Following signs

Guided by Signs builds communication between hearing, deaf

Curiosity is what inspired Karen Tauches and Jenn Brown to create Guided by Signs: Building a Bridge to Deaf Culture, an exhibition of collaborative works on view this month at the Arts For All Gallery downtown. Their installation makes lyrical allusions to a universe at the edge of the hearing world.

Situated in the historic Healy Building on Forsyth Street, the show can be seen almost entirely through the gallery's huge storefront windows. Ambient light, hardwood floors and white walls add to the appeal of the quiet, spare installation. In muted blues, taupe, grays and greens, repeating layered images of the sign language alphabet, ears, mouths, signing and touching hands interplay with text and images of turn-of-the-century botanical prints, lace, a phonograph and bridges.

Guided by Signs combines photography, mixed media and sculpture. Small-scale works on paper were created with cyanotype and van dyke printing, photographic development processes that use sunlight. The mixture of chemicals lent an unpredictable twist to their artmaking, says Tauches. Printing the photos became a metaphor for finding unexpected beauty in imperfections.

The act of discovery was essential to the structure and content of the show. Both hearing, the artists set out to learn about a language "that's absolutely visual and about people whose culture is different because of this visual connection," says Tauches. They discovered that deafness is a culture all of its own; not only do the deaf have their own language, but their own cultural norms and distinct identity as well.

Brown and Tauches met members of the local deaf community and sign language interpreters, attended "silent suppers" and visited deaf chat rooms on the Internet. The two Georgia State University students read books and watched films for other signifiers of deaf history and cultural consciousness.

That's when visual metaphors such as a recurring circle and a bridge came into the picture. The oval aura that surrounds or crosses through images in the show represents the deaf community's practice of social reciprocity (If I help you, someone else will help me). The artists, trying to comprehend the deaf world, had to bridge the communication gap. They often had to work through interpreters using American Sign Language. And sign language, like artmaking, is about making connections between the hand and the eye. The painting "Growth" depicts a hand holding a pair of eyes attached to a stem resembling a lorgnette. "It describes that eye-hand connection," Tauches says. "Also, the image is a symbol of our growing knowledge about deaf culture."

Arts for All Gallery is the perfect venue for such cultural explorations. As a component of an international organization called VSA (Vision Strength Access) Arts, the gallery's mission is to present exhibition opportunities to the disabled, disadvantaged or institutionalized. Braille pamphlets and an audio guide are always provided in the fully accessible space. Guided by Signs, selected by a VSA review panel, reflects the organization's commitment to broadening the aesthetic dialogue.

Besides showing numerous visual references to the history of hearing aids, the advent of sign language and statistical information about the deaf, the installation features several narrative vignettes. Most powerful is the sculpture "Not Listening ... Still Can't Hear." Iron wire outlines four graduated cone shapes suspended in a row. Useless as vessels, they refer to technological efforts to direct the travel of sound and well-meaning but misguided intentions to "fix" the problem of hearing impairment. The forms point vaguely to a small coppery cast ear attached to the wall.

Handwriting on the painting "Deaf Wedding," notes how the deaf exchange vows. "Please sign after me, 'I, [John], take you [Sara] ...'" reminds the viewer of differences that need accommodating. "A Proper Goodbye," a painting that shows two people embracing, records the intimacy of communication among deaf people. Another painting recalls a time in deaf education when "mainstreaming" (lip reading and verbal skills) was the ultimate goal. Children who insisted on signing were tied at the wrists. In "Untied," two hands are released from a spiraling black cord. While refraining from a judgmental statement, the subtle imagery advocates freedom of expression.

Guided by Signs overcomes a certain didactic prettiness by introducing issues confronting the profoundly layered, largely invisible deaf culture. Beyond that, text and visuals reveal the beauty in nurturing relationships through thoughtful gestures — a value lost in the chaos of sight and sound that rules our hearing universe.

Guided By Signs continues through Sept. 7 at Arts for All Gallery, 57 Forsyth St. Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 404-221-1270. Reception will be held Sept. 6 from 5-9 p.m. in conjunction with First Thursdays, a monthly gallery walk involving several downtown galleries and restaurants.??

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