"YEAH RIGHT" read the words printed across the clip-art photo of a sunset and an ocean. It's cheaply framed as befits a cliché, hanging near the center of a wall that also includes more than 60 mostly pessimistic, sarcastic phrases, stenciled in block letters with rubbed charcoal on chunks of paper. Though she's widely known as a printmaker, there are no prints in Liz Maugans' installation, currently on view at Zygote Press gallery. Her section of the show Coming Undone, which she shares with fellow Zygote artist Jen Craun, engages viewers in an examination of generic discontent; the aesthetic ambiguities of imagery and purely abstract line would only get in the way. Filled with overt and semi-covert grumblings, this is an exhibit of puns and rebellion, erasures, revisions and sub-vocalized retorts, perched somewhere on the edge of loud, public expression, like a party where a drunken scene is about to happen - not expressions of belief, but shadows of doubt wavering in gaps between unrealistic expectations and the disappointments of life.
One large wall is filled from floor to ceiling with words that evoke this unenviable, probably inevitable state. The sparse broadsides are small in scale but owe something to Christopher Wool's big word paintings from the late 1980s, especially his iconic 1988 work "Apocalypse Now," which quotes the words "sell the house sell the car sell the kids" from the film.
Maugans is borrowing an eyeful of Wool's punk sensibility as she lets loose here, blasting the ongoing petty dilemmas and indignities of married American life - though not necessarily her own. On view are deliberately banal, middle-class, middle-aged kvetchings - mental objets trouvés, discarded along the curbs and baseboards of daily frustration. Sometimes it's a half-erased letter or word that clues us in to an underlying sense of loss or the betrayal latent in a common phrase, like the one that reads, I give you a lot of credit cards, where the word "cards" has been vigorously smudged but is still legible, or the far more intimate holding on by a hair/barely there, a lovely refrigerator poem-type formulation where the smudging is all in the mind. Some of the readymade resentments cut straight to the chase, like one at the upper left that reads mother/load/of/crap. Others sum up the stages of life and romance in terse rhyme: walking on air/love affair/laissez faire/easy chair/nursing care/solitaire.
A few steps from the wall, just opposite the picture of the sunset, an unoccupied miniature lifeguard's chair is mounted on a trestle of extra-tall stilts. Maugans has placed a chair, too small to sit in, in front of a view that is, in one way or another, undersized as well. Whether life has let us down, or we have proved inadequate to its demands, or we have failed to imagine, want and fight for ways to fit our souls and our awareness into a full-scale, fully human world, are some of the questions behind the words and the shadows of the words on Maugans's wall. How big are we and how big do we want to be?
Jen Craun's mixed-media print works also comment on the opposition of limitation and growth described by the show's title, Coming Undone. Implicit in those two words are prospects of failure or entropic winding-down, but also echoes of redemption and new freedom. Craun's delicately tinted works examine the way that animal (or human) movement through the environment is invisibly tethered to instinct, habit and the physics of natural law. Excerpted from Craun's "Hope Deferred" series, her images build a vocabulary of gestures and symbols that have to do with noticing, measuring and waiting - about the rhythms of time's passage and the quiet beauty of patience.
But they also talk about the experience of wearing thin, of losing traction. "End of one's tether" is an intaglio and relief etching embellished with chine colle (in this case, collage elements melded with the print by the weight of the press). One of several related works on display, it shows four birds in flight against a pale yellow background. Three are white, a fourth is a rich yellow, resonating with the background.
The words "be enough" are written in cursive script on one, while two have the four-lines-crossed symbol for "five" favored by prisoners and determined dieters. The body of the yellow bird, lowest down and lagging behind in their rightward journey, is blank. All have black lines tied to their necks. Many more swooping lines curve around them, pulled through the air by birds beyond our view. This could be a very sad story of animal bondage, but somehow that doesn't seem to be the message of these basically peaceful images. Nor is the title as unambiguous as it might first appear: After all, the end of a tether must be the beginning of something else.
An almost identical image nearby is called "Chartered Crescendo." Here the background is very light blue, and two of the birds' chine colle bodies are made with scraps of musical notation. The other two are inscribed with legible fragments of typescript: "present tense" and "createdviolating/however." It's probably not appropriate to work too hard at interpreting this, but it's clear Craun is telling stories about the way the natural world is ordered and taking it personally. Her "inescapable prediction," for instance, is a diagram showing the Tinkertoy-style structure of molecules; "moment's modulation" delineates aspects of a bird's wing in flight.
Unlike Maugans' part of the show, which explores the mechanics of discontent, Craun's emphasis is on perseverance and acceptance. If the voices heard in Maugans' work are "undone," their goals and dreams unraveling, Craun has her life and the lives of her family between her teeth, flying as hard as she can into an unknown which all the same is part of an inescapable pattern. Both bodies of work posit a world of limited freedoms, where almost everything is predetermined by enormous forces mostly beyond our immediate understanding. Even the operations of semantics, the linking of language and expression, are part of the page into which a human life is pressed, like a bit of chine colle. In his poem "Little Gidding," T. S. Eliot asked the question, "Where is the summer, the unimaginable Zero Summer," by which he meant the midwinter time of new birth - a time like this, at this time of year.
As one of Maugans' signs says, "all is (s)well/all is hell," and elsewhere, "at least/there's/primetime." Is there really any better answer?
Coming Undone Through February 21 Zygote Press 1410 E. 30th St. 216.621.2900 zygotepress.com