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When Ken Aptekar set out to make the pieces in “Talking to Pictures”—a show in which his copies of paintings or of details of paintings in the Corcoran’s collection are overlaid with glass bearing sandblasted text—he could have known that in showing them he would sound a number of postmodern buzzwords, the most glowing being “appropriation,” “discipline crossing,” and “institutional critique.” Under modernism, paintings talked to other paintings in only the loosest sense; they interrogated the great art of the past in a way that was richly visual. Now, seminars and writer-painters talk to paintings. And the conversation has become familiar and frank.

This frankness is meant to combat an art-world piety that is at best simply unreflective but that may also be elitist. All traces of elitism were avoided by Aptekar’s working method, since, after choosing his paintings, the artist procured texts from a number of outside sources, including museum guards, high-schoolers, and graduate students. He then pasted over the paintings their stories and comments, along with his own personal texts, which relate largely to his family life and to his experiences creating the show. While Aptekar, in his title, is content to call this “talking,” the catalog essayists who promote the show substitute a more grandiose set of words: Their contributions make free use of the terms “challenge,” “explore,” “diagnose,” and even “critique.”

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Perhaps there is a sense in which Aptekar’s work really is a meaningful interrogation or exploration, when it works to remind us of the mechanisms and politics of curating. The first piece viewers encounter is a reminder of the collection’s “ghosts,” or de-accessioned paintings. Later, the artist lets us know about some of the difficulties he encountered in borrowing companion works (such as a circle-of-Rembrandt pair). Throughout, we are provoked to meditate on just how the paintings got here. This is a highly contingent procedure, one that museum cognoscenti take for granted but that most viewers ignore, supposing (at least at one time, in my case) that the work just lives on the walls, 90 percent of it, anyway, and 10 percent in the vaults, as opposed to the other way around.

Generally, however, to say that Aptekar’s work is critique or exploration is to grossly overstate the case. If I write, “Whatever floats your boat,” over an 18th-century portrait of a rather effeminate-looking young man (as Aptekar has essentially done for the third in his series), what I am doing is not critiquing a painting or exploring art history, although I could be being rather funny, as I think the artist is. I also could be delivering a sendup of the art world as Duchamp managed with the marvelous L.H.O.O.Q., his goateed Mona Lisa. (“Elle a chaud au cul” = “She’s got a hot butt.”) But to call Aptekar’s work a critique of power or an exploration of Jewish identity is only to trade in the already inflated terms of postmodernism. And to do so does an injustice to those works that really are interrogations of art and power structures, such as Michel Foucault’s critique of the penal institution and Philip Roth’s novelistic explorations of Jewishness. To offer a real critique, one must be a little more historically specific than Aptekar has managed.

With the very fine but irrelevant craftsmanship of his objects, Aptekar lets us know he’s not engaged in anything like a mere sendup. While Duchamp’s Gioconda (an altered postcard of 1919) was only a few grams of paper, Aptekar has bolted heavy plates of glass to wooden structures that project a good two inches from the wall. The signage technique is one of institutional labeling. These pieces are made to last—and to travel. Unfortunately, what we have here is pounds of picture and only a few grams of thought.

Anyone who saw Aptekar’s Pink Frick at the Corcoran in 1993 will acknowledge that he has come a long way in making his work interesting and adult, but his manner hardly yet equals the visual-to-visual interrogation that evolved in late modernism. My suspicion is that Aptekar has made a category error in assuming that the bold fabrication of minimalist object and the koanlike brevity of conceptual-art texts are acceptable vehicles for the probing investigation his work presumes and his promoters seem to see in it.

A more appropriate economy of means informs the work of Nancy Chunn. Two flights up at the Corcoran is the much less affected and avowed gabbing with pictures of her “Front Pages.” For this project, the artist doodled over New York Times covers throughout the 366 days of 1996. In preparing for the work, Chunn wisely armed herself with interventionist tools that are not strictly textual: Handmade rubber stamps and opaque watercolors are superimposed on the news stories to create an understated graffiti or commentary on the daily round of events. Thus, upstairs at the gallery one finds economy of means, a willingness to improvise, and dynamism; downstairs, it is all static concept and pretentious program.

In reading Chunn’s account of how she made her work, we realize how much her ideas evolved in the process of making the art. One suspects she employs something of a naive voice for her statements, yet she claims to have, in effect, surfed the months, discovering themes along the way. In January, she found “the Big Snowstorm,” in February “the beginning of the election campaign,” in March “a large series on downsizing,” and so on.

And pretentious (or heady) it is not. Almost any overblown and trite theme one can construct—e.g., that she is making her art against a landscape of information or that she is coping with “information overload”—is belied by the fact that Chunn merely extrapolates an activity that every literate adult has taken up in moments of breakfast-table atavism.

A multiplicity of themes, an absence of any one political message, and a virtual eschewing of low humor keep this project bobbingly afloat and full of surprises. In her present incarnation, Chunn remains obviously, if rather tamely, liberal, but that is not so much a political position in America as a willingness to think about politics. Only a few times does she emerge to make a statement out of an entire page. A rightly aggressive “IT’S WORLD AIDS DAY STUPID” and the familiar red ribbon cover Dec. 1. Yet she also makes “all-over” pages for Clinton’s re-election and for Christmas Day.

A final and mysterious plus comes in the form of a meaningful connection with art history. Just as in Sol LeWitt’s drawings, obeying the program yields a mysteriously beautiful, almost inhuman object; Chunn’s self-imposed page-a-day plan and calendarlike arrangement work to cover the walls with large compositions that are all the more striking for their being, in part, unforeseen. In fact, the absence of hand and the by-the-numbers layout create structures that are both alien and commanding. These compositions are somewhat sublime, as if the stuff of the news and the gaping chasms and horrid peaks of nature were not, in the end, very distant relations.CP