Nancy Dwyer is the concrete poet of contemporary art. Since the 1970s she has been making sculptures, paintings, installations and media works that give onomatopoeic form to everyday words and phrases. A signal example would be Big Ego (1990), three eight-foot-tall yellow helium balloons spelling out "ego." The showpiece of Dwyer's 1996 show at Cristinerose Gallery was Wall of Desire, a seven-foot-high wall of glass cubes variously sandblasted with the words "desire," "despair," "destroy" and "destiny."
In her most recent show at Cristinerose's new, industrial-styled Chelsea digs, Dwyer concentrated on the mundane stutterances BLAH, UM and UHUH. These resolutely 20th-century words -- "um," by the way, isn't included in Webster's Ninth -- give a definitely 20th-century expression to notions of boredom, hesitation and casual dissent. Could this be institutional critique? Or an anti-intellectual argument?
Dwyer makes "blah" a particularly versatile subject, turning the word into a movie, a print, a painting and a sculpture, exhausting the range of artistic mediums like the expression exhausts the modern language. Blah Blah Blah Britannicas is a kind of antiform sculpture, a pile of 32 letters bandsawed from a full encyclopedia set. The encyclopedia, epitome of printed knowledge and meaning, becomes an unweildly nest of capital letters (B, L, A and H) piled in careful dishevelment on a table. In Blah, the painting, the word floats in a dramatically graded background. As an iris print, Blah, Blah, Blah has a pristine precision, though the heavy block letters abandon their textural order to float with a weightless momentum. The word also stars in a silent, computer-animated movie, where it floats gracefully in azure digital space, capitulating in a stormy sky.
The exhibition's centerpiece is the monumental installation Um..., in which the simple expression is writ large in ten-foot-tall letters, becoming architecture rather than text. Their color-saturated palette stands out against the stark whiteness of the walls. Viewers could duck into the chartreuse curve of the "U" and measure themselves against the acute gray angles of the "M" and feel dwarfed by the solid orange, sky blue and magenta pillars of the ellipsis. The oversized, abstract shapes represent an equally abstract word, whose meaning is veiled, even hidden, in the architecture of the setting.
Uhuh Sculpture is a 38 x 48 in. sheet of heavy metal, painted enamel green and hung asymetrically. Along its perimeter is an endless "uh-uh," alternating "U" and "H" laser-cut out of the metal. This perforated row of letters, along with an undulating wall silhouette, give a light and airy feel to the heavy metal fabrication. It stands like a road sign to nowhere.
Dwyer has completed a number of public commissions. Close to home is Multiple Choice (1995), a set of benches made of enamel coated aluminum at Staten Island's Port Richmond High School that spell out "always," "often," "sometimes" and "never." It's nice to imagine teen-agers interacting with this piece, whose understated drama somehow seems so appropriate to its site.
ILKA SCOBIE is a native New Yorker who writes poetry and art criticism.