by the broadcast we hear in muffled form. And that's appropriate: by emphasizing the random rhythms of the light, which TV encourages us to ignore in favor of its sound-driven pictures, Rinaldo reminds us how aesthetically compromised the form is.

It's not as if daylight were an insurmountable barrier: a few rolls of aluminum foil and plenty of tape would have produced the appropriate environment for Rinaldo's works. Why show art at all if you can't show it properly?

At NFA Space, Chicago artists Judith Geichman and Frank Piatek have installed large fragments of their studios, a seemingly self-involved choice that irritated me a bit at first. How much can we learn from looking at an artist's studio? What's next, an exhibit of artists' work clothes? Or their paintbrushes? Why not the trucks they haul their materials in? More irritating still, the only finished artwork by Piatek that's visible--a large painting--is installed behind a table, and the only large finished Geichman is draped in bubble wrap. When the Museum of Modern Art constructed a replica of Mondrian's studio a few years ago, it was part of a retrospective on him--and I did learn something from seeing his studio alongside his paintings. How much can someone who doesn't know the work of these two artists gain from these installations?

I have seen a number of Piatek's abstract paintings, fortunately, and was interested to see the densely layered drawings from which they evolved: the drawings are far more referential than I would have imagined. Similarly, the books on display, a wall text that refers to Aztec art, and a cartoon of Egyptian imagery suggest that he draws from a wider field than I'd realized. Still, I was frustrated: I wanted to see the work again.

Geichman's studio does include one small finished painting that's clearly visible, a thickly built-up affair of messy colors revolving around a luminous center. Looking down at the smears and solid cakes of paint heaped on her floor, then up at the painting again, I could see by contrast how carefully constructed it was. Her installation would be a great answer to those "critics" of abstract art who say, "My kid could do this."

These installations are certainly worth the trip, especially if you go at night. Then you can also see Christopher Furman's window installation, visible only after dark, using projected light and moving machines. His wonderful mixture of clunky humor and mysterious shapes and shadows is well under control.

Andrea Polli's spare installation probably has the least self-conscious visual artistry of any of these exhibits, yet it's the best at balancing aesthetic concerns and the "real" world, proving yet again that there are no rules when it comes to art. On three walls at Artemisia Polli has tacked up 18-by-24-inch unframed sheets of tracing paper, one for each day of 1999 (until at least September 8--she periodically adds days). Each bears a few pencil lines, always touching one location at the lower right, sometimes extending only an inch or so from it and other times streaking across the paper.

Each drawing traces over a Chicago street map to show the route Polli took around the city that day; for days when she was out of town or did not go out, she mounted blank pages. Sometimes she just took a short walk near her home, represented by a single line; other days produced elaborate loops, and on days that involved long trips the line often leaves the paper. Her routes are displayed identically regardless of the mode of transport, though the photograph on the show's invitation card suggests that all of Polli's trips were walks: it show's a woman's bare feet. In fact some trips were made by CTA or car, accounting for the great differences in the distances Polli traversed.

Still, Polli's minimal display powerfully invokes movement, the passage of time, and the space of the city. All the other artists discussed here brought items from the "real" world --fruit, televisions, artists' materials and furnishings--into the gallery. Typically the intention is to connect art more closely to the world we live in, but it sometimes seems "reality" is asked to do too much of the work. Polli's entirely symbolic tracings bring her daily life into the gallery more successfully and more completely, in part because her spare approach asks more of the viewer. Her apparently artless lines, multiplied by the obsessive scale of her installation, have a quiet poetry.

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