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In Baltimore, Seeing the '(In)visible'

Friday, December 10, 2004; Page WE56

IF A TREE FALLS in the forest, and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? More to the point, if an artist makes a picture, and there's no one there to look at it, does it make a difference?

That's just one of the questions, along with issues of prejudice, censorship and the impermanence of art, that might arise while looking at Linda Hesh's latest art project, which goes on view Saturday at Baltimore's School 33 Art Center as part of the thematic exhibition "(In)visible Silence." According to artist Sanford Biggers, who organized the group show, the works chosen "engage invisibility; conceptually, formally, as well as the (in)visibility/(hyper)visibility dichotomy of race and class." Whew. Not that Hesh's work gives us all that much to look at anyway.

Linda Hesh's "art-vertorial" ran as an ad in the A section of this paper in the fall; it's part of "(In)visible Silence" at Baltimore's School 33 Art Center. (Linda Hesh)

Well, it does and it doesn't.

Calling her installation "information as art," Hesh will have 28 separate documents and artifacts on view, one of which is -- be still my heart -- a stack of old newspapers. As for the images that make up the heart of her work, even they are, by her own admission, deliberately banal. The pair of photographic portraits (one featuring a heterosexual interracial couple, the other, two gay white men) were shot in a Sears photo studio. Blandly ordinary, they're not supposed to be beautiful or air-brushed, Hesh says, but "people-next-door average." Other items on display include (yawn) printed e-mails and a press release.

The art, which Hesh characterizes as part political statement, part conceptual art and part performance, began life as two tiny, single-column advertisements that ran a week apart in the A section of The Washington Post this fall. Beneath the interracial portrait a caption asked, "Do you notice their race or gender?" Below the other ran this ambiguous text: "Could they affect your marriage?" Both invited readers to respond to an Alexandria post office box, with no further information or instructions. The six -- count 'em, six -- letters Hesh received are included in the show as well, along with two unused versions of the ads, rejected at an early stage by the newspaper for taste considerations. ("At least they're not gay," reads the sarcastic caption below the interracial couple, while the photo of the gay couple unequivocally declares, "They could ruin your marriage.")

But Hesh doesn't measure the success or failure of her work, whose costs were underwritten by donors (each of whom received artwork in exchange), on how many people wrote in. Her main objective, she says, was simply to put the pictures in front of the largest possible audience, not the art-world elite who, presumably, will come to School 33 to look at the supporting, after-the-fact documentation. Most gallery-goers, Hesh believes, are liberal to begin with, and support the cause of gay marriage.

Hesh's ads, ultimately, are intended for those who don't, albeit with irony so subtle it may be missed -- or misread -- by its target audience. It's a fight that she likens to the civil rights struggle, noting that interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia until as recently as the mid-1960s. "I'm not expecting to change any minds here," she says, "just to make people think about the issue."

Of course, just how many of The Post's hundreds of thousands of readers caught this point in her enigmatically worded "art-vertorials" -- or even noticed them in the first place -- will never be known.

"(In)visible Silence," which also features work by Desmond Beach, Zoe Charlton, Marina Gan, Joseph Giordano, Jill Greenberg, Sungmi Lee, Jefferson Pinder and Mark Winicov, opens Saturday at School 33 Art Center, 1427 Light St., Baltimore. On Saturday at 2, there will be a slide lecture by juror Biggers, followed by an artists' reception from 4 to 6. The work will remain on view through Jan. 6. The center is open Tuesday-Friday 10 to 4 and Saturdays noon to 4. For more information, call 410-396-4641 or visit www.school33.org.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

© 2004 The Washington Post Company