'Touch' exhibit puts artworks at your fingertips

December 16, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

"Touch: Beyond the Visual" at School 33 is one of those shows that works differently in theory and practice.

It's an excellent idea for a show: to bring together works that can be handled in order to teach people that merely looking at a work of art isn't enough. And though the show is primarily about touch, it turns out that four senses can be employed in experiencing this show -- everything but taste.

In practice, the show also succeeds as a whole in making its point, and because its point is unusual it amounts to one of the year's more interesting exhibits. But in terms of individual works it's highly erratic; some are fine, others fall flat.

Let's take fine first. Joyce Scott's two "Mamie Wada" dolls, based on West African myth, beg to be picked up, hugged, cradled in the arms like a baby. It's interesting to explore their different textures -- fiber, hair, ceramic, shell, beads -- but the real joy of these pieces is in the fondness that holding them brings forth.

Cate Fitt's "By Day He Was Her Father," with its big, rough fiber hand and small, soft child's body, communicates vividly the work's message about the cruelty and terror of incest. Jann Rosen-Queralt's "Miscellaneous Matter," a wall-sized installation with various objects on projecting shelves, encourages people to employ smell (bowls of herbs and spices) and hearing (metronomes) in addition to sight and touch. Allyn Massey's "Untitled (Bivouac)," a steel tent-like enclosure filled with cotton, provides a terrific contrast of textures.

And Paul Teeples' "Prayer Totem," when its wheel is rotated, emits a sound like stones rolling around in water that's positively seductive. Works by Susan Harlan, Nancy Davies and Renee Stout also work well.

On the other hand, Linda Bills' "Five Heads" made of different materials don't yield as many rewards to the touch as one imagines looking at them. Pacita Abad's "Weeping Woman: Domestic Violence," part paint, part textile and part shells, doesn't really communicate domestic violence except through its title; nor does Megan Marlatt's "Domestic Turmoil" communicate turmoil in any meaningful way either to eye or touch. If, as the catalog says, Howard and Mary McCoy's "Earth Shoes," a group of shoes encrusted with sand, "draw attention to the interdependence of humans and the earth," they do so more intellectually than through picking them up.

On a more general note, a number of these works appear to exist primarily to make a point about touch, rather than existing primarily as works of art which touching helps us to understand.

And the recorded tour for the visually impaired would probably be more helpful if it described works and how to experience them more specifically than it does.

Despite its shortcomings, however, "Touch" was a great idea and well worth doing.

ART REVIEW

What: "Touch: Beyond the Visual"

Where: School 33 Art Center, 1427 Light St.

When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through Jan. 14

Call: (410) 396-4641

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