Visual Arts - Less is more

Some things are better off left unsaid in Between

Like any of us, artists tread a fine line between saying too much and saying too little. Say too much, and the mystery and ambiguity of your work are sacrificed. Say too little and your ideas remain vague and yours alone.

Between, a collaborative installation by Nell Ruby and Robin Dana at Agnes Scott College’s Dalton Gallery, somehow manages to say too much and too little, remaining vague and indecisive despite an overload of details.

This potentially revealing collaboration between Ruby and Dana is filled with intoxicating ideas overwhelmed by a head-swimming accumulation of stuff.

The richest work in Between is about the psychologically loaded qualities of our most ordinary surroundings. In a series of color photographs devoted to foreboding architecture, a public restroom stall done up in a wild clash of lime green and melon beckons with its lifted toilet seat and opened door. In another image, an institutional classroom features rows and rows of desks waiting breathlessly for its student occupants.

The photographs in Between convey both expectation and anxiety when places so dependent on a human presence are devoid of it, and chairs and toilets become substitutes for the human. Those slightly spooky photographs have been well-matched to stark, equally portentous stage-set-type installations. In one room in the gallery, for example, a white bathtub sits, awaiting its bather, a row of discarded towels casually arranged on the floor. The sense of a carefully contrived personal space done up as a public, theatrical “set” is emphasized by the rows of black chairs on the other side of the room, offering a front row view of someone’s private ritual.

Across the gallery space, a room decked out in fake wood paneling and a long bookshelf holds hundreds of carefully labeled file folders. This mock-up of a bureaucratic office where private lives are reduced to alphanumeric code is both generic and familiar, impersonal and intimate. Bathrooms and file folders are, after all, where our secrets dwell, and there is something humorously shared in the opened bathroom door stall and the open file folders, which both compel us to look but also provoke fear at what we might find.

Between provocatively suggests that even places we regard as private are surveyed and public on some level. We are, as the reality-TV craze shows, a nation of peepers.

But like a film that brings in too many characters or storylines that distract from its objectives, Between shows definite evidence of distress when this intriguing message about privacy and snooping becomes secondary to an extended, annoying digression on how this ambience was achieved.

At the exhibition’s entrance, a paper mock-up of the gallery is presented to show the construction of this installation — a singularly pointless device. And in the back room of the space, an elaborate, process-oriented work area is given over to an elaborate breakdown of how this exhibition was created.

Sheets of yellow legal paper hold the artists’ “to do” lists, while others detail the artists’ influences, from Thomas Demand to David Byrne. Rollers used to apply paint to the gallery walls and buckets of paint used to achieve the perfect yellow are housed in vitrines like Tutankhamen’s cutlery.

But thanks to Martha Stewart’s belabored domestic perfection and ample personal experience, most of us know there is lots of preparation and mental rigor involved in pulling off an effortless beach cottage bedroom-look, a home renovation or an art exhibition. This nit-picky breakdown and self-conscious revelation of “process” belabors the point that art-making is work.

Between shows how dependent the art world can be on theatricality and mystery and how quickly such compelling stagecraft crumbles when too much is revealed. As anyone who has read a jargon-laden, overly detailed artist’s statement before seeing an exhibition knows, there is something both mood-wrecking and intelligence-insulting in projects that allow the viewer no opportunity for a personal engagement with the work.

More importantly, by emphasizing the elaborate, complicated materials used to create the exhibition, the artists strip away an aura of the universal and replace it with a diagram of the individual. Rather than evoking some metaphorical, ethereal bedroom or bathroom of the mind’s-eye, the artists have created a dull actual space whose inspiration you can see taped to the wall.

Roger I. Rothman makes an articulate and inventive case in his accompanying essay for how all this attention to process and creation only reveals the imitative, fraudulent nature of what we see. But as the careers of Douglas Sirk or Cindy Sherman show, some of the fakest, most constructed art works can reveal the deepest kinds of truths. Had the Between artists allowed us the opportunity to look beneath the stagecraft rather than self-consciously and laboriously lifted the curtain for us, we might have found even greater revelation.