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Art on the Borderline

Who are we? Where are we? There are plenty of reasons to wonder, especially since the reference points we usually rely upon to situate ourselves are so easily mistaken for others that may lead us astray. What happens when we step outside our usual environments, only to find that we cannot go back, or that once we come back nothing seems the same? The decision to enter unfamiliar territory means accepting the possibility of losing our way. Rather than pose questions that might shatter our illusion of normalcy, we would just as soon pretend that we're sure of our surroundings, and sure of ourselves.

Internationally known artists Leon Golub and Adrian Piper, however, examine contemporary issues that many people are reluctant to address. In the process, they challenge us to recognize something about ourselves and our society. A selection of Golub's recent drawings and paintings, as well as Piper's 1988 video installation "Cornered," inaugurate the reopening of the Rice University Art Gallery (former the Sewall Art Gallery). These artists work in radically different modes, but share an activist stance: both reveal the mechanisms of power and vulnerability by stripping away layers of aesthetic and behavioral pretension.

Piper induces a reaction in the viewer by describing a predicament and insisting that, whether conscious of the fact or not, the public shares it with her. She seeks to usurp the audience's power as viewers by questioning, in the most reasonable of tones possible, their notions of race, sex and class. For his part, Golub confronts power where it is both dark and vulnerable, then puts us right up against it, even rubs our noses in it. Golub reminds us that power slips and slides from war rooms to the streets and into the living room.

Among American activist artists today, Golub and Piper seem the ones with the most complex yearning for community, and with the most acute awareness of its aborted character in modern society. For both artists, territory is ill-marked and its frontiers and extent unclear. Golub and Piper are reporters of a sort: they report on the nature of certain events, on the state of society, how we use force, how we act out our roles. Both artists aim to penetrate our layers of illusion and self-deception as far as possible.

Golub and Piper aren't presenting a theater of the absurd, but that of reality -- the world as is. And neither of them is fooling around. Piper corners us in a dialogue that we can only respond to through action. And Golub's men and women, often half human/half beast, are literally and figuratively up against the wall.

Moral penetrations have been at the core of Golub's work for some four decades. Born in 1922 in Chicago, Golub was the leading force in a figurative expressionist movement that distinguished the stylistic independence of that city from New York. Golub spent most of the early 1960s in Europe, then settled in Manhattan, where his work evolved from heroic battling male figures inspired by Roman art to overtly political reactions to the Vietnam War. Huge paintings showed anonymous soldiers engaged in atrocities and gave inklings of Golub's fascination with the "look" of powerful men. Employing the New Yorkish big-scale picture, Golub's subsequent "Mercenaries" and "Interrogations" series aimed to peel back the ugly layers of criminality. And the most horribly intimate form of criminality is torture, practiced or condoned by many -- countries, agencies and militant causes -- but admitted by none.

In Heretic's Fork, one of the works on display at Rice, Golub includes us in the peculiar social drama of torture; we almost imagine ourselves as the protagonists to whom the victim reacts. By dint of scale, frontality, eye contact and body language, the image seems less on the wall than in the room with us. An agitated display of testosterone brushwork both constructs and decomposes a pictorial no man's land: a double-sided red fork is secured under the victim's chin and into his chest. The gallery notes explain that this form of torture was done publicly, with dogs running around and people watching.

Indeed, Golub shoves the head of a huge black dog with teeth bared right in our faces, then directs our view upward into the flared nostrils of both canine and victim. For the most part, however, Golub's recent works are less political and more socially activated. The images he creates range from quick and linear -- such as the animated, if frenetic, male who gives us the finger in the small drawing Smartass -- to the fuller, more detailed group of leering men in the huge, free-hanging canvas, Beware of Dog. Savage dogs, it seems, are everywhere in this show. Golub says they're mostly irregulars, on their own, the leftovers, angry mercenary dogs -- street dogs. "There are dogs that don't belong just as there are humans who don't quite belong," he says.

While possessing a kind of demonic beauty in its spare and shimmering dark brown field, Beware of Dog also conveys the nervous, spasmodic nature of urban life. Here, three men gaze at a trio of women leaning out of a window. At the bottom of the canvas, in the space separating the two groups, appears the white outline of a ferocious, salivating dog -- a ghostly image drawn spontaneously, as if it had sprung from the artist's unconscious. Beware of Dog is written across the bottom in red, much like crude graffiti.

Without a doubt, these figures are street-smart characters who may be gesturing in either derogatory or playful fashion, suggesting our complicity in the drama -- whatever the meaning, whatever the outcome. Golub believes that there are so many messages on our computers, TVs and newspapers that we've become a society over-rich in information. The transmissions conflict with rather than reinforce each other. Nobody, it seems, can be totally clear what the message is.

The urgency of Golub's concerns is in direct contrast to Piper's beguiling, if coolly authoritarian, voice, which emanates from the side gallery. Piper senses that the real function of racism and xenophobia is to separate the haves from the have-nots. Moreover, since overt displays of bigotry are no longer generally accepted in our society, racism has assumed subtler, less readily obvious -- if still destructive -- forms.

An African-American woman of light complexion, Piper occupies a middle ground between black and white. Given America's history and habits, this means a zone full of hurtful misunderstandings, one fraught with the psychological burden that being a "hybrid" has forced her to bear. For more than two decades, Piper has worked to uncover ways that racism operates subliminally in the minds of well-meaning liberals. As such, Piper mixes politics, art and philosophy to address the ever-treacherous gap between appearance and reality, reflex response and reasoned conclusions. Pitting logically determined misconduct against illogical decorum, her performance is less an example of anarchism or aesthetic speculation than of a trained philosopher (she's a professor at Wellesley College) testing a hypothesis.

The formal elements of "Cornered" -- a video monitor situated in the corner of the gallery and an overturned table faced by rows of chairs -- emphasize the psychological obstacles laid bare by the artist. On the walls above the table are her father's birth certificates -- one describes his color as white, the other as octoroon. Conservatively coifed and dressed in teal sweater with a single strand of pearls, Piper is seen on the monitor sitting behind a desk in the corner of a white room, from which she directs a monologue at the viewer. The important thing about her self-presentation is that she doesn't appear to be black -- she has neither the skin color nor the characteristic facial features of someone of obvious African descent. Yet she begins by announcing, "I'm black." Then in a persuasive, didactic tone she suggests, "Now let's deal with this social fact and the fact of my stating it together."

Giving the audience a lesson in logic, Piper proceeds in a bemused but vaguely scolding manner to explain that if you, the viewer, have a problem with a person who appears not to be black making the fact that she is black known to you -- if you are offended or embarrassed -- then you must be a racist in spite of how you may prefer to think of yourself. Piper, however, would rather not make an issue out of racial identity. "I really would prefer not to disturb you," she says. "But, you see, I have no choice. I'm cornered .... If I don't tell you who I am, then I have to pass for white ...."

Later, Piper shifts gears and argues that since researchers have shown that most white people have some black ancestry, then probably you, too, are actually black according to American legal conventions that have defined anyone with a trace of African blood as black. "If I choose to identify myself as black, whereas you do not, that's not just a special personal fact about me. It's a fact about us," she says. "It's our problem to solve. So how do you propose to solve it? What are you going to do?"

Piper's long, legalistic attack is manipulative, and as propaganda her lecture seems bent on shaping our response toward eager acquiescence with her premise. But Piper offers no political programs, no broad solutions. For Golub and Piper, identity, perhaps, will always hang in the balance between hard-lived fact and oppressive fiction.

New work by Leon Golub and "Cornered," a video installation by Adrian Piper, will show through March 3 atRice University Art Gallery, ground floor of Sewall Hall, 527-6069.

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