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Tuesday, July 13, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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At The Henry: A Fine Focus On Some Well-Tread Topics

Seattle Times Art Critic

------------------------------- Art review

"Such as We, Leone and Macdonald: Ten Years of Collaboration," Henry Art Gallery, 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 41st Street, Seattle, through Oct. 3. Hours are Tuesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays until 8 p.m. Info: 206 543-2280. -------------------------------

Walk into the Henry Art Gallery and you may think you've wandered into a show of pristine, elegant calligraphy. In one of the largest galleries in the original part of the museum is a series of brown abstract symbols each centered on a handsome piece of white handmade paper. Too arabesque to be Japanese or Chinese calligraphy, they suggest the more rounded voluptuous strokes of Middle Eastern calligraphy.

But on closer inspection, it seems the symbols are literally burns. They have been branded into the paper with irons hanging from the ceiling nearby. And the language, though foreign to most, should stir recognition in anyone who has ever studied Gregg shorthand, the standard shorthand language once widely used by secretaries. Those are Gregg symbols on the paper sheets, and they are beautiful. Viewers could pass long moments simply admiring their spare design.

What the symbols represent, however, will shock some. Altogether the series is called "Private Parts," and individually each symbol is the name of a body part or bodily fluid associated with sex. Though these words, such as nipple and semen, are standard medical terms, in America's ongoing cultural wars over what exactly constitutes pornography their very mention raises red flags. Children's books have been banned from some school libraries because of them. And though making loaded, smirking references to these words and the sexual acts associated with them is considered witty writing on prime-time sitcoms, having the actors actually say the words wouldn't pass the censors.

In short, they're good, descriptive, useful words that have become encoded with double meaning thanks to America's discomfort with sexuality. When viewers find out what these symbols mean, are they shocked? Will they think about why they're embarrassed by these undeniably lovely calligraphic works?

"Private Parts," created in 1992, is one of many remarkable pieces at the Henry Art Gallery's smart, often searing new show called "Such as We, Leone and Macdonald: Ten Years of Collaboration."

The traveling show is a retrospective of the work of Hillary Leone and Jennifer Macdonald, two New York artists known for their highly intelligent approach to social and political issues including gender, sexuality, ethnicity, economic class and the AIDS epidemic. Though these subjects have been endlessly, sometimes tediously, addressed by artists, Leone and Macdonald bring an extraordinarily fine focus to them without becoming didactic.

This show was organized by North Dakota Museum of Art with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. In Seattle, its second stop on a national tour, it was augmented by Thom Collins, Henry's associate curator. Though the two artists have been included in the Whitney Biennial and other prestigious national and international shows, they've rarely been shown in the Pacific Northwest.

Leone, 37, and Macdonald, 41, are interested in verbal and visual languages, and how they take on meaning and duplicity. When does a lexicon that started out politically neutral become so saddled with cultural baggage that it can no longer be used in its original, neutral sense? What happens when we discover that our initial visual assumptions about a person or artwork are so completely off-base that it forces us to re-examine our own definitions?

Using metaphor-rich references ranging from Supreme Court decisions (the definition of pornography and Roe vs. Wade) to a calculated glimpse at their own domestic partnership - the two women were live-in lovers during part of the period covered in the show - Leone and Macdonald are subtle provocateurs whose works are as beautiful as they are powerful.

Though essentially conceptual artists, Leone and Macdonald are sensualists when it comes to materials. They learned to forge iron in order to make their own shorthand branding irons. In another work, they shredded most of the clothes they owned and used the fiber to make the hundreds of brightly colored sheets of paper now hanging in one of the Henry's galleries.

"Private Parts" is one of several works the artists made using shorthand as a veil to gorgeously cloak a controversial material. The pair also used shorthand to transcribe precedent-setting language in a 1973 Supreme Court decision in which the legal definition of obscenity was established. The piece, called "Prurient Appeals," 1992, has the busily looping gestural quality of one of Mark Tobey's "white writing" paintings.

In the show's most horrifying piece, "Speaking Secrets" (1991), the artists covered a wall-size blackboard with writing that seems to be snippets from court cases about child abuse. Underneath the blackboard is a tiny child's chair, a hideous, ragged spike sprouting from the seat like a monster's horn. Created in the wake of the hysteria over the McMartin Preschool case in Southern California and other cases of repressed memory, the piece is a gut-wrenching reminder that child abuse is always with us.

"Double Foolscap," 1994, addresses clothing as code. To make it, Leone and Macdonald culled 85 percent of their collective wardrobes from the late '80s and early '90s and used the textiles to make sheets of paper each measuring 17 by 27 inches, a size known in the Renaissance as "double foolscap."

The project was undertaken after the women began their domestic life together; the shredding of their former wardrobes was a symbolic act. A notebook containing the labels and scraps of fabric from each item sits on a stand in the middle of the room. Two large photos of women engaged in snipping off their clothes (their heads have already been shaved) represent the two fools who hope to start their new lives free from former associations.

"Passing," 1996, the work added by Collins, is the most seductive in the show. It is a 33-minute video in which a lineup of people face the camera, one at a time, like mugs shots, while a soundtrack seems to tell us who they are. To make the video, the artists placed an ad in a Miami newspaper asking for volunteers who think they "pass" for something they aren't.

The result is a series of people of mixed race who describe what happens when others make assumptions about their ethnic background; people who describe themselves as gay though they pass as straight; drag queens who have to explain to straight men that they are not what they appear. The piece is fascinating from the first moment. But the one-two punch comes when you realize that the audio track is not always aligned with the video track.

Like all of their projects, Leone and Macdonald's "Passing" confronts us with our own assumptions. It leads us along gently until we turn a corner and find the powerful point of the piece. It is one of the most satisfying and thought-provoking shows to visit Seattle in many months.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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