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The titles of the framed works are derived from captchas, the online security measures that require a user to prove her own existence by retyping a randomly generated phrase. Baab's aren't from routine sites, though, such as the comments section of a blog or the ordering page of a retailer. Instead, he has taken the linguistic fragments directly from captcha.net. For him, each short phrase is a beautiful snapshot, a two-word thought that exists for a moment and then disappears.
They also tend to suggest real words, leading you to a kind of found poetry. "There is a certain amount of anonymity to them," Baab said during his talk. That anonymity functions to obscure meaning — the works' titles, he said, shouldn't color our interpretations. We end up doing that here anyway, though, because even a seemingly random set of characters is more evocative than something called simply "untitled."
For example, the two "straight" photographs (one-shots that were not digitally altered), depicting spindly nests of bamboo sticks, seem aptly named, even if we are told the titles are nonsense. "Cave nuthywo" was shot in a cavelike place, and "patristic isizons," which shows its structure on fire, hints at a similar connection between the crackling sound of burning wood and the onomatopoeic isizons.
The other prints are of models that look like strange houses, with projections and interjections fashioned after turbines, wheels and fins, or like parking garages or 1960s office buildings. As presented here, it's impossible to tell their true sizes. (Baab's use of pillars, to separate the models' layers or hold them off the ground, recalls Le Corbusier.) After Baab built and photographed these structures, he added layers from other photographs he had taken, emphasizing the tactile — the dull sheen of a car door, say, or concrete. This Photoshop gluing of textures onto planes makes an entirely new picture and gives the models an otherworldly feeling. We could be looking at the isolated buildings that make up some stark outpost.
In fact, we are looking mostly at found cardboard. Baab said it's an affordable medium, one that allows him, with limited expense, to see what happens when you let something go.
Besides providing a camouflage for his choice of material, the black-and-white translucence of the photography allows Baab to compress information. In one shot, he shows us the construction process, the physical piece itself, and the image of the thing. Here, we also move past all that and on to what happens after a thing has been conceived and built and photographed — for example, when it's crawling with cats or burning down in a culvert.
Baab was inspired to start building after he picked up an old Cooper Union architecture textbook, illustrated with black-and-white images of works by first-year students whose creations were made of standard-issue blocks. He saw in them, he said, "a strange potential to become."
He also recalled for his January 19 audience a class he had taught at the Kansas City Art Institute. He said the subject had to do with "the gap," the thing that exists between ideas and objects, the notion that things in the world possess the ability to act. A Strenuous Nonbeing explores that gap.
But none of that conceptual loftiness is required to appreciate what's at Grand Arts. Mainly there is the pleasure of figuring out the forms, discovering the textures — and waiting for the cats to do something. (Don't worry, they will.) It works, and that's all you need know. But you won't know it if you don't go see it.