The Rhode Island School of Design's "2011 Faculty Biennial" at the RISD Museum (20 North Main Street, Providence, through March 20) features more than 200 teachers for a varied buffet ranging from tangled noodley junk sculpture to sleek architecture designs to loose abstract paintings.

A few years back, Philadelphia-based RISD printmaking teacher Daniel Heyman caught people's attention with his series of portraits of former Abu Ghraib prisoners surrounded by writing describing their time in the notorious American jail in Iraq. Heyman's drawing wasn't impressive, but his transcribed accounts of how American captors harassed and humiliated the Iraqis were heartbreaking — and shaming.

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BEING THERE Ben Blanc's Sea Bloom (foreground), Lothar Windels's Crackett Chair, and Heyman's The Blinded Photographer (background).
Here Heyman dispenses with words, and lets his symbolic images carry the meaning in his large, ambitious etching and relief print, The Blinded Photographer. A blindfolded man points his camera toward a cascade of images (a Humvee, ancient Persian kings, a grand, burning Middle Eastern building) surrounded by flying eagles and hawks. The camera also faces toward an upside-down four-eyed man, stabbed with an arrow. Along the bottom runs a row of booted feet, some paired with peg legs. Heyman seems to be critiquing news photographers for being blind to what's going on in our wars. If that's the case, his critique seems misplaced, as my sense is that photos of the horrors of war often don't get published because mainstream editors — and readers — aren't interested in seeing such tragedies, whether photographers capture it or not. Maybe Hayman is critiquing the media generally. Either way, it remains a powerful image. Heyman is working in a tradition from Otto Dix to (locally) Entang Wiharso, with an expressionist style whose intentional awkwardness seems to directly channel the psyche.

Elsewhere, Ellen Driscoll turns recycled plastic into a ghostly construction of mini-mill buildings perched on model steel trusses as if clinging to a water's edge during global warming's inrushing tide. Rachel Berwick's Lonesome is a cast polyurethane tortoise shell set on a steel stand. It's a striking image, though the sculpture doesn't get across her intended reference to the approaching extinction of the last Galapagos tortoise of this kind.

One of RISD's strengths is stylish design yoked to practical purposes, as evidenced in Adam Smith's elegant, rugged hook-knives for firefighters to cut seat belts when rescuing people from crashed autos; John Kane's crisp minimalist, Bauhaus/Scandinavian design for his book A Type Primer; and Merlin Szasz's bronze Art Nouveau funerary urn decorated as if it was emerging from a pond sprouting lotus flowers.

No major themes stand out in this biennial, but the illustration department puts in a strong showing. You can feel the sloshing water in Mary Jane Begin's paint and pastel illustration of a Renaissance lady clinging to a column in a room flooded by magical Sorcerer's Apprentice broomsticks. Trent Burleson offers a glowing gold painting of finches (I think) perched in tree branches seeking berries. Oren Sherman turns layered, vividly hued arabesques and foliage silhouettes into a sleek, digitally-printed pattern. Chris Buzzelli's oil painting is an affecting image of cartoony wolves and skull-headed babies composed to question the US Wildlife Service's perhaps indiscriminate poisoning of critters in its effort to control populations of foxes and coyotes.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Trent Burleson, Iraq, Museums,  More more >
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