Editors' pick

Telling Secrets: Codes, Captions, and Conundrums in Contemporary Art

Mixed Media
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Telling Secrets: Codes, Captions, and Conundrums in Contemporary Art photo
National Museum of Women in the Arts/Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta
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Editorial Review

These secrets have stories to tell

by Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Dec. 3

Meaning is a moving target. That's true at least in the jungle of contemporary art, where secrets lurk in the shadows and hide behind, or inside, things. Don't worry. They won't hurt you. These mysteries want to lure you into their lair, not scare you away.

That's the idea behind "Telling Secrets: Codes, Captions and Conundrums in Contemporary Art" at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The show shines a light - but only a little one - on what is, by design, obscure. This is a show that understands that the art of seduction is about not giving too much information.Take Shirin Neshat's doctored photograph "On Guard (Turbulent Series)." The picture by the Iranian-born, New York-based artist shows a pair of hands - a woman's, presumably - clasping an old-fashioned microphone. Written over the image in ink, as if hennaed onto the skin, are lines of Persian verse.

Here's the paradox: Most in the West won't understand it, while those in Iran who would can't see it. Neshat's work is banned from exhibition in her homeland because of content that is frequently critical of that country's sexism and repressive politics.

The museum doesn't bother to translate the words. That would be telling. And that isn't the sense in which the show's punning title is meant. "Telling" here means "significant," not "giving away." Neshat's critique of a regime that silences women comes across loud and clear, in any case.

Social commentary also figures prominently in the art of Adriana Varejao. So do hands. The Brazilian artist is represented here by two photographs, each of which features body parts used metaphorically.

In "Qualquer Coisa" (Portuguese for "Anything"), a brightly painted or tattooed hand probes a woundlike opening in a white background. In "Contingent," a red line drawn across another white background divides the picture - and another hand - in two. Next to the mark is the word "Equador," which is a city in Brazil and the Portuguese word for "equator."

What do the images mean?

It's hard to articulate, exactly. That's why Varejao makes pictures, not polemics. It's helpful, and not at all surprising, however, to learn that the artist, like Neshat, has a long-standing interest in politics, particularly in the legacy - and human toll - of European colonialism. The first hand seems to probe an old and still unhealed injury; the second, to have been trampled on by overeager mapmakers.Her message, in other words, is murky yet unmistakable.

That's the beauty - and inherent contradiction - of much of this work, indeed of contemporary art in general. How can something give so much pleasure, even as it plays so hard to get?