Palm Reading

Lifeline or lark? On walls across the city, an artist's handiwork beckons, its meaning oddly out of reach, but its presence welcome.

October 20, 2003|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

A walk along West Centre Street might provide the usual downtown stimulus these days - the whooshing noise of traffic, the sight of pedestrians coming and going - but head east across Cathedral, and you're liable to feel, for a moment, as if you've stepped off the curb into quite another realm.

A sense of space and emptiness, an odd calm, beckons the eye upward. High above the street, anchored to a blank wall, a vinyl mural - 24 feet high, 36 feet across, bolted in place to minimize flapping in the wind - depicts, across a simple field of gray and white, a single, open hand.

What's it for? What does it mean? The appendage, rendered in photographic black and white, rests palm up on a surface you can't name (a tabletop? A bed?). Its thumb lies back nearly flat (in repose? Surrender?). Four fingers curve up slightly. Do they reach for something desired, or is rigor mortis setting in? The image itself seems an 864-square-foot question.

You look in vain for an explanation. By design, none is forthcoming.

The image on the west wall of the Walters Art Museum is one of a dozen new public installations, in Baltimore and Washington, of Untitled (For Jeff), a work by the Cuban-born conceptual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Most installations occupy the sides of buildings - on street corners, in alleys, along busy roads - emanating a notion for which the artist stood for his whole career: that the role of art is not merely to amuse or entertain but also challenge.

You may know your way around the streets of Baltimore, but for a tour through the history of conceptual art, you'd do well to talk with Chris Gilbert, a curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art - one of three area institutions exhibiting the Gonzalez-Torres work through January. Untitled (For Jeff), owned by Washington's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, is on display in town thanks to funding from the Baltimore Community Foundation.

Gonzalez-Torres, says Gilbert, came into his own in the 1980s and early 1990s as a star member of a New York artists' collective called Group Material. Like many collectives of the day, it was largely concerned with overtly political statements, but Gonzalez-Torres rose to international prominence by transcending cultural barriers he felt constrained many of his contemporaries.

Group Material adopted AIDS as a cause, for instance, and the subject affected the artist personally. Untitled (For Jeff) depicts the hand of a health-care professional who worked with Gonzalez-Torres' dying lover. In 1992, when he created it, the artist knew that he, too, was dying of the disease. But Gilbert is loath to attribute such a narrow meaning or motive to the work. "Is the hand a plea for help?" he asks. "Is it a need for care? Or is it just a hand? The work's essence is its openness to interpretation."

And that, says Gilbert, is the point. "A work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres is often a kind of gambit. They're like an opening move. How will the audience respond? He was prepared for a variety of responses." Often his work hinges upon the tension caused by simultaneously offering a point of view and remaining open-ended.

Like many conceptual artists, Gonzalez-Torres enjoyed the democratization of art that became possible with the advent of mass reproduction. Untitled (For Jeff) is, in one sense, simply a photographic negative that serves as template for the billboards audiences can see when it's on display. But exhibition of the work calls, contractually, for multiple incarnations in public view. "Rather than being a unique object owned only by one affluent person," says Gilbert, "art reaches more people this way."

In its open-endedness, the work challenges people where they work, walk, eat and live, appearing in a variety of settings and posing its implicit questions. "His art had a political strategy," says Gilbert. "He was aware of the difficulty of getting certain messages across. To work, it had to be a Trojan horse - something that got inside you before you knew what it was, then figured out what it might mean, or how to talk about it, later."

Using a similar strategy, another Gonzalez-Torres artwork may also be reaching Baltimore audiences. Untitled (Rossmore II), part of Work Ethic, an exhibition now on display at the BMA, consists of a pile of candy wrapped in green cellophane. "People are invited to eat the work of art," says Gilbert. "It gets inside you; you literally ingest it. In that way, Felix was a master of changing the viewer's relation to works of art."

The artist, who installed similar billboards in cities from Caracas to New York to Stockholm in the early 1990s, died in 1996 at age 40. But clearly his works still engage. A stroll in the other direction along West Centre Street leads to another great, floating hand, this time on a vinyl billboard on the side of the Contemporary Museum. This hand, slightly larger at 25 by 34 feet, is strapped by visible black cords to a wall of industrial brick, all but covering eight windows.

Do the different surroundings imply a different meaning? If the hand is hopeful, is hope tied down, constrained somehow, an image of aspiration doomed to failure? Do the passing pedestrians, the people in the cars, not care? Can you change their minds somehow? About what? The thought is unsettling.

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