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The Prisoner of Art 

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Jeff Abell

at N.A.M.E. Gallery

March 11

"Silence Is . . ." marked an acknowledged departure for Jeff Abell. Instead of constructing his work around intelligently scripted and elaborately orchestrated language, his trademark method, Abell explored the evocative presence of silence in performance. This focus on watching silent activity rather than hearing a text, while problematic at times, gave Abell's work a simplicity and occasional elegance that nicely complemented the bare-bones performance space at N.A.M.E. Gallery.

"Silence Is . . ." consisted of two pieces, Object Lesson #1, his earliest performance piece (1974), and Writing on the Wall, his most recent. Object Lesson #1 began as Abell entered the room and stared at a collection of eight-foot pink wooden poles standing up at various angles in the corner. These clean, cool lines punctuated the stark black walls and the water pipes running through the room. The poles, which stretched from floor to ceiling, merely leaned against the ceiling's wooden beams for support, creating an image of precariousness. Abell crossed to the poles, examined them carefully, then selected one and planted it center stage, wedging it between floor and ceiling. But because the pole was cut not quite to the height of the room, it seemed not altogether secure in its new location. The precariousness of the piece was increasing.

Abell then continued to select poles and move them one by one from the corner to center stage, slowly building what might have been the skeleton for a misshapen wigwam. Abell performed this activity with an odd sense of self-importance, moving the poles with exaggerated care and caution, as if precisely enacting some sacred ritual. The poles thus became "significant objects," although their intended significance remained unclear. The maneuvering of these simple and beautiful visual elements, which alone would have been enough to captivate me, became muddied with "meaning" because of Abell's mannered treatment of them.

It took him perhaps 15 minutes to move the ten poles from the corner to the center of the room. With the last pole, Abell stepped inside the skeleton, and then placed the pole so as to prevent his exit. The placement of this last pole proved to be the most difficult, because his ability to maneuver it was greatly reduced and because he had apparently chosen a pole that did not want to stand up.

It was only during this last episode that Object Lesson #1 seemed genuine. Up until that point, the kind of contrived deliberation that marked Abell's performance (barring a few near mishaps) had compromised the authenticity of his task: instead of watching a man genuinely trying to construct a precariously balanced sculpture, I saw a man acting as if he were trying to construct a precariously balanced sculpture. Only when he placed the last pole did his effort seem spontaneous and unrehearsed and the risk involved become tangible. Had Abell focused on his task rather than on trying to imbue it with a weighty significance, Object Lesson #1 would have been eminently more successful. Let the task speak for itself.

Also working against the piece was its manner of presentation. By putting himself and his poles in front of an audience sitting in unidirectional seats, Abell forced us to scrutinize his every move. But since the piece consisted only of the accomplishment of a simple task, such scrutiny seemed unwarranted and therefore frustrating. Object Lesson #1 should have been scanned, not studied in its every detail. The piece would also have been more successful if the audience had been mobile, if we might have discovered our own best vantage point, just as Abell constantly examined his sculpture from all different sides.

Liberated from its oppressive formality, the piece might have been truly remarkable. Its central image--an artist so engrossed in his own little aesthetic experiment that he eventually locks himself inside it--is provocative. It is an image that many Chicago artists would do well to consider.

The second piece, Writing on the Wall (1988), proved at once charming and baffling. While "the protagonist," Dani K., wrote quotations from different sources (ranging from William Blake to a political memorandum) on the wall with multicolored chalk, Abell (as "the antagonist") made repeated attempts to thwart her progress. Each time that the antagonist snuck up on the protagonist to stop her from writing, wielding a rope or a tomato or a cream pie or a bucket of water, the protagonist would holler "Lights!" and immediately the lights would be shut off. In the dark, the antagonist would flail about and then holler "Lights!" as well, at which point the lights would come back on to reveal that his trick had backfired: the old cream-pie-in-the-face routine.

Most delightful about Writing on the Wall was its deadpan goofiness. Abell's attacks on Dani K. revealed him to be a prize chump: each of his poorly engineered bombs blew up in his face. Between attacks, he would exit the room, and we could hear him offstage plotting his next coup, running around or loudly filling buckets with water. I was also struck by the visual beauty of the piece, particularly by the colorful design of chalk-written words sprawled over the black wall at the rear of the stage.

For his last attack, Abell brought in a knife, the only real weapon in the bunch; suddenly the piece had an air of danger. Knowing the reputation of performance artists, I was a bit spooked as to where that knife might end up. As in all his other attempts, however, Abell's attack backfired and he stabbed himself, complete with a fair amount of theatrical blood staining his shirt. At which point Dani K. wrote on the wall some lines from Adrienne Rich's "Love Song #VII." She made no attempt to write it line for line, apparently. "What atonement is this all about? Am I simply using you to escape writing about the worst of all--the failure to want our freedom passionately enough?"

How this text functioned as a conclusion to the piece eluded me. In fact, all of the texts, while interesting and thought-provoking in and of themselves ("25,000 people voted for Pat Robertson in Iowa. 28,000 people have died of AIDS in the U.S. Question: which is the more frightening statistic?"), shed little light on one another or on the structure of the piece as a whole. Why was the antagonist trying to stop the protagonist from writing on the wall? What was at stake? Why did the antagonist feel compelled to silence the protagonist, when her writings were not particularly volatile? And if the antagonist's objective was to stop her from writing, why did he not attack her words (erase them) instead of attacking her person?

These questions were finally left unanswered, and Writing on the Wall itself became an aborted coup, like all of Abell's unsuccessful attacks on Dani K. I do not doubt the sincerity of Abell's work, nor that he had some very particular strategy in mind with this piece. But his disparate elements did not jell, and the final phrase written on the wall--"Assez vu [enough seen]"--was unfortunately true. While I applaud Abell's instinct to approach his material indirectly, never threatening to hit us over the head with a message, I found that that same indirection in Writing on the Wall led me in circles rather than to a final destination.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kevin Wolff.

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