Two UT-organized shows offer calm in the storm

In the title essay of his book Vermeer in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies and Political Tragedies, Lawrence Weschler details the days of a Bosnian war crimes tribunal judge who keeps his sanity by daily visiting the Vermeers at the Hague's Mauritshuis royal picture gallery. Art is personal, subjective; the process and pleasure of taking it in is as varied as our fingerprints. Nevertheless, this month there are two very quiet rooms in town capable of providing a similar balm, depending on your bent.

Visual artist Carrie Pollack, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, taught drawing and watercolor last semester, and is teaching again during the current semester. Mirror, her exhibition of new works on display at the Ewing Gallery through the Jan. 23, is her students' first opportunity to see Pollack's work. Her lecture, on Jan. 15 (free and open to the public, 7 p.m., in the McCarty Auditorium of the Art + Architecture Building), was scheduled during her own class time so that students would have no dodge from mandatory attendance.

Pollack's work is technically complex, but visually simple and in that way reassuring somehow. Patterns, muted colors, textures, and very basic geometries either in isolation or just barely interacting, printed digitally or painted or both onto small canvases, seem to know much but whisper little. Spending time with them suggests that human nature is to over-complicate. Macroscopic photography of rumpled fabric, all wave and warp and weft, empty marketing displays, bits of trash and packaging detritus, all become explorable landscapes. These things are full of places and possibilities, but kept finite and manageable. If she could somehow digitally manipulate our shared problems and pleasures, would the result make them this easy and satisfying to comprehend?

"I've always worked from photographic source material," says Pollack. "I started printing my own work in 2005. This is a new thing for me. These are all from the time that I've spent in Knoxville.

"I still wanted to do the paintings. It was important for them to work together; maybe one leads you to look at the other."

"Foil" is simply that: A close-up photo, in sepia tones, of a piece of litter that the artist noticed as shoppers in a New York bookstore stepped over and around it. Photographed closely and printed many times its actual size on raw canvas, the image seems to contain its own weather and geography. If you've traveled through the Rust Belt, it would be easy to mistake it for an aerial shot of a rail yard or the industrial outskirts of Ashtabula, Ohio. "Logic" is a charming, dreamy detail of a random piece of light cloth. Knots and knurls that are usually invisible take on jungle-gym proportions.

"The great thing about this show, here," says Pollack, "is that this is the largest space I've ever had to work with. There can be spaces between the pieces, and that kind of allows you to have pauses between thoughts as you look at them.

"I was a security guard at the [Metropolitan Museum of Art] in 2002 and 2003. I realized that people really weren't looking at the art, they were just walking through. It made me think about that. How do you get people to slow down and look long and intensely?"

No doubt, gallery hanging is an art unto itself. Like a friend's homemade pad Thai, it's easier to say what's wrong with it than how to fix it. But perhaps one reason Pollack appreciates the space between her works is that the works themselves benefit from it. Each of the pieces is unframed, with blank canvas boundaries that wrap loosely around stretchers. The edges function almost as segues, to and from. You move from mere quiet to silence to quiet and it seems like a good thing.

At UT's Downtown Gallery, through Jan. 24, is another exhibition much removed from its surroundings. The exhibit 50 Books/50 Covers presents the American Institute for Graphic Arts' 100 winners from its 2007 book-cover design competition. If you like libraries, imagine one with nothing in it but extremely beautiful books, all face-out. That the touring exhibition is not underwritten by Adobe is surprising. With a handful of exceptions, the room is a love letter to digital design. But who cares? With no exceptions, these books are gorgeous and a joy to stare at. Find Martin Amis' The Second Plane, September 11: Terror and Boredom. Peter Mendelsund's small, stunning, less-than-minimal jacket design is a brilliant blue bow tie. It's what the sky would have looked like if you could have laid on your back between the two towers.