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A Way Without Words

When we think of "narrative', we think of storytelling, of a format spread out over the pages of a book. But in art, narrative means compressing a story into a visual unit or series seen at once.

In other centuries, artists used symbols familiar to viewers to relate a story from the Bible or mythology. Later artists used narrative to relate news events, present everyday life or stir emotions. The narrative went out of style with the coming of abstract art, but it has returned in recent decades. Contemporary narrative artists suggest content that is often inconsequential, indecipherable or open to multiple interpretation. The viewer may fill in the blanks from his own experience or imagination.

A show of eight artists, whose work explores the range of the narrative, is on display at the Dunedin Fine Art Center. It is curated by Carol Todaro, who left the bay area in 1991 but has returned to stage other shows at the center. This is her first in two years.

The show is not a chance for us to fully assess individual artists; we would need to see more of each's work to do that. Rather, it is an opportunity to consider the ways today's artists use contemporary idioms to make a statement.

Though seven of the artists are from Florida, only Maria Brito (Miami) and Mary Segal (Roseland) have exhibited in the bay area before.

Clean and articulate is the objective way to describe Kate Kretz's oil paintings, but you can't stop there. Kretz exhibits two works, both from a series of women asleep in cars. Her palette of brilliant secondary colors _ orange, green and purple _ create high contrast, and is emotionally agitating. But the women seem to be sleeping peacefully. In How Not To Be a Victim of your own Expectations, p. 73, the only real cause for alarm is a few strands of hair caught in the seat belt. The title is taken from a magazine article.

Family Portrait II from the series Traveler and His Road is a stainless steel sculpture by Gagik Aroutiunian of Baltimore, formerly of Armenia. A structure of precariously thin legs holds six trays, each with one or two photographs of family members, covered with liquid that will eventually cause them to fade. The artist completes the work with metal towers that draw the eyes upward, but with limited fulfillment.

Jennifer Renninger exhibits six works from her series, La Menagerie Du Museum (sic) National d'Histoire Naturelle, which plays on the dioramas in natural history museums that encase three-dimensional environments of a distant place or time. Referring to the sentimental times when those museums first came into being, she stages unreal settings, such as a horned woman in a diaphanous forest, then photographs them and sets the illusory reference in a deep, dark brown frame.

Rima Jabbur's diptych, The Resolving Storm, uses ominous colors and dynamic composition to show a bare and twisted tree in the upper left quadrant of one painting, contrasting with a yelping dog in the lower right. The dog could be stuck in the ground or giving birth; we do not see her hind legs. In the right painting, a faceless figure builds a boat hull, suggesting the story of Noah. The figure's red shirt is the one bright color in the two pieces, and is the most centered of the sparse images, suggesting a solution to the pain on the left.

In 25 candid photos, Dan Larkin's Cape Cod Diary provides a chronological record of one of his many trips to Cape Cod. His artist's statement offers clues: He feels at home there; his friends are like family. The photos, 8 by 10 inches including matte, are each defined by a perimeter line of irregular gray or black.

Maria Brito, who has exhibited in the bay area several times, uses free-standing mixed media assemblages to deal with her Catholicism and her Cuban American background. Some Mean Well incorporates an intravenous bottle of nails, vials of black substance, a rusty chain, organic white forms in vises and a black and white reproduction of a religious painting. The story line is muddled, but the message is clear: Suffering is occurring.

Mary Segal recycles word processor tape and scraps of painted paper into several panels that she calls frankly autobiographical narrative drawings. Here and there it is possible to read a word or even a series of words as she documents the happenings in her studio. The concept is unique, but its content and visual impact are remote. It is the least satisfying of the works on view.

Yolanda Sanchez draws on her Latin American (Spanish and pre-Columbian) heritage for two large works, minimal in image and vigorous in form, technique and color, to effectively express the theme of carnival, the festival before Lent. She uses the symbolism of the mask to heighten mystery.

As always, the center has done a fine job of creating an accompanying children's environment where adults can help youngsters gain more meaning from the show, and a notebook of additional information about the exhibit.


The Narrative Spirit

Where: Dunedin Fine Art Center, 1143 Michigan Blvd., Dunedin

When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday and 1-4 p.m. Sunday through April 11

Cost: Free

Call: 738-1892

Also on exhibit: Faculty Focus 97, selected works from the center's faculty

Related family activity: Today, 10-10:45 a.m. and 11-11:45 a.m. _ Tell Me a Story, Gallery tour, discussion, creative activities for preschool children and parents.