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The Writing on the Wall 

Karoline Schleh has for years explored the secret life of handwriting in paintings, collages and sculptural works that read like ciphers and secret codes made elegant by an improbable mixture of aesthetics and whimsy. She even dubbed her obscure calligraphic inscriptions "fugitive writing," perhaps because their meanings were elusive. In fact, they were usually written backwards, but that may be the least of it. Even so, it helps to know the background because, while circumspect or even somewhat proper, Schleh's work has the potential to provoke perturbation in the unwary.

Or, maybe not -- people around here are used to seeing things that don't make much sense, especially lately, things that are routinely dismissed with a shrug and an offhand, "Whatever." But that local laissez-faire attitude is a far cry from 16th century Germany, where a sect of Anabaptists who called themselves "Abecedarians" (after the letters of the alphabet) opposed all forms of writing, which they regarded as the work of the devil -- a novel notion to ponder as you gingerly peruse these pages. Although she is descended from a long line of local Germans, Schleh is clearly not an Abecedarian; her elongated, stylized script, flowing forward as well as in reverse, is evident everywhere in the gallery, even on the stereoscopic photographs.

Yes, stereoscopic photographs -- cards mounted with almost identical twin images that you need a special device to properly view. A novelty that became wildly popular in the latter 19th century, those stereo views of noteworthy places such as Niagra Falls appeared as a single 3-D image when seen through a Stereoscope, and here Schleh puts them in frames after imposing her own unique touches. The results are subtly whimsical. On The Mississippi, a view of a paddlewheel steamboat in which one photo has been covered with a thin film of white paint on which ghostly backwards writing somehow appears like spectral messages from the Twilight Zone, is emblematic.

In another, featuring two high-Victorian ladies at a piano titled Reveries, one woman stares into space as she gently strokes the keys while the other seems to swoon against the lace-covered bulk of the upright piano. The two views are differentiated with cryptic calligraphy, some flourishes of color and, on one, an engraving of a small animal, perhaps a marsupial. While this has much in common with early surrealism, for instance, Max Ernst's collages of antique steel engravings, Schleh's stuff is somehow subtler.

Similar strategies appear in the much larger collage paintings. Tracings: Door Plate From Calhoun Street features an actual doorplate from Schleh's flooded home mounted on a panel where reverse writing appears like ghost script on a door to never-never land, and it's all quite austere yet accessible in a way that, ironically, defies verbal description. In works such as these, Schleh creates not so much webs of illusion as subtle layers of allusions that, like backward writing, deflect direct scrutiny while insinuating a skein of associations, an endlessly shifting landscape of random ideas and messages as charmingly inscrutable as coils of smoke dancing in ether.

If Schleh employs fugitive calligraphy to set a certain intricate visual "tone," Michael Gnad's glass sculpture takes an opposite approach by using simple symbolic forms as a kind of visual language. And where the "look" of Schleh's work is complex yet austere, Gnad's deadpan little glass placards tend to be minimal yet buoyant. As simple and straightforward as street signs in bold, primary colors, they announce states of being, conditions and enticements. For instance, Twice As Bright is a logo-like icon of a candle burning at both ends. Enticement depicts a carrot tied to a stick, while Falling Down portrays a fallen stick figure in the black-on-yellow color scheme of a roadside caution sign. A native of Alaska who lived in New Orleans until he got flooded out last year, Gnad says his signs reflect proverbs and adages distilled into visual icons, noting that people so often "react to hardships with an over-used expression or a pithy phrase that wraps all the problems up in a tidy little package, ready to open on a brighter day."

click to enlarge Karoline Schleh's Door Plate From Calhoun Street employs an actual doorplate on a canvas of ghostly writing to suggest a portal into the unknown.
  • Karoline Schleh's Door Plate From Calhoun Street employs an actual doorplate on a canvas of ghostly writing to suggest a portal into the unknown.
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