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Art succeeds if it catches our eye


In a curious reversal, the art of Al Zaruba at Gomez Gallery brings to mind the institutional definition of art, which says that any object can achieve the status of an artwork simply by being exhibited in a museum or gallery.

In the case of the Gomez show, however, I'm moved to wonder whether the opposite is also true: that is, whether the display of some kinds of artworks in a gallery can actually deprive them of the status they otherwise would enjoy.

If one purpose of art is to provoke contemplation, the paradox cited above is already evidence that Zaruba's art is rich and strange. The show, whose title, "The Scent of Light," was inspired by an ancient Sufi poem, consists of sculpture, photographs and costumes originally created for a large installation and performance piece at Stone Quarry Hill Art Park in upstate New York.

The main element of the installation was an 82-foot long wooden ship built on a grassy sward around four large trees that recall the tall masts of a 19th-century sailing vessel.

The ship's prow points toward a small, grotto-like enclosure about 150 yards away, whose interior houses a hidden sanctuary covered by bentwood poles and tree branches. Visitors enter both the ship and sanctuary through small openings in each structure.

Zaruba constructed his installation during a three-week period last summer. After it was completed, he used the site for a costumed performance piece that he recorded on videotape, and for a series of color photographs documenting the work's appearance under different lighting conditions and in different seasons.

On the evidence of the photographs and video on display at Gomez, I have little doubt that the installation and performance were both powerful works that could have deeply affected visitors to the site. The ship, of course, is an old nautical metaphor for life's perilous journey, while the hidden sanctuary probably represents something like our universal human hope for a safe haven.

I have not seen the New York installation, but judging from the photographs, I imagine that viewers might experience a kind of mystical epiphany inside either the ship or the sanctuary, which are both so close to nature and yet stand apart from it. I also can imagine being emotionally moved by Zaruba's performance, which has the ritual, shamanistic quality of primitive religion and dance.

The New York installation obviously is too large to display in the gallery, however, so the objects on display at Gomez seem oddly out of context. They're reminiscent of the masks, costumes and other artifacts of tribal cultures that art museums exhibit solely for their aesthetic qualities, without regard to the ritual beliefs and religious practices that made them meaningful to the societies that created them.

The difference is that even primitive societies often had highly developed aesthetic forms, which are intrinsically pleasing to modern eyes. Zaruba's artifacts, however, were not designed to delight in that way, even though they are intended as artworks. These are conceptual objects that, having been stripped of the context that gave them meaning, seem oddly diminished when displayed in isolation. The gallery, as it were, deprives them of their beauty.

Or does it?

Perhaps merely knowing their relationship to the original installation is sufficient to reconstitute all the aesthetic meanings these objects embody, and therefore fulfill Zaruba's intentions as a conceptual artist. That such simple objects can raise such thorny issues and simultaneously point to their resolution suggests that the artist has succeeded on some basic level in engaging our aesthetic imaginations.

Also on view at Gomez are vegetable papyrus sculptures, collages and fiber art by Lesley Haas. Both exhibits run through Saturday. The gallery, at 3600 Clipper Mill Road, is open Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call 410-662-9510.

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