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They were in the neighborhood

These cultural landscape artists made a mark by probing the identity of all types of communities

CAMBRIDGE -- The exhibition ''Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler: America Starts Here" tells the tale of two plucky young artists who traveled all over America making open-hearted and incisive conceptual art pieces that challenged the very definition of public art. It's also a love story that ends tragically with Ericson's 1995 death from brain cancer at 39.

The show, at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, poses the surprising notion that good artists make good neighbors. At least these artists did.

It wasn't just that they cleaned up after themselves -- which they did so well that many of their projects have disappeared. Ericson and Ziegler's work was intrinsic to its social context. Often, it couldn't exist without the cooperation and active participation of the community in which it appeared. They followed the lead of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, whose work involves cajoling communities into signing on to dramatic and temporary interventions in the landscape. But Christo and Jeanne-Claude make art about beauty. Ericson and Ziegler's art was about the collective identity of a community, whether that community is a neighborhood, a museum, or a nation.

The artists, who were married, were cultural landscape artists. They practiced the tenets of environmental philosopher J.B. Jackson, who saw meaning encoded in the landscape. Ericson and Ziegler poetically decoded layers of history, economics, and power relationships to question the stories we tell about who we are.

Pulling off the enchanting ''America Starts Here," organized in tandem with the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, was problematic. Curators Bill Arning and Ian Berry knew the difficulties going in: How do you bring public art, much of which no longer exists, into a museum?

They handle the issue deftly, with an extensive documentary slide show in a small gallery across the hall from the List Center. The hefty catalog bubbles with chatty, thoughtful reminiscences by students, artists, and curators who knew the pair.

Slide shows and catalogs will never be the same as being in, say, Charleston, S.C., in 1991 for the making of ''Camouflaged History," here represented by a dollhouse. It's a model of an elderly minister's house on the outskirts of the city's historic district. Many of Ericson and Ziegler's projects resulted in tangible improvements to private and public property. Here, they offered the minister a free paint job. He got a fresh coat, and they got to shine a light on tourism's packaged notions of history.

The historic district's architectural review board oversees exterior home improvements made there, limiting the colors with which residents may paint their houses. Dutch Boy capitalized on these strictures by creating a line of paint featuring the sanctioned ''historic" colors.

Mindful of the importance of the local Navy and Air Force bases to Charleston's economic health, and of the city's Civil War history, the artists asked the camouflage unit of the Army to design a pattern suited to the city. Then they painted the house in camouflage, using all 72 approved tones, from ''confederate uniform grey" to ''rebellion blue black," with the name of each color titling its own patch.

Ziegler reports in the catalog that the new color scheme went over well, but in the end purists from the historic district across the street agitated to get rid of it. The artists had the house repainted. That was part of the plan from the beginning. Ericson and Ziegler staged interventions; this one gently made people examine how they've romanticized the past and called attention to the city's economic links to the military.

If ''Camouflaged History" had stayed up, it would have taken on its own mythology; Ericson and Ziegler aimed to deconstruct monuments, not erect them.

While it's frustrating to experience so much of the pair's work secondhand, Arning and Berry have captured the robust, inquisitive spirit of Ericson and Ziegler's ideas. Today, artists such as Mark Dion, Fred Wilson, and the Glowlab collaborative take the kind of investigative forays into landscape, institution, and history that Ericson and Ziegler pioneered. Before Ericson and Ziegler, ''land" artists worked in the wilderness, and public artists made statues.

The curators have recovered enough objects related to the artists' projects to make an exhibition with just enough meat. There's the title piece, ''America Starts Here," for which Ericson and Ziegler rescued broken windows and fiberglass panels that had replaced other windows in the deserted National Licorice Company in Philadelphia in 1988. They framed them between sheets of glass and labeled each with the names of pioneer routes through the United States, then mounted them in a broken grid on a museum wall.

The piece, which takes its title from Philadelphia's tourist slogan of the time, is a map of economic degradation, the crack on the Liberty Bell, a modernist grid, and westward expansion.

Not all their works were public: They had to pay the rent, and would make objects for gallery shows, too. For ''The Smell and Taste of Things Remain" (1992), Ericson and Ziegler sent a perfumer to the basement of the National Archives to re-create the musty, bookish aroma there. They put the perfume in jars in an antique pie cabinet. Each jar is engraved with the name of a pie, many native to particular regions of the country, including ''Virginia Cheese" and ''State of the Union." It's a delightful Proustian exercise, conflating historical documents and pie recipes; America could start here, too.

The work sparkles, and the generosity of the artists shines through. The palpability of their presence invokes their story. Ericson and Ziegler met in art school in the 1970s and officially became collaborators in 1985. In 1994, Ericson was diagnosed with cancer. She was told she had weeks to live. She held on for 17 months.

The last gallery holds some of the pair's final work. There are sketches for projects never realized, such as ''From the Making of a House," a pile of ends and corners cut from beams used to build a house. It's not the most sophisticated work. But it poignantly echoes an early collaboration, ''House Monument," for which they wrote text about ''home" over sheets of plywood and 2-by-4s and then sold the lumber at half-price to a family to build with. The rubble of ''From the Making of a House" speaks to dreams realized and dreams forfeited.

Finally, there's the sweet, heart-wrenching ''Peas, Carrots, Potatoes," jars of baby food organized in the pattern of an American flag and engraved with parents' inscriptions of their infants' gurgles. Zeigler and Ericson never had children (Ziegler, who continues to make art, has remarried and has twin sons). But their legacy is clear -- in the art world, and in neighborhoods across America, where for a moment they galvanized the attention of the people who lived there.

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