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VISUAL ARTS

High alert

Locally and nationwide, artists are exploring the country's amplified state of anxiety

Have terrorism, natural disasters, and war got you feeling on edge? Maybe some ''Terror Pills" will help.

They're art, not medicine -- a sprucely packaged work by Abraham Schroeder that mimics the design of many pharmaceuticals intended to make your life easier. It's not clear whether the terror pills are supposed to cure dread, or induce it. That aptly sums up the conundrum of ''heightened security," a state that leaves many of us feeling distinctly less secure.

Schroeder's work is on view in ''F.E.A.R. For Embracing American Revolution," at the Brookline gallery GASP. The show examines how afraid Americans have become since 9/11 and what role that fear plays in the way we live. Infrasculpture, a Boston-based artists' collective, organized the exhibit, which runs through Nov. 19.

The group is part of a larger movement of artists around the country critiquing the red-alert level of societal anxiety we've come to know.

''I think people have been made to believe that we're in more danger than we are," says Nicole Seisler, co-curator of ''F.E.A.R."

In the GASP exhibit, Schroeder's ''Shoulder Pads" points to the rigid positions fear can trap us in. ''They hold your body in a gesture and they make you stop in that position," says Schroeder at the gallery, slipping into the metal armature, which looks supportive but holds his arms outstretched, like a prisoner in stocks. ''Now I'm stuck."

Most of the Infrasculpture artists are recent graduates of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts; many of them are in their 20s. The work is youthfully provocative, often funny and angry. W. Thomas Porter's ''Big Bad Wolf and the Second Little Piggy," for example, invites you to step inside a coffin and, through a peephole, watch a video of knives being thrown at you. But the works often fall short of suggesting ways to deal with that fear.

Denise Markonish, gallery director at ArtSpace in New Haven, has organized a fear-themed exhibit opening Nov. 12 that aims to probe the emotion more deeply. The show, ''With Shuddering Horror Pale and Eyes Aghast," is more about the visceral experience of dread than about the state of the world, but Markonish sees a connection between the two. ''Look at the political environment. We're in a society so filled with fear all the time," she says. ''Artists internalize that."

The art world hasn't bitten into sociopolitical critique with such gusto since the AIDS crisis of the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. The powerhouse economy of the Clinton years took artists in different directions.

For artists, ''the '90s were not a moment of dealing with the real," says Bennett Simpson, associate curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art. Simpson organized ''Momentum V: Paul Chan," a video installation at the ICA that invokes 9/11 with images of people hurtling through the air and that considers fundamentalist religion as a response to terror. ''Now we're in a period of war, and cultural war, and terrorism," Simpson says. ''Artists are dealing with the real again."

For Infrasculpture, operating as a collective is one means of combating anxiety. Most people, says Seisler, ''are so concerned about individual identity that they lose a sense of group identity. It's part of the insularity that fear promotes."

In ''F.E.A.R.," Lisa Lunskaya Gordon's work addresses the idea of people sequestered in their houses and cars, isolated from their communities. Her ''Homeland Insecurity Line," for example, suggests armaments for the home, including the ''Bayonet Occasional Table," outfitted with blades that snap out of the elegant table's feet.

Such weaponry would fit in well in the picture-perfect world of ''Home Sweet Gated Home," an installation Magda Fernandez created at Allston Skirt Gallery last spring. The show conjured up communities both pristine and secure, with perfect green lawns, smiling children, and happy golfers, but all that perfection was charged with an undercurrent of panic -- as illustrated by the armory of pesticides and antibacterial soaps in a fortresslike pile in one corner of the gallery.

''I was dealing with the idea of gated communities as a metaphor for US foreign policy," says Fernandez. ''The perceived loss of security is important in our culture. The groundwork was there prior to 9/11. Our country tries to be a melting pot, but there is a clash of cultures. A certain paranoia is taking over."

Julia Scher is a grandmother of the art of fear. ''I've been criticized for having a fear-based personality," she acknowledges. The multimedia and performance artist has been dissecting anxiety in her work for 20 years, examining surveillance systems and databases as sources of power and control.

''I wanted to grasp at what fear is, and how is social sabotage created by the use of security systems," explains Scher, whose research led her to become the first woman member of the Metropolitan Burglar and Fire Alarm Association of New York. Back in the 1980s, ''people thought it was crazy to use surveillance as art," she says.

No longer. The MIT-based artist has work now up in ''Balance and Power: Surveillance and Performance in Video Art" at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The show was organized by Michael Rush, who will take over as director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in December. In the show, Scher's ''Guardball" sets sculptures of the heads of pink-clad security guards spinning inside the transparent domes that often cover surveillance cameras.

''Since 9/11, it's not just fear in the world we're living with. It's fear in our own lives," Scher says.

Painter Emil Corsillo entered graduate school at Boston University in September 2001, and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon threw him immediately into a world of doubt. ''What good was being an artist?" he remembers asking himself. ''I almost left the program."

Instead, after a year of foundering, Corsillo discovered his vision covering large-scale canvases with enamel paint in vibrant, daunting urban images that incorporate ''Hazard" signs, Jersey barriers, and threatening construction zones he photographed. His work was included in an exhibit earlier this month at Boston University, and a small piece is part of the current ''2005 Mad Dash" benefit at Green Street Gallery.

''A nice thing happened when I realized I could use images I'd always experienced viscerally for their metaphorical value," says Corsillo. ''There's an irony to the caution stripes. They have an attractive-repulsive quality. They're perfectly designed to catch your attention. You know not to go where they are."

''One of the first things artists learn how to do is take things in the world and use it in their art," Simpson says. ''I've seen riffs on gas masks and bioterrorism suits, riffs on the Homeland Security color code. So what are people doing with it? Are they just acknowledging it?"

Markonish suggests one answer. ''I don't know if we can move beyond fear," she says. But art has the power to provoke reflection about that fear. ''We can mediate it," she says. ''We can interpret it and move through it."

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