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Whither Meaning?

The exhibit "Designing Intelligence? Continuing the Intelligent Design Project" actually begins before you get to the Schmidt Center Gallery. It starts in the long corridor that leads from the building entrance. You'll find a 120-foot-long banner mounted on the wall, blanketed with splashy, seemingly disconnected imagery, with dozens of phrases stenciled onto the walls above and below: "The Story of the Decline," "Historophilia and Monumentality," "Battle of the Nine Kings."

The entry itself to the gallery on Florida Atlantic University's campus has been transformed by the addition of two blunt temporary walls into an abruptly short corridor giving way to one big open space. There, the words and images continue, covering the three available walls almost to the top of the cavernous room. A handful of video monitors and installations dot the floor, and electronic sounds waft through the air. It's hard to know where the exhibition begins and ends, if such designations still hold significance here.

Indeed, it's easy to get the impression that the usual guidelines for putting together an art exhibition have been tossed aside by this traveling show, which has already been in four other cities. Sure, there are diagrams keyed to the images, so it's possible, with a little effort, to figure out which artists contributed which works. Even so, knowing who did what isn't much help. The whole show is like one big mystery waiting to be solved, a conundrum in search of resolution.

This is one of those times when a bit of well-placed context would be welcome — some introductory wall text, for instance, or a brochure or even a one-page handout. In the scant press materials, "Designing Intelligence" is described as "an ongoing traveling exhibition that humorously and critically interrogates the debated contemporary philosophy of intelligent design." That sounds as if it really means something, although when I was actually among the art, trying to make sense of it, the words rang increasingly hollow.

More pointedly, the show is a collaboration, with more than half of its 70-odd pieces created by two artists: 34 from New York-based artist Michael Zansky and 14 from D. Dominick Lombardi. With the assistance of recent FAU graduate AdrienneRose Gionta, these works are rounded out by the contributions of ten other artists, some of them local, most notably former Art and Culture Center of Hollywood curator Samantha Salzinger. No information on the artists is supplied.

Not that this is an exhibition about individual artists and their styles or even about the collaboration that has brought them all together. I can't remember the last time I saw a group show in which individual artistic personalities were so thoroughly subsumed in a communal vision, and ultimately that's OK. Although it might be nice to know a little more about the other participating artists — Deborah Aschheim, Andy Holtin, Loretta Lux, Yuri Makoveychuk, Rick Newton, Michael Rees, Henry Sanchez, Jen Stark, and an artist known simply as TODT — such peripheral knowledge is not essential.

But knowing a little better what these artists are up to would be helpful, and it is there that the exhibition falls short. As far as I can tell, no mention is made anywhere of the ubiquitous words and phrases interspersed among the paintings and drawings and videos and installations, which appear to be arbitrary but probably aren't. We have to accept on faith that the logorrhea in which the imagery floats has meaning, even if none is readily apparent.

As just one example, take Salzinger's piece titled Bermuda Triangle, a vivid photographic construction in which a half-moon hangs in the sky above a vortex of water. The title may make some sense in connection with the image, but what are we to make of the words on the wall above and below: "Egyptian Glass Blowers," "End of Jewish Independence" and "Trial by Jury"? It's not that I expect some literal link, but the whole exhibition seems to hinge on such seemingly random juxtapositions.

Taken individually, of course, each work in the show speaks to the concept of intelligent design, in that it refers back to its creator just by its very existence as a work of art. The mesmerizing Michael Rees video Putto ZXZXZXZ v3, for instance, is something that certainly could not have come into being except via an intervening intelligence — moving, morphing forms that seem simultaneously organic and robotic, filmed in a succession of styles that shift radically, even as the video's content remains essentially the same.

But to say that each work of art in the exhibition is proof of intelligent design is not the same as saying that it's a critical exploration of the concept. Or is it? It's best to take on faith (that word again!) that the show as a whole is itself evidence of an intelligent design, even if we don't or can't grasp what exactly that design is. Maybe that's the point, I was forced to conclude, even as "Designing Intelligence" left me feeling vaguely dissatisfied, like an elaborate put-on with an elusive punch line.

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Michael Mills

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