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Alchemical Alphabets 

Why did our forebears, many moons and numerous eons ago, invent language? Or, to put it more succinctly, did they know what they were getting into? Couldn't they have just continued to make do with grunts, growls and hand gestures? Obviously, this business of coming up with words, agreeing on what they meant, and then breaking them down into cryptic little symbols sometimes known as alphabets, opened a can of worms. One that has made life so complicated that we have to keep coming up with more and more complex gadgets and gizmos that are somehow supposed to make life simpler and easier. Fat chance!

Further thickening an already congested plot, it is probable that artists had a hand in designing those first alphabets, if ancient hieroglyphics and pictographs are any guide. Or so it seemed while viewing John Nelson's collage paintings, obtuse if delicate images of more-or-less recognizable things like cups of coffee, handguns and guys smoking pipes. Almost pictographic, they almost evoke the work of aboriginal, "primitive" or outsider artists, but they are also subtle, with faint traces of text and decorous patterns, things that might not make any literal sense but which play on subconscious associations.

There is also a catalog of a suite of nine collage paintings on wood accompanied by cryptic little stories that may or may not shed much light on the images. As with the rest, some are better than others. Emerge is an image of a featureless man wearing a hat and smoking a pipe. His rust-red face is as blank as a chunk of telephone pole; his pipe protrudes from it like a spike. The pale salmon background looks almost empty except for some type at the top. It says, "Thy kingdom come," but the letters are spaced out, as if hesitantly uttered. Puffs of faint gray above the pipe bowl resemble Korean characters at first, but soon resolve into little stylized faces when viewed closely. Other letters, words and images appear obscured by the pale salmon background, like secret messages in aspic, or the faded recollections of memory-loss patients. The accompanying story is about God's grandfather, whose death caused God to make people out of his own flesh, as a kind of therapy. The story concludes, "That's why people are never fully comfortable in their skin. It was God's first, but now it's ours."

OK. Diverge is about "the god of sleep and forgetting" who began having nightmares when he was 2 months old. Like Emerge, Diverge is simple and pictographic, like one of those electric stick figures by A.R. Penck that appeared on album jackets, BMW racecars and gallery walls in the 1980s. As with Penck, Nelson's icons are riddled with complexity regarding the processes of mass communication and the psychic undertow that results from our use of words and symbols. Nelson's images may be childlike but they are not innocent. Language implies knowledge, and it is possible that, very early on, innocence ebbed when symbolism flowed.

Of course, movies have also been called a visual language. It all has to do with the way things are framed, contextualized and presented. Courtney Egan's Cineplasty videos at the Waiting Room amount to a conceptual deconstruction of that process. The first one is about men and pointy things, in a montage of old movie clips featuring song-and-dance stars like Gene Kelly twirling canes amid platoons of nubile chorus girls. But then some cinematic heavies cut in with pistols and lasers as the whole thing whips itself into a frenzy of slice-and-dice video snippets, a tornado of phallocentric film-clip pointillism.

The second video is spookier and more alchemical, an electronic conjuring of leading ladies (notably Rita Hayworth) smoking cigarettes. Through a feat of digital distortion magic, she becomes a hallucinatory nicotine demoness emerging from a mythic pyre, like a campfire in Valhalla. Part of Egan's Chaos Hags series (see www.chaoshag.com), this not only satirizes technological allure and the medical remaking of body parts, but might also make for a killer anti-smoking infomercial. Either way, it's a classic illustration of how it ain't what you do, but how you do it, that gets the point across in the end.

click to enlarge John Nelson's collage painting Emerge, - from his New Religions exhibit at - Marguerite Oestreicher, tells its own little story - about the nature of God and flesh.
  • John Nelson's collage painting Emerge, from his New Religions exhibit at Marguerite Oestreicher, tells its own little story about the nature of God and flesh.
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