ART AND LANGUAGE. ART AGAINST AIDS. Artists against censorship. Installation art. Festival art. Political art. Conceptual art. Gender identity art. Sexual identity art. Race and class in art. The collaborative artists Hillary Leone and Jennifer Macdonald have these bases covered. All of them.

Leone and Macdonald, in their 10-year touring retrospective currently showing at the Henry, show a sandbox in which raised bumps of sand spell out, in Braille, the names of friends and fellow artists lost to AIDS. They show several works about censorship, in the form of naughty words branded on paper or muslin in Gregg shorthand. They create in chalk on paper a vast blackboard covered with barely legible phrases from court testimony in sex abuse cases. They use fig leaves to evoke Adam and Eve's shame about their nakedness. They tape interviews with sexual minorities of various stripes talking about their ability or inability to pass for straight, gay, male, or female. They knit a pair of dresses with connected arms, and title it Double Straightjacket. It's all there.

The art on display reminded me of seeing the work of Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and other '80s political/language artists in Thinking Print at the Henry last year and wondering why I'd ever found them compelling; it was like rehearing a joke you laughed at a decade ago. I'd seen little of Leone and Macdonald's work before this occasion (they had some work up at Greg Kucera a couple of years back), so I didn't have an overfamiliarity with them like I do with the Thinking Print artists. Still, an aura of "been there, done that" hung over the proceedings.

Some of the work is very good, particularly a 1992 piece called Private Parts, the aforementioned piece where 14 words describing sex organs, orifices, and secretions are branded on handmade paper in Gregg shorthand. You have to pick up a stapled set of supplemental materials near the entrance to find out which is which, but if you do know what word you're looking at, the links between the image of the word in shorthand and the image of the object being described become quickly apparent: "Clitoris" has a dainty loop in its middle which becomes nearly pornographic; "semen," thanks to the long line which represents "m" in shorthand, has a lovely trajectory. Since Gregg shorthand is not at all pictographic--the cursive loops and lines refer only to consonant sounds--the image you read in the words is strictly in your mind. It's a neat trick; a gentle way to point out your complicity in turning language into pornography.

A large 1994 work in the northernmost gallery, where the pair turned most of the clothing they owned at the time into handmade sheets of paper, is visually lovely and marks a shift in the artists' work, where their own lives and their collaboration enter the art more directly. I'm not sure that autobiography is better than politics as a driving force in art, but the next room, where a series of small works explore Leone and Macdonald's personal and professional relationship, contains some of the show's most satisfying work. The pieces explore domesticity and monogamous relationships: a pair of dice in sterling silver (they rolled a seven), a useless Y-shaped needle with two eyes, a tiny bird's nest upon a hanging scale (all the numbers on which are twos), and a piece called Shooters, which most pleased me.

Shooters is a simple idea, well executed. Colored marbles are arranged on the floor in a rectangle, spelling out "WELCOME." Two shooters are poised slightly away from the welcome mat, ready to smash the whole thing with a mere flick of a finger. Walking through the gallery, you could easily destroy the thing yourself with a clumsy slip (it's happened once already). It's a supple illustration of the fragility of home, and everything that comes with it.

From the political to the personal, right? Well, except that one of the latest pieces in the show is Passing (1996), the video projection where 30 subjects move their heads around like the opening credits of The Brady Bunch, while talking (off camera) about passing for what they are not. Interesting concept, except the interviewees all have absorbed so much pop psychology and politics that they talk about their own lives in the most abstracted of terms. They could be actors reading from a script. This piece returns to the bloodless world of much of the political works from the artists' early collaboration: so neat and tidy in its examination of the theme of the day (first censorship, now sexual identity) that it cannot grasp either the viewer or the real people who are its presumed subject. Instead of transforming their subjects into glorious, moving art, these works take real experiences and filter them through screens, which turn them all into important issues, destroying whatever life they may have had.

Support The Stranger