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“Like a Body Without a Shadow”

In the show he has curated for Marsha Mateyka Gallery, artist and critic Christopher French uses the image of a shadowless body as his organizing metaphor. It is a particularly effective way to link the works in this group show, which brings together important American, Dutch, and Russian artists. Most of them—L.C. Armstrong, James Drake, Ilya Kabakov, and Buzz Spector—have been exhibited in Washington before in shows at the Hirshhorn Museum and the Corcoran Gallery. The other two, Dutchman Niek Kemps and American Claudia Matzko, are also veterans of the international exhibition scene. Seen together, their works create an intricate web of perceptual challenges that both resist and demand a poetic response rather than merely an analytical one.

This poetic impulse effectively adjusts the normally alienating effect of an analytical critique, which often seems to leave artists, and consequently viewers, ambivalent about the ultimate value of art and art making. This exhibit’s more optimistic works accept their own and art’s legitimacy, and naturally, this reinforces the legitimacy of their poetic and existential insights.

These artists also share a capacity to condense an almost novelistically complex iconography into near-minimalist form. Whether it is Spector’s partially painted-out postcard images of Berlin, Drake’s whimsically erased drawings, or Matzko’s watermark-text handmade papers, the works achieve the allusive richness of literature, but always by means of their materials. This approach has already demonstrated its ability to revive the narrative strategies of late-20th-century art, and that is effectively reiterated in this small exhibition.

Perhaps the most dramatic works here are James Drake’s large charcoal-on-paper drawings of interiors. In Two Shy Polecats (1992), a chandelier, boiseries, and heavily framed photographs surround leop ard-skin furniture which is sitting on a tiger-skin rug. The polecats of the title have been erased from the descriptive charcoal marks so that they seem to both hover on the surface of the paper and to materialize out of the air of the room. In another work, similar technique creates two lizard images which seem to solidify (although the forms are created of white marks against the black and gray) in the dense baroque atmosphere of one of the Louvre’s grand salons. The irony and absurdity in these images expose almost unbearable contradictions, far beyond the usual dualisms of nature/culture or organic/inorganic.

Drake, who lives and works in El Paso, Texas, often makes explicit comments on social and economic injustice in his works. These deceptively whimsical works at Mateyka continue that analysis, but on a conceptual plane that allows for much richer, universal revelations.

Whereas Drake’s bold black-and-white drawings establish meaning by erasures of elaborate markings, Claudia Matzko’s handmade paper works at first glance seem to be completely blank. In fact, texts have been watermarked into the paper and are readable only by means of penetrating scrutiny of varying surface textures. These four Notes for Blind Stories were selected from a set of 12 works whose narratives derive from case studies of people blind since birth who regained sight through surgical removal of cataracts. They recount each patient’s struggle to come to terms with seeing, both conceptually and physically. More than a metaphor for art appreciation, these works force viewers into a struggle with visual texture that is analogous to the struggle of the formerly blind to come to terms with the visual world.

Matzko’s other work on view is Novelette Op. 21, No. 7 (Schumann) (1993). A faint yellow pattern of jagged, vertical rectangular shapes falling down a gallery wall, it was made from a piano roll template for the Schumann keyboard work. The delicate, almost invisible marks diagram the elusive beauty of music as condensed shadows.

The shadow theme is both inverted and subverted in Niek Kemps’ wall sculpture, Copyright (1987), which is constructed from a series of superimposed glass disks mounted on metal rods. Each set of three disks (there are five sets) has a text disk outermost, then one etched alternately with either an interior or exterior architectural view. Thus the viewer looks (reads) through text, interior/exteriors (which are tinted either magenta, blue, yellow, or all three) to the elaborate shadow patterns on the wall behind and below. Many themes of reflection, concealment, perception, and disorientation that have preoccupied Kemps’ oeuvre come together in Copyright as a mysterious high-tech ensemble.

Russian artist Ilya Kabakov is probably best known to American viewers for elaborate installations whose complexity very much resembles that of a Russian novel. Novelistic also is the scale and fury often captured in his intricate presentations, which both re-present and critique life in the former Soviet Union. The two drawings in this show at first seem startlingly minimal for such an ordinarily effusive artist, but they do in fact contain a narrative richness that, if not novelistic, calls to mind a fable or screenplay.

In form, Kabakov’s drawings somewhat resemble blank postcards except that they are more vertical than horizontal. Edged by a black line and divided in half by double black lines, they have green rectangles in either the upper corners (Elena Pavolova Elizarova/Elana Michailovna Gan, 1990) or in all four (Inna Borisovna Elizarova/Olga Borisovna Semina, 1990) which contain, in Cyrillic script, the names of the titles and brief phrases from which narratives are implied—phrases like “whose wings are these?” or “see what kind of cucumbers there are today.”

Spector also presents a universe of fragments in the two works here, The Fool and Rust Belt 3, both 1993. He has collaged early-20th-century postcards in The Fool, contrasting 11 images of sentimental lovers with one of a clownlike figure having his ear pulled. Only the clown remains unobscured by white paint. The other pictures, dreamy images of what we now read as false sentiment, emerge through oval or vaguely heart-shaped gaps in the obscurant whitewash.

Similar obscuring occurs in Rust Belt 3, in which postcards with pre-World War I views of Berlin are mounted on a concavely curved segment of steel. They, too, are mostly painted out by white paint. Further, they are placed above black panels embossed with Victorian decorative motifs. Both of these comments on the deceptive artificiality of an earlier period become contemporary through Spector’s restraint and the works’ allusive resonance.

Of all these artists, L.C. Armstrong seems most anchored to her materials, and her works here seem least likely to extend the show’s thematic play with the concepts of bodies and shadows. Both sculptures are intense and effective, however; they just seem a little resistant, perhaps even suspicious, of the poetic activities surrounding them. Dead Lock (1993) presents two stacks of graphite-covered, lined latex sheeting tied to a small metal wheeled cart with black and beige stockings. Roll-a-Text (1993) contrasts a nest full of rubber finger thimbles with a lint-filled Rolodex. There definitely are narrative potentials here, but they are more formally determined than that of the other works in “Like a Body Without a Shadow.”

In the quotation from Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony that gives this show its title, the writer notes that although “only one version of some mythical event has come down to us, it is like a body without a shadow, and we must do our best to trace that invisible shadow in our minds.” This literary image is an immensely evocative one and does indeed seem to describe one sort of psychological reverberation that works of art can produce. The works assembled by French for this exhibition certainly provoke those reverberations and endorse the relevance of descriptive narrative in the visual arts.