Group art shows are rarely measured by their subject matter, but rather by their adherence to a theme. But consider Wordplay at Studio Quercus (385 26th St., Oakland), which could have been about anything — the fact that it's about the interplay of text and image seems incidental. What makes Wordplay a great show is the airtight consistency between one artist's work and the next. As a result, the whole ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. Accolades to curator and gallery director Susan Sharman, who gathered four Bay Area artists (in addition to herself) to make this show: Amy Ahlstrom, Hopi Breton, Lisa Kokin, and Mary V. Marsh.
The uniquely human impulse to write — that is, to create visual language and imbue the graphics with such deep meaning that their power is said to be mightier than the sword — has long been a preoccupation of Modern art. The artists of Wordplay acknowledge this history (often with specific, Modernist references) using highly diverse media, creating personal vocabularies rendered in various ways, from the vaguely psychological to the purely iconographic and the wholly abstract.
Marsh's finely executed fake newspapers emulate the real thing with surprising beauty. They work in the same clever, self-reflexive way Magritte's classic painting "The Treachery of Images" does — transmitting information in a way that language can't. Ahlstrom deftly channels her inner Lichtenstein by invoking themes more commonly associated with Pop art painters, juxtaposing them with traditional quilting techniques. The assemblage works of Kokin are compelling: She tenaciously splices self-help books, then sews words together into compositions that seem to liberate — and exalt — them. Sharman's embroidery, meanwhile, is nostalgic by nature, and her use of implied stories and found textiles adds another layer of evocative, yet somewhat tragic, feeling. Breton's sculpture morphs into abstract marks and symbols, suggesting cuneiform or other unspecified forms of writing. Her use of dense materials gives weight to her creative languages and belies the curvilinear nature of their form.
Wordplay works so well because of the aesthetic synergy of the artists — not because of the philosophical theme of the exhibit. In this case, the narrative is simply a perk.
Wordplay runs through June 16. Artists' reception on Saturday, May 19, 7-10 p.m., in conjunction with Murmurama, an Oakland Art Murmur event. 510-452-4670 or StudioQuercus.com