New York

Ilona Granet; Danita Geltner

This two-person show offered a perspective on engaged or, more precisely, activist art. The installation of each artist’s production in separate spaces within the gallery allowed free play to the works’ different qualities, but it also permitted a purview over the political use of devices of disjunction.

Ilona Granet was represented by two recent series of works and four earlier pieces. In one of the series, consisting of five pieces patterned on traffic signs, she has adopted an urban semiotic, using the reduced style, basic coloring and lettering, and even the materials (enamel on metal) of our most common streetside fixtures. But here Granet puts the stop sign’s imperative to other ends, for the specific issue addressed by these signs is the harassment of women. No Cat Calls, 1987, features the injunction “NO CAT CALLS & WHISTLING KISSING SOUNDS” while Curb Your Animal Instincts, 1986, which figures a man restraining a leashed animal from attacking a woman, is emblazoned with the cautionary phrase of the title. Most of the signs direct their messages in English and Spanish, and all of them present clichéd images of women, putting a sexist style of rendering to feminist use. They address activities that, although lacking the sanction of institutionalized authority, reflect broad social norms, and rely for their efficacy on the contrast between their typical format and aberrant content. Granet seems to suggest that sexual harassment is as dangerous as the traffic accidents that these signs’ prototypes are designed to prevent.

Granet’s focus on the imposition and abuse of power also extends to another frequent object of such abuse—children, as in Missiles for Minors, 1981. In other works, however, she deals with power’s implementation through more subtle and insidious suasions. She began a new series this year—an ironic takeoff on the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster—in which the sign employed as prohibition yields to the sign masquerading as advertisement. In one of these five works, The Landscape, 1987, Granet has converted a Three Mile Island cooling tower into a module for a luxury development featuring such classy amenities as swimming pools and riding stables. Using the rhetoric of real-estate promotion, she presents these under the motto “YOUR DREAM IS OUR PLAN,” enforcing a theme of managed and manipulated desire that is also evident in earlier works—for example, the billboardlike Leap of Faith, 1983. The new works are all done in an accessible visual language, a naive style reminiscent of folk art, particularly that of New England.

Danita Geltner also deals with industry’s impact on the environment, as in Early Spring. But the more general thrust of these wall pieces, all of which are from 1987, is on the erosion and denaturalization of the landscape. Employing a nonfigurative idiom in a horizontal format (sometimes in multiple strips stacked vertically), Geltner plays with the tendency of horizontal abstractions to suggest seascapes or landscapes. She also implies the degree to which the natural has been “abstracted” and “expropriated” by the artificial. Her materials, which include vinyl laminate, Astroturf, rubber tubing, and acrylic and metal paint, are synthetics—“fakes”—within which Geltner often places an evocative natural element, such as a shell, a horseshoe crab carapace, or driftwood. From a distance, a work may read as a shoreline, a Rothkoesque exhalation of atmosphere, but a closer view reveals the reality of urban decay. In Early Spring, what looks like a section of ground is disclosed as carpeting, and the reedlike forms in The Red Sea, 1987, as rubber tubing. In these works Geltner shows us our own despoiled landscape, irrevocably transformed into urban artifact. By cunningly yoking esthetic means to political objectives, Geltner aims to alter the way we see.

Kate Linker