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FROM THE start, the punning title of this engaging exhibition clues you to the fact that you are in that peculiar territory marked out by Marcel Duchamp early in the century.

The nine artists of "RELAY: Drawn to Readymade," to varying degrees, shift the attention from the visual toward some operation outside that which is obviously linked to art making. Nothing here has much to do with Duchamp's concept of the ready-made -- a manufactured object designated as art -- but Duchamp's notion that the artist's chief role is to rearrange and modify what already exists gets a good workout. Art by this definition becomes like a switch or relay that serves to get us from one contradictory mental state to another.

Charles Goldman may come closest to performing a pure Duchampian gesture. He set up an easel downtown and had all sorts of passers-by attempt to draw Goldman's rather unremarkable features. Even Mayor Masiello tried his hand.

Goldman's idea is neatly paradoxical, both denying artistic ego -- Duchamp's anti-aesthetic position -- while placing his ego center stage. Any aesthetic interest individual drawings might have -- and many are excellent drawings or interesting amateur efforts -- is undercut by both tedious repetition of subject and Goldman's decision to unceremoniously heap the art on a table.

If art with a capital A is slyly undercut by Goldman, it is thrashed outright by Italian artist Luca Buvoli. Buvoli charts the adventures of "Not a Super Hero" in flipbooks, posters and two throwaway sculptures literally held together with baling wire and tape.

The sculptures are of most interest for their joyous disregard of both construction principles and their demands on representation. "Can't You See That I'm Burning?" is a kind of suspended, floppy plastic ramp festooned with bits of wire and cloth. Without digging into this particular segment of "Not a Super Hero," you hardly can guess that this apparent abstraction represents our non-hero in flames streaking through the stratosphere. Buvoli's sculptures are so blatantly unartistic and representationally suspect that they serve nicely as what Duchamp called "antidotes" to "fine art."

In his big wall mural Francois Morelli also successfully attacks ideas of representation by building up mechanical figures from repeated rubber stamps. The stamped images themselves -- hypodermic needles, babies, guns, insects, scissors -- come with all sorts of conflicting implications, many of them sinister.

The trouble is, the mural's overall "look" -- dreaded aesthetics, again -- subverts its clashing internal content. These beings suffer from a bad case of sci-fi-itis: they resemble a type of antiquated graphics once popular as illustrations to futuristic articles with titles like, "Is Biology an Outmoded Concept?"

Yukinori Yanagi and Gerhard Mayer, on the other hand, are in precise command of the "look." In "Wandering Position," Yanagi seemingly presents etched lines of great lyrical beauty whose formal variations on the square and rectangle seem reflections on Malevitch's groundbreaking meditations on geometry.

But then the subversion: The beautiful, meandering lines are actually traced from the movements of an ant. Despite its apparent beauty, the art work is a mere "relay" between a natural and an aesthetic action.

In what is now a classic move, Mayer follows a strict set of rules in his drawings, letting the "look" fall where it may. The visual richness of the permutations are proof -- like Yanagi's lovely ant trails -- that aesthetics have no need of an "artistic" persona.

Sean Watson works in what might be called the Basquiat Scrawl -- the crude, childlike but secretly sophisticated mark made famous by the late Jean-Michel Basquiat. These are self-portraits in drawing and word, replete with childhood remembrances like "You can always tell a Watson by the nose."

The computer -- these are ink jet prints -- intercedes to keep these from being messy and expressionistic drawings. The computer, I take it, is meant as a distancing device. But in a weird way it intensifies the sense of direct emotion. The "delay" (to use Duchamp's term) only makes what is held back struggle all the harder to come to the surface.

Both Joyce Pensato and Mark Dean Veca take the cartoon/fine art battle to new heights. Pensato's "Hallwalls Donald" (see today's Gusto cover) is an explosive version of the famous duck that merges two apparently incompatible worlds -- abstract expressionism and Walt Disney. Violent, eroticized expressionism is made one with the sentimentalized violence and eroticism of a Disney cartoon. And -- sorry, Marcel-- it looks very good, as well.

Veca's mural, "Son of Gummi Grotto" -- its bulgy 3-D parts resembling vegetable/breast hybrids -- has its own eroticism. Veca's sea of dripping, splattering liquid offers a provocative mix of children's book style and a dark and menacing cartoon style. It's Dante's hell through adolescent eyes.

By using video, Johnna MacArthur subverts the art object altogether. But as she prints "confessions" on a blackboard, aesthetics again rears its lovely head. The lettering and chalking over is done is such an arty manner that it's like watching in slow motion some fuddy-duddy abstractionist in a fit of negation. This may be in the Duchampian spirit, but I suspect that even the patient old iconoclast would lose it and screech out, "Get on with it, will you?"

Art Show RElay: Drawn to Readymade Nine artists use drawing or the idea of drawing in non-descriptive ways to generate diverse works of art in various forms, from wall paintings and computer drawings to sculpture and video. Through May 29 in Hallwalls, Contemporary arts center, Tri-Main building, 2495 Main St. (835-7362)

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