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Susan Silton's The 5 W's

One artist's way of getting us to read between the lines



Susan Silton's site-specific work The 5 W's at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center consists of one wall of horizontal black-and-white stripes, painted floor to ceiling, and edge to edge. A box with the same striped motif sits in front of the wall, and contains a waist-high stack of cards printed with similar stripes. If you can look at the cards without getting a headache, one of five words — who, what, why, where, when — emerges like a ghost from between the lines. (Hint: Tilt the card away from you.)

Gird thy loins: The 5 W's is "difficult." It takes work not to slip dismissively past its off-putting surface. "Difficult" work has become the bogeyman of contemporary art, but The 5 W's blooms with surprising speed. The questions come quickly while staring at that freaky wall, pondering the purpose of five words that form the basis of journalistic writing: Are there hidden messages? If I stare long enough will a word emerge from the stripes? Or are they just, well, stripes? I can't think of a better metaphor for how hard we should've been reading between the journalistic lines before the Iraq war, for example, and didn't. The installation is an elegant indictment of the opaque truthiness of ink on newsprint.

As a site-specific work, The 5 W's is somewhat awkward. It's set up in the Contemporary's round gallery, and there are surely better strategies for dealing with the curved wall other than essentially ignoring it. (Camille Norment's panoramic environment and Cecelia Kane's raft of disembodied gloves worked with, not against, that same round space in earlier exhibits.) But Silton manages to make her point.

A cottage industry of art critics has emerged around bashing cerebral, conceptual work, and hailing the return of craft, drawing and the human touch. I know because I've written one or two of those articles. Critics and audiences alike have a tendency to make each piece answer for the sins of every other conceptual work. Silton's installation helps put the brakes on post-postmodern hateration. It's mysterious enough to satisfy the willing, and open enough to welcome the roving eye.

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