Art that intends to engage viewers rather than to just entertain them always leaves something out. This tactic forces onlookers to supply missing pieces from the storehouses of their minds. It's such a common practice that it usually is taken for granted. Jochen Gerz, whose work is surveyed in a traveling retrospective at the Newport Harbor Art Museum (through March 19), is noticeable for making emptiness a centerpiece of his art, like the hole in a doughnut. Titled "People Speak," the exhibition ponders absence and longing.
Gerz, 55, is a Berlin-born artist based in Paris. He has a long exhibition record that includes such prestigious venues as Kassel's Documenta and the Venice Biennial. He has made major monuments in Hamburg and Saarbrucken but is virtually unknown in these parts--not that his work looks entirely unfamiliar.
He plows that now well-tilled corner of the field of conceptualism, where words and images are combined. People familiar with local contemporary art will think of Ed Ruscha's early books and Alexis Smith's notebook series.
Such work closely resembles traditional illustrated books, in which the literary and the visual are intended to explain one another. It also is like the cinema, in which story is constantly amplified by actors' expressions and line readings.
The point of both is clarification of the meanings of the book or movie. The point of art such as Gerz's is to nudge the viewer into clarifying himself while absorbing the artist's sensibility.
He confronts the question of meaning in both life and his art in a set of photographs of a water taxi carrying passengers to a cruise ship. The text ends, "The words came to meet the pictures . . . like couriers who did not know their messages."
It's a kind of art that requires an effort. Anyone who encounters it while not in the mood to go soul-searching can be forgiven for finding it presumptuous and preachy.
Seen in a more tolerant light, it's pretty interesting stuff. Gerz has a background more varied than a lot of artists'. He has translated Ezra Pound and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. In London, he worked as a journalist, in Basel as a salesperson and publicist. In Paris, he formed an alternative publishing group. Numerous pieces are documentation of his projects as a performance artist. Some are on video, such as one in which he yells himself hoarse. His work brings Samuel Beckett to mind as well as Wim Wenders and Joseph Beuys.
He's right in the German Expressionist tradition when he gets so relentlessly serious you finally think he's kidding and vice versa. A piece titled "The Answer" consists of seven passport-style photographs of young people in the nude. They're hung upside-down in the manner of Georg Baselitz's paintings. Next to them are seven texts. Each clearly is an answer to an unstated hypothetical question. Most are very heartfelt in the tone of "I'd rather die than give that up," except one that takes the position "That's beyond my control."
It's impossible to tell which answer is from what subject. The resigned answer seems it must come from a slightly older guy. Gerz leaves the choice of treating his pieces as parlor-game puzzles with specific solutions or as philosophical deliberations.
The real theme of this work is, I think, that people are at their most enigmatic when they think they are at their most nakedly profound.
But Gerz is very fond of vice versa. "Le Grand Amour 2 (Fictions)" consists of a dozen photographs of an old woman's head on a pillow, eyes closed and mouth agape. Each has a text recounting a conversation. Their tone and content suggest a chat between a mother and son. The mother is ill and about to go to sleep. (Gerz's literary style is very affecting. He could be a straight writer if he chose.) Each text ends with the line, "When she wakes up he would ask her if she wanted something to drink."
Because the demeanor of the head strongly suggests a corpse, the piece becomes broodingly poetic. It thinks about how each conversation with a loved one could be the last.
Another work in the same set talks obliquely about failing to recognize one's true love simply because the circumstances surrounding it are so cozy and ordinary. So things are really at their most profound when they seem commonplace.
This tug between the particular and the universal is constant in Gerz's oeuvre. "Only a Single (Beloved) Rose?" is made of a rose lying on the floor next to a heap of radio speakers babbling moans and barks that could be human or animal, orgiastic or tortured.
Gerz manages a message more moving than any single work. He makes one think simultaneously of old girlfriends, the Holocaust, Native American myth and the lethal aura of the '90s. He somehow uncorks a large and amorphous sensation of what it's like to have a German soul. It's very like having any kind of soul.
* "Jochen Gerz: People Speak" continues through March 19 at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. New hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $4 for adults, $2 for students and seniors, free for children under 12. (714) 759-1122.