Shane Campbell Gallery | South Loop

As was fitting for a show dedicated to a Dada scholar, “FMSBWTÖZÄU PGGIV-..?MÜ (FOR STEPHEN FOSTER)” examined the disruptive capacities of invented languages and the material qualities of letters, symbols, and words. The eponymous curator, historian, and writer, who died in 2018, was a professor emeritus in the School of Art and Art History at the University of Iowa and a mentor to the gallerist Shane Campbell, who is an alumnus of Foster’s department. Foster’s curatorial work included the influential exhibitions “The Avant-Garde and the Text,” cocurated with Estera Milman at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York, in 1988, and “Dada Artifacts,” held at the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art in Iowa City in 1978. This group exhibition honored Foster’s research with levity by gathering contemporary and historic works that deploy abstruse phraseology and textual experimentation in the tradition of Dada, Futurism, neo-Dada, and concrete poetry.

In the gallery’s imposing volume, capped with arched wooden trusses, the atmosphere was warm and sociable, similar to that of an elementary-school library. This was due largely to Dan Peterman’s expansive central stage set up with chunky gray-green bookshelves, floor tiles, and benches, all made of postconsumer plastic, and to Ei Arakawa and Nikolas Gambaroff’s ongoing project Two-Alphabet Monograms, 2009–, consisting in this iteration of twenty-five festive canvas flags suspended from three ceiling crossbeams. The colorful spray-painted letters that adorned them, spelling out words in an absurd language, seemed to have been rendered with swift and loose gestures, conveying the playfulness of a riddle more than the exasperation of illegibility. Similarly mischievous conundrums were evident in the five framed works on found paper (including an envelope and sugar packaging) by the visionary artist James Castle. Untitled (Letter pairs, numbers, “Purse ! Discusses”), n.d., is an intimate and elongated arrangement of serif letters rendered with a mixture of soot and saliva. Shakily but consistently drawn, several pairs of vowels and consonants are organized into three lines. The phrase PURSE ! DISCUSSES and the numbers 1 through 9 complete the composition but do not reveal the meaning of the strange syntax.

Eight hand-colored Xerox collages by Adelhyd van Bender, all Untitled, 1999–2014, punctuated the gallery wall across from Castle’s drawings. The artist’s dense cosmology of shapes and symbols was influenced by atom science and by geocentric maps of the universe. Here, his visual vocabulary was juxtaposed with that of nuclear-radiation warnings. The third drawing from the left sported a black Christian cross, a Cold War-era nuclear symbol, and a grid flooded with simple geometric forms, all backed by a looming illustration of a red missile. Dystopic and obsessive, technical and urgent, Van Bender’s works suggested—in one of the exhibition’s many revelations—that geometry might be a cataclysmic force. Such a belief system is of course antithetical to many artists’ faith in the spirituality and harmony of abstraction, as exemplified by, say, the work of Hilma af Klint, or that of Lisa Williamson, whose four aluminum rods adorned with rhythmic bands of color—sportive appropriations of André Cadere’s painted wooden bars of the 1970s—were casually displayed on the floor. Tony Lewis’s fear the elpoep, 2019, had comparable social gravity. With colored pencil and graphite powder, the artist misaligned the letters in the word PEOPLE, using the expanded poetic vocabulary to explore the complexities of power, freedom, and alienation.

Among the floating glyphs and references, Peterman’s library acted as thematizing force. Of particular interest were LeRoy Stevens’s twelve digitally printed and simply folded folios, displayed along some of the benches and on a few bookshelves. The glossy and colorful digital imagery on the booklets’ outer covers contrasted with Peterman’s solid plastic surrogates of the folios, which also occupied several shelves. Peterman’s archive additionally functioned as a supportive platform for the younger artist: Stevens was a student of Peterman’s at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and his inclusion in the exhibition echoed the warm student/teacher relationship between Foster and Campbell. Presumably, Peterman’s support was intended to extend beyond Stevens, too, as the title of Peterman’s immense 1998 installation is Archive for 57 People.

An unassuming wall work, Plastic Horizon w/Vertical Fractures, 2014, rounded out the exhibition. This lone occupant of the gallery’s back wall was similarly comprised of Peterman’s distinctive reprocessed plastics and resembled an archeological landscape. Its largely green, petroleum-based strata form a haunting image of our recent ecological history. Mounting a meaningful opposition to the works in the exhibition that relish opaque linguistic systems, Peterman’s work emphasized an ethical commitment to unambiguous communication.